Editor’s note: Brian Clarke, an assistant professor at Charlotte School of Law, recently wrote a blog post in “Faculty Lounge” about the prevalence of suicide and depression among lawyers.
The post was the first in a three-part series, and Clarke allowed us to republish the second post that focuses on his personal experience with depression. The post that follows is the third in the series and focuses on how he talks to his students about his depression.
At long last, we have arrived at the third and final post of my “Coming Out Trilogy.”
As promised, I want to focus this post on the role my struggles with depression and anxiety have played and continue to play in my interactions with my students, both in and out of the classroom.
My prior posts have covered the bleak statistics regarding depression and suicide rates among lawyers (nearly four times more likely to be depressed and six times more likely to commit suicide than the general public). Further, I also mentioned that many of our students are suffering from depression (32% by second semester first year and 40% by graduation). Although I have not found any specific data to support it, my guess is that an equal (or more likely) higher percentage of our students are also suffering from significant levels of anxiety.
In short, a third or more of our students are struggling with mental illnesses that are exacerbated (or triggered or caused or whatever word you most prefer) by the significant stresses of law school (and the various issues surrounding it, including — to be frank — the cost, debt loads, and job prospects).* According to the research, if a person suffers a single incident of clinical depression, he has a 50% chance of experiencing another even if he takes antidepressant medication. After 3 incidents, there is a 90% chance of recurrence.** [I, for example, had my first (undiagnosed) bout of clinical depression in college and my first bout of anxiety (diagnosed) my first year of law school.] So, there is a very good chance that the depressed law students of today will be the depressed lawyers of tomorrow.
Our students need help to better understand the challenges of the profession they are entering: the potential for dissatisfaction, disillusionment, mental illness (including depression, anxiety and substance abuse), burnout, and more. When I left practice and started teaching, I promised myself that I would be open and honest with my students about my struggles and about the realities of law practice.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the Law and there were many, many aspects of practicing law that I loved (and at which I excelled). There were also aspects that I did not love (and tried my best to tolerate, sometimes less than successfully). I know, without reservation or qualification, that being a lawyer can be a highly rewarding career: emotionally, intellectually, and financially. If I was not honest with my students about the challenges of being a lawyer, however, I would be doing them a disservice.
Further, in my view, knowledge is power. With knowledge of the challenges and some of their causes, I figure my students will be better equipped to meet and overcome them.
In raising these issues with my students my basic goals are as follows: (1) to help destroy — via openness, honesty, and shamelessness — the very real stigma associated with mental illness in general and depression and anxiety in particular; (2) to make sure my students know that if they are struggling with depression or anxiety, that they are not alone (even if they feel that way) and that there is no reason in the world for these illnesses to hold them back in any way; (3) to offer myself as a resource for any among them that are struggling; (4) to educate them about the challenges of practicing law; (5) to get them thinking about why they are in law school and they want their lives in the law to be like (or if they even want a life in the law); and (6) to get them thinking critically and proactively about the different career paths, options, settings, locales and such available to those with law degrees, which can have a significant impact on their personal well-being.
So, what do I do? I talk openly and honestly about my struggles and experiences and I do so in class (in first year Civil Procedure). (Thanks to this series of posts, I now know I am not the only law professor in America who does this. Nancy Rapoport at UNLV does the same in her Contracts classes and there are, hopefully, others out there that do something similar.)
Of course, I do not do this on the first day of class. I am not that crazy.
On the first day of Civil Procedure, I spend about 20 minutes talking about the depth of my litigation experience, the fact that I have litigated or used in practice virtually every rule and theory we will study, the places I practiced and some of the companies I represented. In short, I establish my credibility. During the semester, I build my credibility with my students by being a highly competent and effective teacher with a deep knowledge of the subject matter and a willingness to do whatever I can to help them learn the material. By the time we are two-thirds of the way through the semester, my students (generally speaking) respect me and, from what I understand, are a bit intimidated by me (which is at least partly due to the fact that I somewhat physically imposing at 6’1″ and 250+ pounds).
Usually about two weeks before the end of the semester — when I see the strain of writing papers and the approach of final exams beginning to take a toll — I will put the civil procedure issue of the day on hold and tell my story. I don’t prepare them for this in any way, I just start class by saying, “There is something that I need to talk to y’all about today.” (Although if they start googling me after this I guess the cat will be out of the bag).
