Autopsy of a Professional Suicide©, Part One: The Curse of Perfectionism and Depression among Lawyers©
This is Part One in a series of articles. Because it is the author's personal story of events that took place over a period of many years, it cannot be contained in a single post. Please continue to follow this hub for additional postings on the subject.
The Untimely Death
The Obituary read:
The Professional Career of Attorney Kathleen Striggow, a respected Northwest Ohio attorney in private practice for approximately twenty years, ended unexpectedly on March 3, 2004 in Toledo, Ohio in the office of Attorney Striggow's lawyer, James D. Doe. The cause of death is as yet undetermined. An autopsy is being performed.
The career was born on May 13, 1985 in Columbus, Ohio when Attorney Striggow was admitted to the practice of law by the Supreme Court of Ohio. In its early years of practice, the career focused primarily in the area of personal injury defense with two prominent Toledo litigation firms. By the late 1980s, the career had established enough of its own private clients to open a general litigation practice focusing in employment discrimination, human resources consulting, and appellate work that continued until its premature demise.
A service, open to the public, will be held on September 21, 2004 at 1:30 p.m. in the Lucas County Courthouse.
What happened to cause this legal career's extinction in the prime of its life? The untimely death of a professional career does not just happen overnight. What is the rest of the story--the circumstances and factors underlying this premature termination of a viable life? When there is more to a story than appears on its face, and in order to better understand why an event happened as it did, it makes sense to conduct an autopsy. An autopsy on a career is not dissimilar from an autopsy on a human being. This is evident by reading the meaning of the word autopsy as defined by Webster's online dictionary:
1: an examination of a body after death to determine the cause of death or the character and extent of changes produced by disease . . . and 2: a critical examination, evaluation, or assessment of someone or something past."1
Webster's Concise Encyclopedia expands on the definition by clarifying that the dissection and examination must be conducted on a dead body to "learn about disease processes that are not possible with the living."2
In this case an examination could not have been made while the career was alive and thriving. At that point there was no need to do so. It is only after the demise of the person, or in this case, the thing, that all the facts can be objectively scrutinized and the cause of death traced to its core. For almost nine years now I have been studying, examining and dissecting all the factors that contributed to the death of my professional career. For eight years I have been trying to write about it, but this is not an easy topic for me to think about or discuss. In the past, every time I tried, I felt like I didn't have all the pieces of the puzzle, and not all the pieces I did have fit together properly. I felt I needed to do as complete a self-examination as humanly possible, and again that doesn't happen overnight. It has taken years of intense therapy, and in my case, medication, to gain a full understanding of myself and my personality traits as they affected and contributed to the unfortunate circumstances that occurred. I needed to fully understand it myself before being able to accurately convey it to a reader.
Because the foundation of this article and the ones that follow is fact and honesty, I must also state that I hesitated writing it because I was afraid of bringing yet further humiliation, ridicule and embarrassment to my family and myself by my own hand. Did I want to open the wounds and risk subjecting myself and my family to questions, whispers, ridicule, denouncements and isolation? But, on the same hand, I have endured that now for nine years, and because I am a stronger person than I ever have been before, I feel that it is finally time to write about it and get it out into the open. As in the case of any other of our dark secrets, once they have seen the light of day there is no longer reason for whispers and isolation. I can hold my head up and know that what I did was the result of a combination of dynamics and forces, some voluntarily and others involuntary. My decision to continue to pursue this particular writing endeavor is also due, in a large part, to the encouragement of the faithful friends who openly supported me throughout my darkest days, have continued as my friends to this day, and have urged me to persevere with this project until its completion.3
Lawyers and Suicide
Suicide is among the leading causes of premature death among lawyers.4 You can tell yourself you'll be different, but statistically speaking, you probably won’t be. And while most lawyers don’t kill themselves, this doesn’t bode well for the law being your dream career.5
Practicing law was my dream career. By the time I entered high school and began thinking about a realistic career path, I wanted to be an attorney. I knew I would be a good lawyer. I had acquired a strong sense of right and wrong from my parents, I was instilled with high ethical aspirations by the influential figures in my young life, and I was not afraid to take a stand and speak out for what I believed were injustices to those who could not speak for themselves. Others may not have agreed with me, but I was persistent enough to hold my ground when I knew I was right. All these qualities, I believed, were important in an attorney. And the truth of the matter is that they are.
When I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, women became teachers, nurses, and secretaries. Female attorneys were the exception rather than the rule. Women worked in subservient positions, were presumed to be married by their early twenties, and stayed at home with their children. My father insisted that my sisters and I take typing classes in high school so that we could always find jobs as secretaries if we couldn't find anything else. Sure enough, one of my sisters went to nursing school, one became a teacher, and the other a secretary. Not me. I wanted to be an attorney. I knew it was a relatively long higher education path but I didn't mind. I enjoyed any type of learning and I enjoyed competing against myself. Long or not, I figured I could endure it. And frankly, that's all law school is—an endurance test. Thus, I embarked on my college career with my goal clearly set in my mind.
