Studies have shown that lawyers suffer from high rates of depression and suicide. A new paper by a law professor who battled clinical depression says law schools can do a better job of talking to future lawyers about the issue of mental illness within the legal profession.
In an essay forthcoming in the Journal of Legal Education, Charlotte School of Law associate professor Brian Clarke, argues that law schools too often avoid dealing with the “the dark side” of being a lawyer. Having a more candid conversation with students about the challenges of the job can help them meet and overcome them after they graduate, he says.
“Given that today’s depressed law students will, more likely than not, be tomorrow’s depressed lawyers, law schools and the legal professoriate must bring the issue of mental illness out of the closet and into the open,” writes Mr. Clarke. “We must do more to educate our students about mental illness and remove the stigma attached to it.”
Many law schools already provide mental health programs, but Mr. Clarke writes that the people presenting them tend to be unfamiliar to students and either have never experienced serious mental illness themselves or are uncomfortable talking about it. “These shortcomings make it all too easy for students to tune out,” he writes.
Mr. Clarke, who teaches civil procedure, employment discrimination and employment law, speaks from personal experience. He writes about his own struggle with mental illness years ago and says he “would have taken [his] own life” had he not sought medical treatment and counseling at the urging of his wife.
The story of his close call is one familiar to students who’ve taken his class. “Usually about two weeks before the end of the term—when I see the strain of writing papers and the approach of final exams beginning to take a toll—I will put the civil procedure issue of the day on hold and tell my story,” he writes.
After discussing himself, the professor then talks to his students about the life of a lawyer:
I tell them about the challenges of practicing law including taking on the emotional weight of clients’ problems; the inherent competiveness of the adversarial system; the joys of dealing with unreasonable and unprofessional opposing counsel; the fact that someone must lose in litigation; the impact losing may have on a client’s life; the nature of the billable hour; the difficulty of billing 1,900-plus hours a year; the unrealistic expectations many of them may have about being lawyers; the “keeping up with the Joneses” (and corresponding financial stress) that is common in the lifestyles of lawyers; the common narrative that “success” as a lawyer is dependent on having a “Big Law” job and making partner/member/shareholder and the profound unlikelihood of these happening; the lack of boundaries and the need to be “on the job” 24/7/365 (especially in a big firm); and so on.
Mr. Clarke says he still gets “a bit nervous” raising the topic in class, but he says he’s heartened by the positive feedback.
He writes: “Every single student I have ever talked to about these issues has appreciated—above all else—my openness and honesty, not only about my illness, but about the challenges of being a lawyer.”