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Autopsy of a Professional Suicide©, Part Two: The Lawyers' Curse of Pessimism ©

Updated on July 26, 2014
Detour on the path to truth & justice
Detour on the path to truth & justice

What causes some lawyers to stray from the paths of truth and justice? How does one go from being a respected, highly ethical member of the bar sporting an unblemished record, to becoming a common criminal? Why would a successful attorney throw away a profitable career and opt instead for an orange jumpsuit and barred windows? I don't have the universal answer to these questions. I can only speak to my own case, and by doing so, hope that some of the signs, symptoms and events to which I refer ring a bell for someone on the brink today, in time to prevent what might become another tragic ending of a life and/or career.

The Facts Speak for Themselves

There is a prevailing perception that the practice of law equates to wealth, prestige, power, and consequently the fairy tale, "happily ever after," ending for those privileged individuals who select a legal career as their chosen profession. Unfortunately, this is a gross misconception as evidenced by the following facts. One survey cited by Martin J. Seligman in his article, Why Are Lawyers so Unhappy, revealed that 52% of lawyers indicated they were dissatisfied with their lives.1 The third leading cause of death among lawyers is suicide, behind cancer and heart disease.2 Male lawyers are twice as likely as the general population to take their own lives.3 The rate of depression among lawyers is 3.6 times that of other professions,4 and the American Bar Association estimates that 15 to 18% of lawyers and judges suffer from alcohol and drug abuse.5 That percentage represents a rate nearly twice the rate of the general population.6 The divorce rate among lawyers, especially women, also appears to be higher than the divorce rate among other professionals.7 Problems in areas such as gambling, eating disorders, compulsive behaviors, sexual addictions and the recent increase in internet addictions have all joined the lists of recognized abuses and addictions negatively impacting lawyers and judges.8 They are among the highest-paid professionals, and yet as a group, they are disproportionately unhappy and unhealthy. While many are retiring early or leaving the profession for another career, for some escape may be too late. Joseph Story, the distinguished United States Supreme Court Justice from 1811 to 1845, aptly stated that, "[t]he law is a jealous mistress and requires a long and constant courtship."9 It is not unheard of for jealous mistresses to kill.

The above facts indicate that regardless of the wealth and prestige that may come with the career, lawyers as a whole are not happy individuals. If statistics aren't enough to convince you, consider the following. From 2010 until June 5 of this year, at least 12 attorneys in the State of Kentucky alone committed suicide. Most of these victims were trial lawyers, all were men, and the average age was 53 years old.10 According to an article published in the Louisville Courier-News on Monday, June 3, 2013, Kentucky Bar Association officials stated that stress was believed to be at the crux of the suicides.11 I do not believe it takes a genius or a trained medical professional to reach this conclusion. If there were statistics available on the simple connection between stress and suicide, stress would probably be found to be at the crux of the overwhelming majority of suicides. As you already know if you have read Part One in this series of articles,12 stress physiologically causes a hormonal reaction in your body that causes depression. As also previously discussed, one of the characteristics common in lawyers and law students is perfectionism. Perfectionism, taken to the nth degree, increases stress and thereby exponentially intensifies the chances of depression.

Pessimism as a Contributing Factor

In addition to perfectionism, a second characteristic that plagues attorneys at a higher rate than most other professionals is pessimism. Studies have generally concluded that optimistic people do better in life. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, who studies positive psychology, says most optimists do better in life than merited by their talents alone.13 They work longer hours, invest and save more money, pay their bills more promptly, are less likely to smoke, and are more likely to remarry after a divorce.14 But the opposite is true in the case of attorneys. In law, Seligman states, pessimism is considered prudence, or good sense.15 Pessimism in this context is not the usual "glass is half empty, glass is half full" viewpoint; rather, it is the pessimistic explanatory style. This type of pessimist views the cause of negative events as established and universal facts of life, such as, "it's going to rain forever," or "that [situation, factor, incident] undermines everything." The pessimist attributes negative events to pervasive, permanent and uncontrollable forces, whereas an optimist envisions them as short-lived and capable of changing.

For most professions, pessimism hinders performance. A pessimistic insurance agent will sell fewer policies and burn out more quickly than an optimistic agent. Pessimistic students get lower grades and score lower on achievement and college entrance exams than their optimistic counterparts. Pessimistic athletes have more substandard performances and a more difficult time bouncing back from poor game performance than do optimistic athletes. Take for example a pessimistic pitcher or catcher in baseball. Studies have shown that they do worse in close games than optimistic players in the same positions.16 While pessimists may be considered losers on many fronts, there is one conspicuous exception, and that is lawyers. Why is this true?

Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers. The nature of the profession requires attorneys to view problems with their cases as far-reaching and permanent in order to fashion positive outcomes or solutions for their clients. As pessimists, lawyers must anticipate the worst of situations, and even people, in order to most effectively represent the interests of their clients. In his article, That Frayed Rope, Richard Uday notes that contrary to other professions, pessimism helps lawyers excel; it makes them skeptical of what clients, witnesses, opposing counsel, and judges tell them. It helps them anticipate the worst, and prepare for it.17 This viewpoint is just a part of what the legal profession considers as prudent. A prudent, or cautious viewpoint enables a good attorney to envision every possible trick, snare, pitfall or catastrophe that might happen in any given case. This skill also enables lawyers to see what a non-lawyer cannot see or anticipate.

While it is an advantage in the handling of cases, this pessimistic viewpoint does not equate to happiness in other aspects of life. High stress, chronic depression and disillusion are among the consequences caused by living lives bombarded by pessimism and skepticism. Lawyers are doubly susceptible to these effects because not only do they actually believe in the pessimistic perspective, but they are engaged in a career where the negatives actually are the reality of life on a daily basis.18

Turning Off the Faucet

Inherent personality traits cannot simply be turned off like a faucet. That is, individuals who are perfectionists by day do not just decide to be apathetic slackers by night. Similarly, an individual with overriding pessimistic characteristics does not become a dreamer, idealist or Pollyanna after 5 p.m. Lawyers who can clearly see how badly things might turn out for their clients can also clearly see how badly things might turn out for themselves. Pessimistic lawyers are more readily likely to believe they will not make partner, that their profession is a racket, that their spouse is unfaithful, or that the economy is headed for disaster.19 As a result, pessimism that is adaptive in the profession carries in its wake depression in personal life.

In my own case, I would never have admitted to being a pessimist. To this day, I have always viewed myself as an optimist. I believed that things would always work out in time, that each day was a new beginning, that I was engaged in a profession that I loved, and that I was helping my clients resolve issues that negatively impacted their lives. So when did all this change and why? When did the joy of helping others improve their position in life become a nightmare for me? What were the factors that caused the attorneys in Kentucky to end not only their careers prematurely, but their lives as well? Why are as many as 40,000 lawyers anually leaving the practice?20 The term burnout comes to mind and is appropriate for more than one reason as it appllies to the above situations. I know that my candle burned out long before I eventually left the practice, and I would guess that there are others who experienced the same. Depending on the mindset of the individual involved, there may, or may not be many options available for leaving the practice. For individuals that can clearly see what the practice is doing to their physical and emotional health, one option is voluntary withdrawal from the practice, Fortunately for those individuals, they are able to exit the profession before serious damage is done to themselves or their clients. But thinking about leaving and actually doing it are two different things.

A friend of mine, a veteran personal injury attorney, left a lucrative career with a plaintiff's medical malpractice firm after 23 years. He related to me that he saw himself experiencing burnout and depression, and had the presence of mind to do something about it. "I got out [of the practice] to end my full time career, and basically save what I had left in me. . . I just could not imagine doing what I was doing forever, and then dying at my desk." This is not only a good example of how a pervasive pessimistic outlook affects one's ability to see any improvement in a dismal situation, but also how there does not appear to be any alternative but to leave the practice completely in order to remedy the situation and save one's life. Fortunately, he had the presence of mind, and was able to leave the practice with a clean record, i.e., claims free and grievance free before it killed him. However, he did emphasize that he was so burned out when he left his practice that he was sure that he was going to be the next person whose name appeared in the monthly legal journal as yet another lawyer being disciplined. Fortunately, he could see how the practice was affecting him and remedy the situation before meeting with a disastrous end. In my case, I was not as fortunate. To this date, I am still mopping up the bloodspill I caused as a result of my actions.