The story I tell is generally that which appears in Part 2 of this “Coming Out Trilogy,” although it is often a bit more haphazard as it is still much easier to write about this subject than talk about it. I often get choked up at least once, usually when talking about suicide (though I have managed to avoid this once or twice). There are usually at least a few people with freely flowing tears by the end and many stunned looks. [Writing this, I realise that, to some degree, I set my students up and then, intentionally, shatter their perceptions of me. While I did not set out to do this and think that establishing my bona fides at the outset of the course is pedagogically important, I do believe that it makes the discussion of my mental illness and the challenges of practicing law more impactful in an “if that can happen to Prof. Clarke, it can happen to me” sort of way.]
I then segue into some of the statistics cited in Part 1 of this series and talk about the scope of the problem with depression in the legal profession. I explain that I know many of them are having a hard time handling the stress of law school given the workload, the competitiveness, their “Type A” personalities and perfectionist tendencies, and the like. I bluntly tell them that if they think being a 1L is hard, they ain’t seen nothing yet.
I tell them about the challenges of practicing law including, among other things, taking on the emotional baggage of clients’ problems; the inherent competitiveness of the adversarial system; the joys of dealing with unreasonable opposing counsel; the fact that someone must lose in litigation; the impact losing may have on a client’s life; the nature of the billable hour; the difficulty of billing 1,900+ hours a year; the unrealistic expectations many of them may have about being lawyers; the common narrative that “success” as a lawyer is dependent on having a “Big Law” job and making partner/member/shareholder and the profound unlikelihood of these happening; the lack of boundaries and the need to be “on the job” 24/7/365 (especially in a big firm); and so on.
I discuss a truth I have known for many years (and for which I now have empirical support), namely that making a lot of money is ultimately not the thing that, for most people or most lawyers, makes them happy in life or satisfied professionally. I caution them about the materialism that is common among lawyers and the dangers of measuring happiness by the make of your car or the size of your house (a point made illustrated this morning in an ABA Journal blurb). I challenge them to think about why they came to law school and to identify what it is about the law that really turns them on (professionally). I encourage them to find a way to follow that passion, because they will be better lawyers and more satisfied professionally and personally if they do so. [See K. Sheldon & L. Krieger, Service Job Lawyers Are Happier Than Money Job Lawyers, Despite Their Lower Income, Journal of Positive Psychology, vol. 9, pp. 219-226 (2014).] I tell them that, for many lawyers (including me), finding a balance between work and life is difficult thanks to, among other things, technology and to be cautious of always being plugged in. I talk to them about the importance of boundaries (a concept with which I still struggle).
While many of these issues are old hat to us, they come as a revelation to many students. Many still come to law school simply because they did not know what to do with their B.A. history and have never contemplated what about the law (if anything) really interests them. [I encourage these folks to seriously reconsider whether they should be in law school]. Many have never thought that there were other career paths than in a big law firm and many are convinced (by their peers, by popular culture, by the internet) that success as a lawyer means being a rich partner in a big firm, and nothing else. Many are shocked that they have only somewhat worse odds of winning the lottery than making equity partner/member/shareholder in a big law firm.
I answer questions and let the conversation go where the students lead it for about an hour. Then we get wipe our eyes, blow our noses and get back to civ pro.
I have done this little song-and-dance at least ten times now and every time I do it, it has a significant impact. I have had many students (looking sort of shell shocked) tell me that they had no idea that anyone else had felt or thought the things they had felt and thought, but which I articulated during class. I have had students come see me a semester later or even two years later (so far) and tell me that by talking about my issues, it gave them the strength to get help for their own depression or anxiety issues. I have had several students seek me out in times of crisis and asked me for help. Many students have sought me out to talk about career paths and even whether they should stay in law school. The bottom line, however, is that every single student I have ever talked to about these issues has appreciated — above all else — my openness and honesty, not only about my illness, but about the challenges of being a lawyer.
Beyond this in class discussion and the one-on-one discussions that flow from it, I also participate in a number of student events each year dealing with mental health, career paths, work-life balance and the like. I am active with the Lawyer Effectiveness and Quality of Life Committee of the N.C. Bar Association. And I have both planned and spoken at continuing legal education conferences about these issues.
Now, not all law professors are as messed up or as glutton for punishment as I am. However, each of us — regardless of background — can start a dialogue with students, either in or out of class, about the importance of mental health, the dark side of being a lawyer, and the need of students to make conscious, intentional and meaningful choices regarding their futures. These discussions are critical to the long term well-being of our students. As I said in my opening post, our students need us to be brave and be honest.
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