Law Students and Suicide: An Ongoing Battle That Begins Long Before We Know It

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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.
Law Students and Suicide: An Ongoing Battle that Begins Long Before We Know It
  • 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.

Graphically speaking…

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.
    Total Sex Age group (yrs)
SOC code Occupational group No. (%) Male Female 16–24 25–34 35–44 45–54 55–64 >65
47 Construction and extraction 1,324 (10.8) 1,306 18 85 247 274 329 211 178
11 Management 1,049 (8.5) 881 167 30 120 174 262 229 234
51 Production 953 (7.7) 866 87 80 149 148 205 172 199
49 Installation, maintenance, and repair 780 (6.3) 764 16 50 110 153 233 130 104
99 Unknown 729 (5.9) 575 153 86 131 114 172 113 113
69 Student 665 (5.4) 493 172 530 110 19 4 2 0
41 Sales and related 651 (5.3) 520 131 67 82 98 144 123 137
53 Transportation and material moving 644 (5.2) 618 26 35 97 98 154 152 108
59 Homemaker, Housewife 534 (4.3) 15 519 21 79 107 150 95 82
43 Office and administrative support 481 (3.9) 240 241 43 88 71 115 99 65
29 Healthcare practitioners and technical 450 (3.7) 187 263 9 59 91 110 105 76
79 Never worked, Disabled 380 (3.1) 273 107 65 68 62 113 59 13
13 Business and financial operations 353 (2.9) 223 130 10 39 65 96 81 62
35 Food preparation and serving related 358 (2.9) 236 122 66 106 64 73 32 17
15 Computer and mathematical 329 (2.7) 280 49 26 54 78 89 48 34
33 Protective service 295 (2.4) 266 29 15 46 61 71 57 48
17 Architecture and engineering 274 (2.2) 263 11 10 21 35 59 55 94
37 Building and grounds cleaning and maintenance 239 (1.9) 206 33 33 57 37 60 35 17
89 Unemployed 228 (1.9) 178 50 52 46 50 50 26 4
25 Education, training, and library 216 (1.8) 117 99 5 25 30 56 51 49
27 Arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media 216 (1.8) 163 53 18 47 47 40 37 27
45 Farming, fishing, and forestry 206 (1.7) 194 12 22 36 25 35 25 63
88 Prisoner 179 (1.5) 167 12 34 57 46 29 10 3
31 Health care support 178 (1.4) 51 127 19 36 40 41 36 6
39 Personal care and service 133 (1.1) 68 65 10 27 28 33 20 15
85 Retired 118 (1.0) 111 7 0 1 0 4 14 99
21 Community and social service 109 (0.9) 65 44 1 24 21 15 32 16
23 Legal 103 (0.8) 64 39 0 7 20 22 32 22
19 Life, physical, and social science 89 (0.7) 75 14 2 15 16 18 21 17
98 Self-employed (unspecified) 49 (0.4) 44 5 2 7 5 16 6 13
    12,312 (100.0) 9,509 2,801 1,426 1,991 2,077 2,798 2,108 1,912
      77.2 22.8 11.6 16.2 16.9 22.7 17.1 15.5

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.

In Conclusion

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.

See the following articles for more information:

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