As it happens in young adults, those hormones start gushing in the late high school and college years. "Love" steps in and derails the train from the track. I dropped out of college after two years, married, and had two young children by the time I was 25 years old. After being a stay-at-home mom for 4 years following the birth of my children, I was going crazy. I was bored. I had no intellectual stimulation. The most challenging task I faced was planning a $30/week grocery budget. Even though my husband did not want me to work, I began thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. The law was always my choice no matter what other careers I fantasized about having.
By that time it was 1979 and we lived 3 blocks from the campus of Bowling Green State University in Northwest Ohio. We may never live this close to a university campus again, I thought. When my youngest son became old enough for preschool, I knew that it was time for me to resume my education. The financial institution my husband worked for was opening branches in all the rural communities in the county. There was a good possibility that he might be named a branch manager in one of those remote locations, and we'd be required to move there. I also knew my marriage was not destined for the long term and I was already making contingency plans. I did not want to get stuck out in the middle of a corn field with no education and no means of supporting my two little boys. The legal career I dreamed of ten years earlier seemed the obvious choice. Having finally made that decision, I enrolled my son in the university's preschool and embarked on the shortest path to get there. I resumed my studies in the College of Business and finished my undergraduate degree less than two years later.
When I made the decision to pursue law school as a reality, I was not aware of the suicide statistics among lawyers. In fact, I am not sure that the suicide statistics for any profession are something that anyone takes into account when considering a future career. "Let's see, on the plus side there's high salaries, good benefits, financial security, prestige in the community, and a chance to serve others. On the negative side there's long hours, financial debt from astronomical student loans, a higher than average suicide rate, higher rate of marital discord and divorce, higher risk of alcoholism and other addictions. . . ." No, I would venture that particular balancing act doesn't happen very often. And even if I had been aware of the statistics, I would have done exactly what the above quote indicates. I would have told myself that I was different. I didn't suffer from depression. I was an optimist. I was embarking on the legal career I always wanted. Tomorrow is another day, and all that.
After my first day of law school, I thought the university had surely made a mistake. I wasn't that smart and I was comparatively old compared to the average age of a daytime law student. I was, on average, ten years older than the majority of my classmates, which when you think about it is one-half of their lives up to that point. I didn't have much, if any self-confidence; and my self-esteem had long ago been trampled into the ground by a formal naval officer father and an oppressive husband. I had nothing but my own determination to persuade myself otherwise. I decided that maybe if I just kept my mouth shut and flew under the radar, I might be able to get through the next three years without the mistake being discovered. It is interesting that at no time during that next three years did I ever consider quitting. I was too stubborn and persistent. I decided I was going to do it and that was that.
On the first night of orientation we were told to look to our left and then to our right. The reason for this, we were told, was because one of the persons sitting next to us would not be present at graduation. That was not exactly an optimistic thought upon which to begin our training. As I had already committed the next three years to the endeavor and I was determined to finish it whether or not I had the lowest scores in the class, I never even gave a second thought to the possibility that the absent degree candidate would be me. I was not going to fail at this. I didn't believe in failure. My children's futures depended on me succeeding. (I should note however, that the person sitting to my left was my husband. He was not present at my graduation. As I predicted, the marriage hadn't survived.) Interestingly, during the course of that eight day orientation period, no one mentioned that one of causes for the high attrition rate among law school students was a high rate of depressive disorder, or that the leading cause of premature death among lawyers was suicide.
The Curse of Perfectionism
I am sure you won't be surprised to learn that the legal profession attracts perfectionists. Perfectionism is one of those variables that sometimes distinguish low achievers from high achievers. Tendencies toward perfectionism (regardless of the reason) begin showing in the earliest stages of childhood development and formal education, and they continue through college, law school and into employment. To a certain degree, it is not necessarily a bad thing to have some perfectionist traits. Perfectionism may be a factor in guiding us down the path toward the legal profession. It aids in excelling in schoolwork, and it is vital to performing well enough to pass the bar examination. It stimulates follow through on projects, limits sloppy or inaccurate work, and boosts organizational skills. The legal profession accentuates perfection. Attorneys must be obsessively detail oriented. Overlooking even the smallest of details may sound the death knell for an attorney's career. It is a requirement of the profession, and serves both the clients and the profession well.
The downside of perfectionism is the ubiquitous feeling that nothing is ever good enough.6 A perfectionist does not want to fail. In fact, perfectionists fear failure. When taken to its extreme, perfectionism and the overwhelming feeling that nothing is ever good enough, causes paralysis. An example of this can be seen in very young children with extreme perfectionist tendencies when they are learning to draw. In some cases they will not even pick up a crayon because they know they cannot draw the perfect picture of a tree, a cow, or whatever, so they will not even try. They become paralyzed in that activity to the point that they refuse to draw at all. Intellectually we all know that no one is perfect. It is humanly impossible. Yet, an obsessive perfectionist cannot or does not recognize or appreciate that fact, or will not admit that it is even a possibility.
