Law Students and Suicide: An Ongoing Battle That Begins Long Before We Know It
by David Dorion
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Summary: While some find a lawyer’s suicidal tendencies begin in law firms, others have found thoughts of suicide actually begin in law school.
Suicide in the legal profession has been a longstanding issue that has been largely ignored until now.
As research reveals suicidal tendencies in new attorneys have their roots in law schools, some schools have begun to change their curriculums as to how law school students are taught and more importantly regarded.
This new thought of law school instruction will undoubtedly transfer with recently graduated attorneys as they move on to legal career.
Of course that means law firms themselves will also have to change as to how they regard their incoming attorneys.
In short, no one wants to attend a law school known for its student suicide rate, much in the same way no one wants to join a firm famous for suicides among its new and existing lawyers.
No matter who you are, what socio-economic background you come from; no matter the perks your life has been blessed with along with the luck that fleets forth to inexplicably see you through difficult times, there still may come times when none of this goodness can be found. Worse yet, those occasions when times are tough for a new or established attorney can evolve from occasional pitfalls to concurrent situations in which an attorney can’t see the light at the tunnel’s end.
To say the least, this wears heavily on attorneys; especially those who successfully complete law school, and who intend to continue on to become great, well-known purveyors of the law.
The problem is something can and often times will stand in the way of this lawyerly goal. It’s something, in fact that stands in the way of many of us, where despite how well we live our lives, perform our work and positively spend our time away from work, depression can invariably creep into our existence, which can then degenerate and intensify to the point of suicide.
Yes, suicide: A major factor in the world of the practicing lawyer (and many other complex and competitive professions) that by late has received increased attention and with that, awareness.
The question though, for most, is where do these feelings of suicide begin for those in the legal field?
Where do feelings and thoughts of suicide first start for an attorney?
College, in and of itself, can be a stressful time for nearly anyone. In a recent JD Journal article it is cited that the depression that dominates the legal industry truly begins in law school.
What’s worse is while depression and suicide pervades law school more so than any other university taught major, those same universities as well as concerned individuals within the legal profession have no known idea or process to combat depression and suicide within law.
In fact, depression and suicide permeate law schools at such a populous level, organizations similar to the Dave Nee Foundation are in a struggle to prevent legal education programs from being known as breeding grounds for depression.
As the JD Journal article highlights, the Dave Nee Foundation works to end the stigma of depression among lawyers. The foundation was established in 2006 after recent Fordham Law School graduate Dave Nee committed suicide while he was preparing for his bar exams. The foundation estimates that roughly 10 percent of Americans suffer from depression with close to 80 suicides each day.
Law school isn’t alone in being a physically and mentally stressful time in an aspiring professional’s career choice. There are many other upper-level training programs such as in the business, medical liberal and applied science fields which also cause severe anxiety and depression in a student’s life.
The difference, however, according to the JD Journal article is that medical students, for example, don’t worry as greatly about how their career could be ruined by ending up at the wrong company – or in this case hospital or medical group. The same can be said regarding budding scientists who find themselves at odds within a certain area of study that they no longer think highly of. Much of the same can be expected within the liberal arts where students in Masters and Ph.D. programs find themselves continually nervous about their next career move, especially if that move involves tenure within a university as a professor.
Law students, on the other hand, stress about their future from the second they start their legal education. JD Journal’s estimates suggest 96% of law students experience extreme stress compared to only 70% of medical students. And that stress continues to linger once the doctor and lawyer enter into their respective career worlds, where lawyers continue to experience extreme stress at alarming numbers, leading to depression, anxiety, and suicide.
While morbid in its own right, there nonetheless are some interesting statistics to be found regarding suicide within the pre-legal and legal profession.
The Centers for Disease Control determines that of 30 work-related job positions, which span from a number of professions to those who are either disabled and unable to work or simply have no job prospects whatsoever, the suicide rate for attorneys lists as 28th behind other notable occupations such as architecture and engineering, management, construction and even homemaker, housewife.
