We Need To Start Talking About Why So Many Lawyers Are Killing Themselves

Sad depressed man sitting on bed

Editor’s note: Brian Clarke, an assistant professor at Charlotte School of Law, recently wrote this post about the prevalence of suicide and depression among lawyers.

He has allowed us to republish this post, which originally appeared on the Faculty Lounge. It is the first in a three-part series.

Back in January, CNN ran a piece entitled “Why Are Lawyers Killing Themselves.” In general, the piece focused on a spate of lawyer suicides in Kentucky and other states over the last several years. Most of the suicides (15 since 2010) in Kentucky were seemingly successful lawyers. One was a relatively young (37) and popular adjunct professor at NKU’s Chase College of Law.

Outside of Kentucky, another prominent lawyer suicide was Mark Levy, the chair of Kilpatrick Stockton’s Supreme Court and Appellate Litigation Practice in D.C. Mr. Levy was a top Supreme Court advocate, having argued 16 times before the Court and, in January 2009, won a 9-0 victory for DuPont in an important ERISA case (Kennedy v. Plan Administrator, 555 U.S. 285 (2009)). However, in April 2009, as the economy tanked, Kilpatrick Stockton informed Mr. Levy that his services were no longer needed. So, Mr. Levy came to work on April 30, 2009, sat down at his desk, activated the “out of office” auto-reply feature on his email account and shot himself in the head. Chillingly, the “out of office” message Mr. Levy activated that morning was as follows: “As of April 30, 2009, I can no longer be reached. If your message relates to a firm matter, please contact my secretary. If it concerns a personal matter, please contact my wife.” (See Richard B. Schmitt, “A Death in the Office,” ABA Journal, Nov. 2009, at 30-31).

Here in North Carolina, one of the founders of King & Spalding’s Charlotte office, who was profoundly successful; a prominent litigator in McGuireWood’s Raleigh, N.C. office; and numerous quietly successful small town lawyers have committed suicide in recent years.

The common thread running through most of these suicides? Clinical Depression (a/k/a “major depressive disorder”).

According to the American Psychiatric Association and numerous other sources, depression is the most likely trigger for suicide. Lawyers, as a group, are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than the average person. Of 104 occupations, lawyers were the most likely to suffer depression. (Both of these statistics are from a Johns Hopkins University study to which I cannot find a link).

Further, according to a two-year study completed in 1997, suicide accounted for 10.8% of all deaths among lawyers in the United States and Canada and was the third leading cause of death. Of more importance was the suicide rate among lawyers, which was 69.3 suicide deaths per 100,000 individuals, as compared to 10 to 14 suicide deaths per 100,000 individuals in the general population. In short, the rate of death by suicide for lawyers was nearly six times the suicide rate in the general population.

A quality of life survey by the North Carolina Bar Association in the early 1990s, revealed that almost 26% of respondents exhibited symptoms of clinical depression, and almost 12% said they contemplated suicide at least once a month. Studies in other states have found similar results. In recent years, several states have been averaging one lawyer suicide a month.

What is worse is the state of our students. According to a study by Prof. Andy Benjamin (U. Wash.), by the spring of their 1L year, 32% of law students are clinically depressed, despite being no more depressed than the general public (about 8%) when they entered law school. By graduation, this number had risen to 40%. While this percentage dropped to 17% two years after graduation, the rate of depression was still double that of the general public. (See http://www.lawyerswithdepression.com/law-school-depression/).

These statistics, which likely have not improved in recent years, are terrifying.

In the months since CNN ran its story, I have (unsuccessfully) tried to shake the feeling that we (as lawyers, law professors and the mentors of a generation of law students) missed out on a valuable opportunity to more fully address an issue that is critical to the legal profession. So, when the opportunity to post here came along, I decided to revisit this issue and to do so in a personal way.

I will admit to being a bit nervous about even raising this topic. (Given the nature of many anonymous internet commenters, I think most people would be hesitant to bare even a minute portion of their souls online and attempt to engage with a very serious subject, only to be subject to snarky or mean-spirited attacks.) Plus, mental illness and suicide are not comfortable subjects for most people. There remains a very real stigma attached to mental illness. Many people believe that suffering from clinical depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, or a host of other mental illnesses is a character flaw or a weakness. Having one of these diseases has been seen as something of which the sufferer should be ashamed. This attitude has been in place for too long for people to easily change their perceptions and opinions.

However, as lawyers and law professors, we must to do more. It is clear that our students need us to do more. When you are depressed, you feel so terribly alone. You feel different. You feel ashamed. You feel weak. You feel like you will never feel better and that you can never be the person you want to be.

If 40% of our students feel this way, we must do more. They look up to us. They see us as role models and mentors. They see us as strong and successful and confident. They need to see that suffering from depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder will not curse them for all time and destroy their lives. These are treatable diseases, not character flaws. They need us to be brave and be honest.

A few law professors have publically “come out” (so to speak) about their struggles with mental illnesses: Prof. Elyn Saks at Southern Cal (schizophrenia, via The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness (2007)); Prof. Lisa McElroy at Drexel (anxiety disorder, via an article on Slate); and Prof. James Jones at Louisville (bipolar disorder, via an article in Journal of Legal Ed.). They were all tenured when they did so.

And then there is me: an untenured, assistant professor with five kids, who left a generally successful practice career to teach at Charlotte School of Law. So, anonymous internet commentators be damned . . .

My name is Brian Clarke. I am a father, a husband, a lawyer, and a law professor. And I suffer from major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

So there you have it. While I have been “out” at Charlotte Law and have spoken publicly about my disease, this is the most wide-open forum in which I have come out.

In my next post, I will share my story (a piece of public soul baring that you should not miss!). In the third (and mercifully final) post in this little serial adventure, I will discuss the role my struggles with depression and anxiety have played (and continue to play) in the classroom.