As a practicing attorney and licensed psychologist, I have observed many of my attorney colleagues who have suffered with anxiety and depression. However, acknowledgement of their suffering has been somewhat taboo. It is for this reason, when I was asked to be a member of the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on Attorney Well-Being, I saw it as a call to action to help my fellow colleagues.
The acknowledgement by an attorney of his suffering is rare, for it might be perceived as a chink in his armor. For many, lawyers are perceived as gladiators who are hired to fight their clients’ battles. Lawyers who accept this war-like persona often carry a heavy burden.
The unwillingness of the attorney to accept his or her own humanity often prevents them from seeking a supportive environment where their feelings and emotions can be acknowledged. As a consequence, their suffering continues, and they may turn to what they perceive as more “acceptable” treatment in the form of self-medication and substance use.
As the gladiator persona persists, lawyers have unrealistic expectations about their own performance. Their biggest fear is that their helmet may fall off and their identity of imperfection will be revealed. My psychology colleague refers to this phenomenon as the “impostor syndrome.” Those who have this mindset doubt their competence and have unrealistic expectations about their own performance.
This can cause great emotional angst for an attorney. What compounds the anxiety is the inability to share with colleagues their own self-doubt. Perhaps if they could find a supportive environment with other attorneys, each could reveal their own mask and find solace in knowing that many of their colleagues suffer in a similar fashion.
But alas, the gladiators find themselves in a forum where the adversarial system guides their behavior. Many lawyers still mistakenly believe that the battle must be fought with zealousness. I am guilty of the same.
I learned recently that in New York, the word “zeal” went missing in 2009 when the rules of Professional Conduct superseded the former Disciplinary Rules of the Code of Professional Responsibility. Many wondered why the term had been removed. I believe its disappearance was due to a recognition of the deleterious effects this concept has had on the well-being of lawyers (American Bar Association, 2018).
The constant burden of fighting with zeal can cause great stress to one’s life. My psychology colleagues referred to this type of stress as hypervigilance. Our bodies are programmed to respond to acute stress. However, when one feels under constant attack and in need of being in defense mode, it has toxic effects on the overall wellness of the body.
Being prepared for all possibilities is what makes a good lawyer. However, it can compound the chronic stress experienced by the hypervigilant, zealous gladiator. A lawyer is trained, from the very earliest days of law school, to anticipate the negative, constantly thinking of the world as a series of “what ifs.” This mindset can cause what my psychology colleagues refer to as “anticipatory anxiety.” This type of thinking becomes quite problematic when it invades the daily living of the attorney.
As an attorney and psychologist, I believe that the legal community is awakening to the damage that the chronic stress of our profession does to practitioners. It is my hope that through education that starts in law school and continues throughout years of practice, lawyers will be mindful of the psychological pitfalls that they may encounter. Most importantly, lawyers must find support in the legal community to remove their gladiator helmets and reveal their humanity without fear, recognizing that to do so makes them stronger and does not detract from their ability to perform of practice. I am honored and humbled to be asked to participate in the New York State Bar Association Task Force on Attorney Well-Being and hope that I can help create the space for this to happen.