Age group (yrs)
Construction and extraction
Installation, maintenance, and repair
Sales and related
Transportation and material moving
Office and administrative support
Healthcare practitioners and technical
Never worked, Disabled
Business and financial operations
Food preparation and serving related
Computer and mathematical
Architecture and engineering
Building and grounds cleaning and maintenance
Education, training, and library
Arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media
Farming, fishing, and forestry
Health care support
Personal care and service
Community and social service
Life, physical, and social science
However, the CDC ranks students 6th on the list as those most likely to commit suicide while studying toward their respective professions. And while the graph does not determine exactly the type of student listed here (be they high school, college or post-graduate students), it is safe to assume that law school students are a part of this statistic simply because of the pressure that legal educations instill on those who want to learn and make a successful career from the practice of law.
Reading beyond the statistics, we can garner that if students are listed sixth on a table of 30 positions that are known for their high suicide rates, the law has to invariably be part of that statistic.
Oddly enough, very little information is provided that reveals the suicide rates within colleges. And while there can be some privacy issues involved, as well as unfavorable public opinion, within their privacy rights college campuses choose not to publicly release these statistics, this according to CBS News.
Maybe it’s a matter of how law is taught.
Accounts maintain that some of the depression within lawyers and law students can be attributed to how law is taught in law school.
Of course, as we all know, law professors utilize the Socratic Method while teaching. This method asks the class questions, often intended to stump the students, which in some cases can cause embarrassment and humiliation.
Needless to say, there are law students who attribute this teaching method to a great source of their stress for fear of being called on and not knowing the answer. A second part of law school that stresses out students is the fact that most grades rely on a single exam.
Good grades equate membership on a law review, a prestigious clerkship, and interviews with the best law firms. What perhaps is even more stressful is that law professors must use a mandatory curve so even if the student gets an A on the test, if they don’t get the highest of the A grades, their hard work and studying don’t matter. It is actually impossible for everyone to succeed no matter how hard they try.
With such a competitive drive to achieve the top grade, law students turn on each other, eliminating trust and friendship with their fellow students. For this reason, some law students end up feeling alone and desperate as they attempt to find a way to succeed. Good mental health needs wholesome human connections. However, within law school, the focus instead moves from friendship to darker relationships that eliminate happiness.
According to Former Fordham Law School Dean William M. Treanor, depression is a very important issue that often gets swept to the side. It’s a real concern and a problem in the legal profession. Studies indicate that it is common among law students and common among lawyers. Given that, it is important to try to figure out ways to combat it and to let people know if they are suffering, they are not alone.
At this point, a person may ask themselves what steps law schools take to help their students prevent and combat depression. After all, law schools aren’t and should never be completely exonerated from the life-threatening tensions they bring onto their students.
The problem is this can’t be one-sided. Sure, while the law school may offer services to help with their student’s mental and emotional health, ownership has to go on the law student as well, which therein lays the problem.
Many with a stake in the emotional and mental health of law students state that the struggle is getting students to reach out for the help law schools offer.
As attorney Andrew Sparkler said, “To admit that you are depressed [in law school], to yourself or to others…, is a weakness and if you’re in a shark tank of hyper-aggressive folks around you, you’d be hesitant to expose it because why would you fess up to anyone that you have a problem?”
It is not uncommon for law students to not realize they have depression. Unhappiness and dissatisfaction often get mixed up with depression. As Richard O’Connor, Ph.D. states, “We confuse depression, sadness, and grief. But the opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality – the ability to experience a full range of emotion, including happiness, excitement, sadness, and grief. Depression is not an emotion itself. It’s not sadness or grief, it’s an illness. When we feel our worst, sad, self-absorbed, and helpless, we are experiencing what people with depression experience, but they don’t recover from those moods without help.”
Many law schools have tried to address the problem of depression by increasing access to therapists, holding awareness days and activities, and providing presentations on depression from those that have no experience as law students.
But until this is done on a much wider scale, and even in some law schools where actions such as above have already been established, law students can nevertheless still sense the lack of sincere effort on the part of law schools.
