What characteristics make for a good lawyer? Different sources propose such things as love of argument, a passion for writing, focus, determination, people skills and perseverance. Others include high academic achievement, structured thinking, a certain independence and diversity of interests. Grouped together in one person, such traits would seem to indicate an outstanding individual primed for success. Quite often, that is exactly what happens.
But, as indicated in a variety of published articles, lawyers also suffer from increased rates of depression, suicide and addiction. As a matter of fact, it appears that addiction occurs in lawyers at about twice the rate as that in general American society, which already is quite prone to addiction.
How could these same individuals who demonstrate the characteristics listed in the first paragraph also be vulnerable to such darkness? It appears that the qualities predicting success in law also predispose individuals to addiction and associated ailments.
As a coach and psychotherapist for lawyers, I have come to recognize a constellation of “isms” that underlies all the admirable qualities listed in the first paragraph. These are narcissism, defensiveness (which goes with narcissism), skepticism, a high need for control and rampant ambition. Quite often, lawyers engage in lots of thinking, less feeling, and little or no empathy. They often view the truth as malleable, a raw material to be shaped as needed. There is even a little—and sometimes a lot of— paranoia. And we all know that the legal profession openly encourages workaholism.
Now, let’s shift to a look at the makeup of the addictive personality. Addiction is a disease of denial. To a greater or lesser degree, the addicted person behaves in a manner that is deceptive, dishonest and passive-aggressive. An addict experiences a great need for control, to keep the path to the fix (whatever it might be) open to him and concealed from others. Addicts frequently view others as threats and act in a passive-aggressive way to neutralize the perceived threat. The addict is a difficult, afflicted, unhappy person. Often, addicts possess an unacknowledged depression, have little respect for others (but may feign it) and have even less respect for themselves.
Without painting with too broad a brush, it is not hard to see how the shadow of ambition is narcissism, the shadow of love of argument is paranoia, the shadow of competitiveness is the need for control, and the ability to mold the truth is related to basic dishonesty. While it may be uncomfortable to consider, could lawyer jokes stem from a certain basis in truth?
So, let’s put all the above together. While 75 to 80 percent of lawyers are functioning well, thriving and living the life predicted by the characteristics noted in the first paragraph, about 20 to 25 percent of attorneys possess the profile that squares well with the addictive profile, and they function poorly.
I do not think practicing law causes these problems. Most addicts showed symptoms in their teens and early twenties. But the practice of law does exacerbate these problems. Lawyers’ immersion in an environment that stimulates and prizes their worst characteristics greatly contribute to the high levels of difficulties involving addiction and substance abuse.
How to Overcome
So, what self-awareness must lawyers cultivate? What do they need to nurture in their lives to mitigate or prevent intensification or occurrences of addictive illness?
To start, it is helpful to develop an awareness of self that says, “I am where I am because I likely possess personality traits uniquely suited to this combative, emotionally dangerous profession. Those very traits that bring me professional success can also be my downfall.”
To that self-awareness, I would add a clear commitment to this dictum: “I am not ONLY a lawyer. I am a person who practices law.” In other words, human beings are not defined by our professions. We are simply people who practice our professions to the best of our abilities, along with belonging to a softball team, coaching kids’ soccer, going to church, doing charity work, etc.
It is the sense of isolation within the professional straightjacket, the idea that self-esteem rises and falls with one’s activities, and the over-identification with those activities that leads to the surreptitious search for relief in a bar, a strip joint or a pill.
The State Bar of Texas has for some time maintained a service known as Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program (TLAP), with which I am a provider. It is a confidential source for members of the bar to seek help in dealing with such difficulties. A phone call can guide a lawyer to providers in their communities knowledgeable in dealing with problems like depression and addiction.
Lawyers are proud, strong people who pride themselves in their ability to “deal with their own problems.” The greatest difficulty they experience in dealing with them is making the call for help.
It’s worth remembering that when getting that help, the lawyer still must deal with her problems herself. No one else can do it for her. All the mental-health or substance-abuse health-care provider does is create the environment for the lawyer to do what he must, if it will happen at all.
Would lawyers recommend representing themselves in court? No, they would recommend seeking the services of a qualified professional, and that is my advice here.
How to Stay Healthy in a Troubled Profession
1. Acknowledge that what makes you a great lawyer also makes you susceptible to addictive behavior.
2. Honestly assess substance use and abuse patterns, including process addictions, such as gambling, sex, eating and shopping.
3. Pay attention to personal relationships and activities outside of work, which should include physical exercise, spiritual practice, family time and a creative outlet.
4. Consult a coach, therapist or adviser, whatever might be appropriate to your circumstances.
James Dolan, M.A., is a professional coach and psychotherapist with 30 years of experience in private practice in the Dallas area. He works with lawyers and physicians in improving their business development, communications, internal relations, and leadership and client-patient retention. His e-mail address is email@example.com.