Jennifer Cormano is an associate in Nixon Peabody’s Los Angeles office (Photo: Courtesy Photo)

We all know the statistics on the mental health of lawyers are bleak. A recent study by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that of just under 13,000 practicing lawyers, approximately 28 percent were struggling with depression, 19 percent with anxiety, and 20 percent with problematic drinking.

Some may try to justify these numbers with the all too simple explanation: Law is a high stress job. But other careers are stressful and don’t have such staggering statistics. Is stress the only piece of the puzzle, or is there something about lawyers in general?

When I first started looking into the topic of lawyer mental health, I found research showing a disturbing correlation: the same personality traits over represented in the population of adults recovering from mood and substance abuse disorders are common in lawyers. These traits include high achievement orientation, perfectionism, and pessimism.

Ironically, these traits often serve lawyers well. Pessimism when reviewing a contract can help us identify potential problems others might not see. Perfectionism and a high achievement orientation can lead us to review that brief one more time to catch each and every typo. Each trait is a double-edged sword. It might make us excellent at our jobs, but it is also correlates to mental health issues that can make us unhappy in life.

So what do we do with this information? Is there a way to not be miserable and be a great lawyer?

When I decided to enroll in a yoga teacher training, my goal was to improve my physical yoga practice and make sure my alignment for each pose was technically correct. During the training, we were asked to meditate as much as we could, ideally daily. What was first a challenge—making time each day in an already tight schedule takes determination—became a daily routine that led to increased happiness and a better perspective on events and the people in my life. I noticed my stress level significantly decreased, and I responded differently to stressful events. For example, an opposing counsel who I previously found completely obnoxious simply didn’t get under my skin in the same way.

As it turns out, that experience isn’t unique to me. There are scientific studies that show the human brain actually changes with a consistent practice of meditation, mindfulness, and/or yoga. There are also studies that show they help the brain function in ways beneficial to the practice of law. For example, one study showed that meditation leads to growth in areas of the brain important for learning, memory, emotional regulation, perspective taking, and compassion.

The evidence I find most compelling are two contrasting studies presented in a TEDx talk given by Dr. Sara Lazar, an assistant professor in psychology at Harvard Medical School, on how meditation and yoga changes our brains. In one study, scientists measured regular rodents’ amygdalas (the fight or flight area of the brain). Then, they put these same normal rodents through a ten-day stress regimen, and remeasured the amygdala to find it had increased in size. Curiously, after the rodents were returned to their normal environment for three weeks, the amygdala was still enlarged and the rodents still exhibited stressful behaviors. For me, the takeaway is that it is fully possible our brains and their perception of fear don’t immediately react to a positive change in environment. If we parallel this to our lives as lawyers, when we switch from the stressful environment of the office to home, our brain chemistry (and possibly enlarged amygdala) comes home with us.

The second study looked at people who had never meditated before. The scientists scanned their brains prior to and after an eight-week meditation-based stress reduction program where they were told to meditate every day for 30 to 40 minutes. The amygdala decreased in size in direct proportion to how much stress reduction the participants experienced. Thus, the improved feelings the participants self-reported was backed by neurobiological evidence.

I find it extremely meaningful nothing related to stress-producing events changed in the participants’ lives. They didn’t necessarily need a new job or to remove aggravating people from their lives to feel better. (And even if they did, I think the rodent study indicates that might not have helped reduce stress anyway.) The participants changed their perception and experience of stressors through meditation. If we parallel this to the practice of law, it means we can have stressful jobs with demanding clients without being miserable.

There are times where avoiding stress could be the answer. But completely avoiding difficult situations or stress is impossible. The achievement of any challenging goal comes with stress, and we shouldn’t turn away from worthy pursuits just because they are hard. Instead, it’s how we respond to stressors that will permit us to take on challenges and make us happier and more content in the long run. Meditation and yoga changes our brain, which changes the way we think and our relationship and response to stressors, which makes us not only happier lawyers, but happier humans.

Jennifer Cormano is an associate in Nixon Peabody’s Los Angeles office. She represents health care providers, including hospitals, physician groups, academic medical centers, surgery centers, accountable care organizations and other organizations affiliated with the health care industry.