Dissecting the Evidence

In my own case, burnout and pessimism were only two of the factors causing the demise of my career. Not only had I been suffering from depression that was diagnosed initially in 1970, the physiological factors for increasing that diagnosis were exacerbated by the fact that I had bipolar disorder, a condition that was not diagnosed or treated until after the damage had already been done. (For a picture of the effects of untreated bipolar disorder, see my post at the link cited below.21) This is in no way, shape or form meant as an excuse. It is merely an explanation of another of the factors that led to the death of what had, for many years, been a perfectly healthy career. I remember fighting bouts of depression over a 40-year period that were intermittently charged by periods of the euphoria and unrealistic expectations that are typical of the manic side of bipolar disorder. I experienced seemingly endless days of depressive behavior symptomized by not being able to get out of bed in the morning, inability to face the office and my clients, ignoring telephone calls, not opening mail, rescheduling court appointments, depositions, and client meetings, filing extensions on court filing deadlines, or simply missing them altogether.

Then, on the tail of the depressive episodes, I would experience days and weeks of manic behavior. Looking back on the facts and my behavior in that time period, it is evident to me that the manic episodes are what brought me out of the depression and kept me going for as long as I did. Manic episodes for me, and I would venture to say for others in the legal profession included the feeling that I was invincible and displaying Irrational, erratic behavior fueled by an unnatural optimism of the future ("I can't lose this case"). Another symptom is attention deficit, i.e., the inability to focus on anything for any amount of time). This particular symptom was also exacerbated by the fact that at any one time in my practice, as in any other attorney's, I had a never-ending flood of open cases so that my attention was always diverted from one case to the next with every telephone call, conversation, appointment, mail delivery and message. Sure, that's typical of any lawyer's day. But, what is not typical is the chemical reaction of bipolar disorder in everyone's brain that exacerbates the already disjointed and incoherent nature of the practice.

Following weeks where I had difficulty even getting out of bed in the morning, I would have days and weeks where I hardly slept or didn't sleep at all for days, typical signs of mania. As a litigation attorney knows, that is not unusual in the days leading up to or during a trial. But working long hours and getting little sleep, and the physiological inability to sleep are two different things. When the two factors are combined, the lack of sleep causes, among other things, irrational, and dangerous behavior, as evidenced in my case. Was my behavior irrational? Absolutely. Could I see it at the time? Absolutely not. For me, I thought I was functioning in a perfectly normal manner.

Probably one of the most telling signs of my own irrational behavior was my propensity to push the limit on everything. Whether it was trying to drive a distance of 60 miles in 45 minutes; trying to researchi, draft, revise, and finalize,a 45-page brief, including Appendices, Indexes, and other required formalities, etc. for the Court of Appeals in a 12-hour period AND typing it myself (no one could possibly do it better or faster than I could); or taking just one more phone call before rushing out the door for a pre-trial, pushing the envelope was not something unusual for me. My sister once admonished me that I pushed a situation as far as it could possibly go, which was more than humanly achievable, and then pushed it ten steps further. I did not know at the time that it was a characteristic of bipolar behavior. I thought I was merely an over-achiever and multi-tasking or performing well under pressure. I used to tell people that I performed best under pressure, until someone once asked me, "have you ever tried it any other way?" For some reason, I didn't think there was any other way.

I will never know whether the events that subsequently occurred coud have been prevented had I received a correct diagnosis and proper medication. I was already being treated for depression. I did not know at that time that the treatment for depression further exacerbated the manic episodes. What I can say is that because I thought that I was behaving "normal" under the circumstances of my life, I would never have admitted that I needed help. Not me, the oak tree who took care of everyone. Not me, the person who could not say "no," despite the personal cost to myself. Perfectionists don't do that for fear of being perceived as weak. And in a profession where every day is an experience in swimming with the sharks, the last thing we want to be perceived as is weak.

©2013, 2014 by Kathy Striggow

This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the express written permission of the author.

Coming Soon: Autopsy of a Professional Suicide©, Part Three: "The Curse of a Competitive Nature"© and Part Four: "Suicide or Homicide: You Be the Judge."©


¹ 16, 2012

**Third leading cause of death among lawyers after cancer and heart disease.

² Richard G. Uday, That Frayed Rope, Utah State Bar J., Aug./Sept. 2003


⁴ Meyer J. Cohen, Bumps in the Road, GPSOLO, July/August 2001, at 20.


7 Lynn Johnson, Stress Management, Utah Bar Journal, January/February 2003.

8Uday, at 20.

9 Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, 14 U.S. 304 (1816)




13 Nov. 16, 2012





18Uday at 20.

19 Nov. 16, 2012




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