Saturday, May 5, 2007

Why lawyers are in danger

This article was published on The Bar Council Blog on 2 May 2007. 'Why Lawyers Should Surf' by Tim Kevan and Dr Michelle Tempest can be ordered at Amazon.

On Monday, The Times newspaper reported that lawyers are being encouraged to take 'time out' in The Priory, usually well known for their high profile clients. This raises the question as to whether lawyers are more prone to psychological problems than those in other professions. At The Psychiatrist Blog, Dr Michelle Tempest reports on a book she has written with the author of this blog called ‘Why Lawyers Should Surf’. She reports in particular that several studies have shown that lawyers suffer from an above average rate of low mood. For example, a John Hopkins University study compared the rates of depression among one hundred and four occupations and found that lawyers were nearly four times above the average rate of depression. Dr Tempest then puts forward several hypotheses for this beyond the simple fact that law is a stressful and busy job.

First, Professor Martin Seligman argues that the key thing about lawyers is that they tend to have pessimistic personality types. The glass tends to be half empty since viewing troubles as pervasive and continuing is at the very heart of being a prudent lawyer. These ‘scepticism skills’ enable the lawyer to see every conceivable hiccup or catastrophe that might occur in legal transactions. Hence, ‘pervasive pessimism’ and possibly ‘catastrophizing’ can be seen as a powerful legal tool, helping to anticipate disaster, and encouraging lawyers to think the worst before it has happened. However, the flip side of this is that if you take that same pessimistic mindset home, it may form part of the answer as to why lawyers are more likely to suffer with low moods.

Another hypothesis is that lawyers tend to express ‘high-dominance’ as a key feature of their personality; again something which aids successful legal careers. Key features of a ‘high-dominance’ personality apparently include people who: interrupt others, talk longer, take charge of conversations, decide when to change topic, state strong preferences and opinions, have an unyielding manner and tend to enjoy giving instructions and advice. ‘High dominance’ personalities also tend to believe in statements, such as, ‘winning is more important than playing the game’. This may be an integral part of being a successful lawyer who never loses a battle, however, when this is mindset extended outside the workplace it fits less well with the challenges of daily life. When things have not gone the way high dominance personalities have planned, it can be a time when they struggle to manage or cope on a psychological level.

A further hypothesis is based on the emotional detachment often seen in lawyers. It has been shown that the more your job requires you to fake emotions, the more emotionally detached you become from those around you which ultimately can lead to ‘clinical burnout’. Since lawyers keep a professional detachment from their cases and avoid getting too emotionally involved, this could potentially lead to the burnout state of mind and symptoms of emotional exhaustion, fatigue, detached attitude towards others, low sense of effectiveness, helplessness and also low mood.

So, Dr Tempest provides a clear warning not to take the attributes which make you a great lawyer into other aspects of your life.


jailhouselawyer said...

I beg to differ. The blogosphere can at times be a cut and thrust experience. Lawyerly skills with words helps to defeat the opposition's arguments.

david giacalone said...

Yes, the adversarial legal system, and the accompanying role of "gun for hire" (with positions taken for causes that may violate your personal beliefs) virtually demand an emotional detachment -- often, along with a phony confidence and assertiveness. Many lawyers find out too late just how demoralizing this role can be. The hurt increases when you are disliked by those who disagree with your client's position in a case, and are also under-appreciated by your own client.

p.s. Jailhouse, your position assumes that defeating your opponent's argument is a worthwhile effort. Often ignoring them (like I should have done just now) is the wiser course of action.

jailhouselawyer said...

david giacalone: There are times that I simply ignore comments, then there are times that I feel I really must respond. Defeating an opponent is not only a worthwhile effort, it's a pleasure.

SOASLawStudent said...

Well, thanks for the information. I am a 2nd year law undergrad coming up to exams - because of this post, I have been reminded to cease stressfully wading through the material and instead 'surf' on top of it: I am doing what I can do and no more, and trying to enjoy the process of self-improvement. I am thinking of the Arabic phrase that a friend mentioned to me today, no doubt sensing my stress: even if your camel is stolen, you did all you could by tying it up. Al hamdu lillah!

soaslawstudent said...

sorry, I meant to comment on the "limits of goal setting" post..

David Seah LLB London said...

Some observation: The term ‘high-dominance’ would also imply a “highly cocky” personality. This does not aid “successful legal careers” as the term “successful” is purely subjective. For those who subscribe to the principle that ‘winning is more important than playing the game’… this will somehow lead to questionable tactics at some point in time. Fake emotion is not restricted to lawyers…it happens in the political and business world also; from the suck ups in the office all the way to the top.