Healing What Ails the Legal Profession

[This post is adapted from a longer article by Pauline H. Tesler in the Winter 2014 issue of the Collaborative Review, the journal of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals.. You can read it here.]

We lawyers suffer dangerously  high rates of emotional distress and substance abuse. Overwhelming empirical evidence shows that lawyers arrive in law school with
personality characteristics markedly different from the general population – notably, a discomfort with emotion and a temperament favoring thought over feeling. Law school intensifies those qualities, diminishing our capacity to bring our full humanity
into our work.depressed male lawyer

The legal profession produces impaired lawyers.  While pre-law students show only slightly higher levels of significant depression than the general population (10% as compared to 3-9% in the general population), by late spring of their first year in law school 32% report much higher depression levels, rising to a “stunning” level of 40% by late spring of the third year. These levels never fall to pre-law school levels. No matter how long they have been in practice, a steady 17-18% of lawyers suffer from clinically significant depression. Study after study shows that most lawyers would not choose law if they had it to do again, nor would they want their children to become awyers. The rate at which we experience depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and other psychological problems is about twice the rate found in the general population, and one in five lawyers suffers from psychological problems severe enough to call for clinical intervention.

What happens to us in law school and on the job that wreaks such harm to our mental health? How is it that becoming a lawyer divorces so many of us from our own deepest moral and spiritual selves to the point that we don’t see our clients’ yearning for love, compassion and forgiveness, much less practice in ways that might incorporate attention to those needs?depressed lawyer

Adversarial law practice requires lawyers to focus clients resolutely on past injuries and pain, without attending to recovery and possibilities for a better future.  Add to that a distressed lawyer and we have a recipe for keeping clients mired in pain and suffering. The growing body of psycho-biological research into the neuroscience of entrainment, limbic resonance, and emotional contagion teaches us that working with depressed, angry, cynical, irritable, detached and numb lawyers is likely to impair clients’ emotional resilience and capacity for thoughtful decision-making. Positive psychology research confirms that emotional states are transmitted to others remarkably easily and that the direction of contagion in a relationship is from the more powerful to the less.Legal profession: too many depressed, angry lawyers and judges

In other words, depressed, suicidal, angry lawyers – which too many of us seem to be – present a danger to health and well-being, not only for ourselves but for our clients, the others on the case, the family, and even the community.

What could change this picture?  Teaching lawyers client-centered service delivery models (such as mediation and collaborative practice)  is helpful but woefully insufficient as a remedy.   We lawyers need encouragement to integrate a private inner spiritual life with an outer life of values-driven professional service if we are to reclaim a sense of purpose and professional identity that can  meet  the human needs of clients and of the communities we all inhabit. This change, more than any other I can envision, would transform how law is practiced by infusing lawyers and eventually judges, too, with the human compassion that invites clients’ stories to be heard and their pain to be seen. Without such deep personal change in those who must embrace it, broad scale innovation too often fails to thrive or is relegated to the level of lip service.

Law school curriculum change is in the air, but the pace is glacial. We can’t afford the human and social costs of graduating even one more class of lawyers who have been taught to devalue their own spiritual and emotional intelligence – and yet hundreds of thousands more lawyers will be socialized in that way before widespread humanistic legal education becomes a reality. That’s why the Integrative Law Institute’s programs target  practicing lawyers who would never choose to attend a symposium about love, or even a collaborative law training. We begin by addressing the personal, professional, and social costs of practicing law in a way that ignores the human needs of our clients and that is divorced from our own deepest humanity.Legal profession harms its own members

The gateway that can lead  lawyers toward integration and transformation turns out to be hard evidence from psychological, sociological, and neuroscience studies that illuminates the human damage caused by  practicing law in ways that run contrary to our biological nature and that disregard our evolutionary endowment as human primates: compassion, trust, forgiveness, generosity, cooperation.  When the intellect of adversarial lawyers is engaged by compelling information about the astonishing irrationality of human behavior in conflict resolution, an opening can occur for experiential exercises to trigger epiphanies, large and small, about the high toll our training as lawyers has taken on us and on our clients too, even those we achieved great trial victories for.

As this transformative journey deepens, we may remember with pain how we treated others in a normal day’s work. We may recall, for instance, humiliating the opposing party to tears during that deposition in the child custody case, or relishing demolition of a percipient witness during a probate trial that pits siblings against one another,  because our ability to see the human being sitting opposite us had been deadened by a belief that our own human feelings had no place in our work and that take-no-prisoners assault tactics are the professional responsibility of a competent lawyer.

I believe work that divorces us, in the name of professionalism, from our own ability to feel empathy or compassion for the other humans we meet is work that is immoral. When we lawyers start to see this, shame may be what we feel. It is often the case that the first person needing forgiveness is ourself. And that’s an act of love.

Clients Want Integrative Lawyering

Michael Lerner, an early MacArthur fellowship winner, founder of Commonweal, and founder of The New School at Commonweal, spoke in March with Pauline Tesler, director of the Integrative Law Institute.  Michael is an extraordinarily gifted interviewer whose questions and comments showed deep understanding of the challenges facing lawyers who work with individuals and families in personal disputes.

The audience in attendance listened with curiosity and afterward expressed amazement at hearing an experienced lawyer tell the truth about what’s wrong with delivery of legal services to people experiencing predictable human conflicts in their families and communities.

It was easy to hear the undercurrent of distrust and dislike for the legal profession imbedded in their questions and comments. Just as apparent was the desire to know more and to learn how to find an integrative lawyer for themselves or their families when seemingly irreconcilable conflicts arise.

That hunger for constructive, resolution-oriented, humanistic legal conflict resolution services is a driving force for ILI’s programming.   ILI offers certification in Integrative Legal Conflict  Resolution for lawyers who attend its continuing education programs.  The certification program will help lawyers build effective social media strategies so that they can be found by  potential clients when a lawyer’s counsel is needed.

A podcast of the conversation is available at the New School’s website..