CNN did a story yesterday called, “Why are lawyers killing themselves?”
Lawyers rank fourth in suicides by occupation. Lawyers have massive problems and the legal system is not only letting lawyers down, it is letting the American public down.
I know a thing or two about being a burned out lawyer because I was one.
I am more fortunately than many of my brothers and sisters in the bar. My story has a happy ending.
For those who are not in the legal profession, there are a lot of things people do not know about lawyers.
Most lawyers are lawyers by accident. They go through undergraduate school and are political science majors or history majors. Many have a useless undergraduate degree. Many of these future lawyers hit a point about a year before graduation and they have to ask themselves, “What the hell am I going to do after I graduate?”
Usually someone suggests law school.
The usual response is, “why not?”
When I was in law school, in a class of a about a hundred and thirty, I can remember exactly one person who said she dreamed of being a lawyer when she grew up. I decided I was going to become a lawyer because I took an interest inventory test that said I would be a good lawyer. I had never dreamed of being a lawyer, but between that test and a degree in International Relations that wasn’t that employable, it seemed like a good idea.
Most people think the lives of lawyers are like those on TV shows.
Some lawyers are trial lawyers and for me trying cases was a blast. I loved trying cases.
Unfortunately for lawyers very little of their time is spent trying cases. A lot of their work is drudgery. It is looking up case law. It is drafting motions and briefs and writing contracts where you look for boilerplate language that has been used before.
Why is life so miserable for lawyers?
There are a lot of reasons. Most lawyers entered jobs they were not prepared for nor even desired.
Lawyers are neither loved nor appreciated. That is part of the problem. Most lawyers who are in private practice are in some type of a consumer practice. Consumer practices include criminal defense, divorce and bankruptcy.
No one is ever happy to see a lawyer in those circumstances. Nor are they happy to see a lawyer if they have to sue someone or if they are being sued. No one is happy to see a lawyer. Perhaps the only lawyers with happy clients are lawyers who specialize in representing lottery winners.
The legal profession is a brutal caste system. If you did not go to a top law school and were not top in your class, the top judicial clerkships are not open to you and the big law firm jobs are closed as well.
However, that may not be that much of a loss for most folks.
A few years after I graduated, I bumped into a classmate of mine. She had been on law review and she had graduated at the top of our class. She was working for one of the big firms. She was a year away from partnership. She told me that she worked 14 hours a day Monday through Friday, 12 hours a day on Saturday and 10 hours a day on Sunday. She was making a lot more money than I was, but I had weekends and holidays off.
The problem now days with lawyers is there are too many lawyers and they are chasing too few clients now days. For decades law schools have been cranking out too many lawyers. I started law school in August of 1985. There were about one hundred and thirty in my class. A month later LA Law debuted. The class that started in August 1986 was twice the size of my class.
Tennessee has six law schools! It only has two medical schools. That means there are too many lawyers being produced.
Lawyers are fighting hard and hard to make even less and less money. Younger lawyers are crushed with student loan debt that at this point, they have no realistic path to pay off.
One of the problems lawyers face is that cruel fact that the profession expects them to be perfect every time and if they are involved in litigation, they must go up against someone who is also expect to be perfect and destroy them.
That is not a recipe for happiness or even psychological well-being. Too many lawyers burn out and then far to often turn to alcohol, drugs or even suicide.
I practiced beginning in April 1988. I worked for a number of years as a prosecutor and then went into solo practice. I knew I was getting tired of being a lawyer but I had a couple of wake up events that really got my attention.
In fall of 2004, I was leaving one morning to go to the office and then to go to court. I wasn’t paying attention and almost walked off the side of my porch. While that doesn’t sound that bad, at that spot it would have been about a five foot drop and I would have broken my leg. I thought to myself, if I broke my leg I’d get out of several days of court appearances. A broken leg almost seemed worth it. I knew I had a problem then.
A year later, I was sitting in my office. I didn’t feel well. Then I began to have chest pains. The pain radiated down my arm. I stood and I was dizzy. A rational person would have called 911. I drove myself to the hospital. Not to the nearest hospital but the hospital nearest my house.
The good news is, it was not a heart attack. My blood pressure had skyrocketed to stroke level. I was kept in the hospital overnight. That night I vowed I was going to get out of practicing law.
It took a while. I tried a couple of things but by 2012 I shut down my practice.
Two years later, I do miss some parts of practicing law. I miss the camaraderie of the lawyers at the courthouse. I miss trying cases.
For lawyers who practice in courthouses, they can pick out the problem lawyers. They can tell you which ones are starting down the road to burn out. They can tell you which ones are going to end up with substance abuse problems or already has them. They know which lawyers are eventually going to get their law licenses suspended.
A lot of lawyers do not need to be lawyers any longer. But most of them have no idea what they what they would do if they were not practicing law.
The real problem the legal profession has right now is there is no way to get lawyers out of the profession who need to leave. Most states have lawyer assistance programs for lawyers who have substance abuse problems or mental health issues. Yet there is no program to help transition troubled lawyers out of the profession.
The problem is not the lawyers. The problem is the profession that so many lawyers are unsuited for. If states are serious about intervening to prevent suicides by lawyers, they need to create programs to help lawyers leave the legal profession. Many have been lawyers for twenty or thirty years. Most of them have no idea what they could or would do.
Many troubled lawyers hang on to the legal profession, like a drowning man, simply because they are afraid.
A legal education is one of the best educations in the world. Being a lawyer is an honor. Practicing law has it moments of absolute joy and exhilaration. It also has crushing lows.
Being a lawyer is a wonderful experience and it is a noble profession.
It isn’t one that is worth dying for.