Perfectionists are motivated by the obsessive need to circumvent failure and they will do everything necessary to succeed in that need. This constant aversion to failure necessarily increases an individual's stress level. In her article on Stress Management, Johnson asserts the belief that the increased stress caused by perfectionism raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body.7 Cortisol (formally known as hydrocortisone) is a glucocorticoid, and it together with other glucocorticoids are produced by the adrenal glands. I am not going to bore you with a chemical and physiological discussion of glucocorticoids. Let me just say that they are important to the body because when they are released, for example, they increase blood sugar when your blood sugar is low (to prevent you from going into a diabetic coma), they suppress the immune system so that it doesn't snowball out of control and damage your body tissues (as in autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis and lupus), and they aid in fat, protein and carbohydrate metabolism (the process of digestion and transportation of nutrients into and between your body's cells). Other factors which can increase cortisol levels include sleep deprivation,8 caffeine,9 and burnout.10 Why is any of this important as it relates to attorneys and suicide? Because severe trauma or stressful events may elevate cortisol levels in the blood for prolonged periods.11 And persistently high levels of cortisol lead to numerous medical problems, including depression. "Perfectionists are more vulnerable to depression and anxiety, harder to treat with either therapy or drugs, and much more likely to commit suicide when things go very wrong."12
Now put this basic understanding of cortisol and stress into the context of the law student and later, the attorney. Law students are under incredible stress to perform, sometimes self-induced and sometimes externally instigated (remember the look to your left, look to your right admonition), fueled by perfectionism. There is constant competition—for class rank, for the best grade in each and every class over a three-year period, for an invitation to join Law Review and Moot Court teams, for summer internships, for judicial clerkships, for research assistant positions, and for the best jobs upon graduation. As I indicated above, law school is a three year (plus in some cases) endurance test. And it is not over on graduation day. There is still the bar exam that must be passed in order to actually use that education and practice law. Law students also historically suffer from sleep deprivation due to the rigors of law school and the long hours spent studying, working and caring for their families (if they have them at that point). They consume massive amounts of coffee and take caffeine pills to keep themselves awake for the long hours required, and they suffer from a disproportionate amount of burnout--thus the 1/3 to 1/2 recidivism rate predicted on the first night of orientation. All these factors result in the adrenal glands hemorrhaging cortisol.
Similarly, attorneys are subjected to never-ending stressors simply due to the nature of the profession. They are consistently required to meet the highest standards of performance. The daily responsibilities of a law practice are enough to induce stress upon even the most well balanced individual. Examples of some of these requirements include, but are not limited to, the fear of malpractice with every client and case taken, every decision, every mistake and every deadline missed, the duty to zealously represent each and every client as if it were the only one, the extended hours in the workday and workweek, the relentless deadlines set by the courts, the daily, weekly and monthly billable hours requirements set by the managing partners in a law firm, the burden of handling other people's problems (as well as their own), the requirement to participate in pro-bono work and continuing legal education, and on, and on, and on. Now add on to those factors obsessive perfectionism and the fear of failure. Their fear of mistakes. Mistakes can cost them their licenses, their practices, their ability to make a living, their means of support, their reputation, their homes, their property, their families, their standing in the community, their "friends." Add on to that the stress caused by the fear of humiliation, embarrassment, and negative publicity caused by losing their client's case, even if there was no possible winning outcome for either side, or losing their license to practice law. And then there is always the fear of a misstep and discipline by the state's licensing authority and the risk of disciplinary action or prison. Those poor little adrenal glands just keep pumping, pumping, pumping out that cortisol. It's no wonder that in a study undertaken by JohnsHopkins Medical School, lawyers were found to have a 3.6 higher rate of depression than any of the other 28 professions included in the study.13 And as we already know, depression can be deadly.
©2013, 2014 by Kathy Striggow
This article may not be reproduced or reprinted in whole or in part without the express written permission of the author.
Coming Soon: Autopsy of a Professional Suicide - Part Two: The Curse of Pessimism.
3Special Thanks to my friends who did not abandon me in my darkest of days and who have continued their support to this day by encouraging me to write my story, including JAT, ESL, MDMM, DJP, JLM, and my close friend, JD, who I wish would have lived to see a positive result from a snowballing of a series of negative event.s In addition, a very special "Thank You" to DLR, a classmate and fellow attorney, without whose surprisingly kind words, unsolicited, nonjudgmental comments, and ultimate friendship, I would not have had the courage to complete and publish this series of articles.
4Richard G. Uday, That Frayed Rope, Utah State Bar J., Aug./Sept. 2003 (citing Meyer J. Cohen, Bumps in the Road, GPSOLO, July/Aug. 2001, at 20).
6 Lynn Johnson, Stress Management, Utah State Bar J., Jan./Feb. 2003.
8 Leproult R, Copinschi G, Buxton O, Van Cauter E (October 1997).
9 Lovallo WR, Farag NH, Vincent AS, Thomas TL, Wilson MF (March 2006).
10Wingenfeld, K.; Schulz, M.; Damkroeger, A.; Rose, M.; Driessen, M. (Mar 2009).
11 Johnson, Stress Management.
12 Id at 12.
13 Id at 12.