Depression: The legal profession's 'gorilla in the closet'

by Mackenzie McCarty12 Mar 2014
A recent CNN feature published in the US has once again brought attention to the subject of elevated depression and suicide rates amongst legal professionals.

The article quotes US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing lawyers rank fourth when the proportion of suicides in that profession is compared to suicides in all other occupations in the study population (adjusted for age) – directly behind dentists, pharmacists and physicians.

Lawyers, at least in the US, are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.

At this stage, there is no available data on New Zealand depression rates by occupation, however, it’s widely accepted that this is an issue in our own jurisdiction as well. The New Zealand Law Society dedicates entire pages of its website to information on depression and burnout – even offering special discounts to lawyers seeking help from Lifeline counselling services.

Emily Morrow, a former US law firm partner who now provides tailored consulting services for legal professionals in New Zealand, including those at tier one firms, says the heightened level of depression in lawyers often comes down to a combination of “nature and nurture”.

“People who choose to study and work in the law typically are relatively intense, quite individualistic, reasonably competitive and often analytical in their approach. They are more likely to focus on professional advancement, even if this comes at a personal, emotional cost. This is the nature piece. The nurture piece is associated with legal training and the practice of law. It tends to encourage a highly cerebral approach to problem-solving, a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality, a focus on outcomes rather than process and minimises emotional considerations. These factors, added to a chronically high stress environment, are an excellent recipe for depression,” explains Morrow.

Morrow believes many law firms are not doing enough when it comes to addressing the issue and that a stigma surrounding the condition still exists.

“In many cases, firms are doing relatively little to address issues associated with depression,” she says. “Typically, the response is to try to treat the symptoms, rather than looking at the underlying causes. Some firms are addressing concerns about depression quite directly with their staff through training and open discussion and I think this is an excellent trend. It is kind of like taking the gorilla out of the closet and it can be very helpful.”

When it comes to identifying risk factors in their own lives, Morrow uses a metaphor to describe the importance of identifying the things that bring joy into everyday life.

 “A good metaphor is the use of oxygen on an airplane. As we all know, you are instructed as a passenger to put the oxygen mask on yourself first so that you can assist children or others seated near you,” she says. “This is not selfish, nor is it inappropriate; it's associated with keeping yourself functioning at your highest and best level. Similarly, if you are not taking care of yourself sufficiently, your overall functioning will deteriorate and you will be more risk for depression and other psychological and/or physical disabilities.”

Finally, Morrow notes that we often associate depression with sadness. Typically, however, she says the disease manifests itself through chronic levels of inertia, or lethargy.

“Things that we used to do energetically and easily become difficult for us,” she says. “Many times we describe this as ‘burnout’. Fundamentally, however, it is depression and we are all at risk of it. Taking care of yourself and attending to your personal, professional, physical, emotional, spiritual and other needs is the best antidote. Seek professional help if you need it and do it sooner rather than later.”

*If you feel that you or someone you know is at risk, please contact Lifeline’s 24-hour counselling service: (Auckland) 09 5222 999, (outside of Auckland) 0800 543 354.


  • by Graham 12/03/2014 10:37:51 a.m.

    The point made regarding inertia and lethargy is well made and simple fatigue will do to. Further symptoms differ from person to person. However, in law one won't eradicate the active discrimination- to the right to work- that exists particularly in provincial centers where depression is treated akin to a serious disorder. Absent the stress leads to release from the malaise. Counselling is a throw away concept as a 'fix it'. Of greater efficacy is removing the stressors. The difficulty for recovering practitioners is financial stress and isolation and being treated as an object.

  • by Cheryl Simes 12/03/2014 12:32:02 p.m.

    Many years ago I was a member of the local Complaints Committee. We interviewed a practitioner who had been extraordinarily dilatory in a particular matter and who (significantly) still had not made any attempt to address the issues despite the complaint and despite being summonsed. It seemed obvious to me that the practitioner was probably experiencing undiagnosed and untreated depression or something similar. Towards the end of the interview I asked the practitioner about his mental health. The other members of the Committee mocked me afterwards and asked where on earth that came from and what did it have to do with the complaint. At the time I knew I knew more about depression than many other lawyers because I experienced it myself. The reaction of my 'colleagues' to that question was however quite enlightening.

  • by Erin Gibson 14/03/2014 10:55:17 a.m.

    Google " I had a black dog, his name was depression" An excellent animated video clip about depression.