Kate Mayer Mangan in a Huffington Post article stated, “Instead of glorifying good grades and prestigious jobs, law schools can do more to help students cultivate internal motivators like purpose and autonomy. Schools might adopt teaching methods that don’t involve embarrassing students. Classes could emphasize achieving results for clients, such as in clinical settings, over grades. Professors and schools could publicize that there is almost no correlation between good grades and long-term well-being, as one recent study of over 6,000 lawyers found. Perhaps that would take some of the pressure off. Changes like these might begin to shift the culture of the legal profession away from external validation and toward internal motivators that lead to happiness.”
Yes, but to change the law school culture, the law firm culture has to also change.
Herein lay the problem with the country’s law schools becoming more aware of instances of depression and/or suicide: The law firms these students may eventually join, have no such program in place. In fact, having an emotional-mental program in place for its lawyers may be detrimental to the law firm and its associates and partners, for other firms and clients in particular, may recognize this firm for having unstable and/or weak attorneys. And no one wants that, particularly clients.
However, if a law-school sponsored program can help successfully mitigate a law student’s penchant for depression and/or suicide, much of the same will soon be demanded of law firms.
They too will be expected to provide some sort of risk prevention program to keep their attorneys emotionally and mentally safe.
What may be even more challenging to law firms—particularly the well-established and prestigious law firms is that these internal mental and emotional health services will be expected of them just in the same way they may one day be expected of law schools as these support systems evolve from novelty programs to mainstream, all in an effort to keep future purveyors of law healthy and clear-headed.
After all, it’s the healthy and clear-headed who are most likely to pay their semester’s tuition along with any other perks they incur while in school, and once school ends, the most likely to be financially beneficial to the law firm they join.
But that’s the mission of higher learning institutions. They are, for the most part, able to change their ways for the benefit of their faculty, students, and alumni.
To the contrary, law firms, as of today, don’t generally have such interests to help guide what they do and how to protect their human assets. Their responsibility instead is to:
Clients – to which all law firms are first and lastly indebted. Why? Because clients have money.
Partners – to whom the entire firm is required to follow the path of.
Tradition – which remains a safe bet as something that won’t be altered no matter how many young associates overdose, convection bake their own heads, hang themselves or blow their brains out; it’s a risk tradition takes, but one that’s unlikely to change the old-school culture of established law firms.
So what’s the recourse for young lawyers?
Young lawyers who successfully “make it” through law school, need to remember the mental and emotional roller coaster that got them this far. They need to realize the anguish, disappointment, embarrassment, frustration and psychological minefield they traversed to get them to the point where they are actively searching for their first job as a lawyer.
What they now have to do, particularly for their own protection, is select the correct law firm that most likely is compatible with their way of thinking.
Of course, this means newly graduated law students, particularly those who have worked very hard to carve out a comfortable place for themselves and the practice of law, won’t just settle for some big law firm, prestigious or not. No, what they will want is a firm that respects them, trusts and enjoins them to the goings-on within the firm, and venerates their knowledge and opinions.
On the opposite end of this spectrum are the so-called established and prestigious firms who treat their incoming associates like cattle who have already been marked for slaughter via overwork, distrust, an unclear job future as well as continual threats of termination.
These lawyers will cease to exist. Today’s lawyers will instead be more selective of what law firm they apply to, which quite easily could include avoiding more established firms that fail to see the importance of having an emotionally and mentally stable legal staff.
Law is changing. How law is taught is also changing. The whole body, its mind and most importantly, its sensitivities now play a crucial role in how law is instructed. Between struggles for diversity, law firm fairness in how associates are treated by senior attorneys, as well as how the practice of law is conducted now as opposed to the future, law firms will, while going forward, have to give more consideration to their new associates and the working world of law.
Honestly, it is either that or grow old and stiff to the point of rigor mortis, where with each client who dies off, a bit of the firm goes along with that client as opposed to not just attracting fresh young talent, but appreciating them and their lives outside of law as much as they should be appreciated while practicing law.
In Part Two of this two-part series, we’ll exam law firm associates and suicide.