“Why are lawyers killing themselves?” That was the sensational headline to a CNN story that ran a few days ago.
Talk about implicit assumptions. Talk about a leading question. Long on anecdote, short on data but no matter for CNN — if it bleeds, it leads.
And lest I be accused of callous disregard, let me quickly add that even one death by suicide is one too many. As John Donne famously said, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” And yes, regardless of occupation, depression is a very real problem. I only wish CNN really knew what it was talking about.
A widespread problem?
So is there an epidemic of suicide in the legal profession?
According to the last available U.S. data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC) — across all age groups, genders and racial groups, there were 38,364 deaths from suicide in 2010. And those numbers break out differently by age, gender, race and location, which means there’s a great deal of variability given the comparatively small populations involved.
But out of that number, how much self-inflicted death occurs among the approximately 1.3MM lawyers in the U.S.? No one really knows for sure. Certainly, the risk factors that impact all people also encompass lawyers.
Men, for instance, are about four times more likely than women to die from suicide and the CDC also highlights risk factors like previous suicide attempt(s); a history of depression or other mental illness; alcohol or drug abuse; family history of suicide or violence; physical illness; and feelings of isolation. But as for an increase in lawyers killing themselves, the ‘proof’ seems mostly anecdotal extrapolation and pure conjecture.
Sure lawyers get stressed out and anxious — but more stressed out than firefighters, police officers, pilots, and military personnel? According to CareerCast’s recently published list of the 10 most stressful jobs, lawyers don’t even make the list. And with the caveat, “data on occupational suicide is hard to find,” lawyers aren’t on the list of 13 careers where you’re most likely to commit suicide. Dentists come in first on that list — but even that is challenged as “Urban Legend” — the myth of the suicide-prone dentist. And coming in at No. 5 are authors who are supposedly 2.60 times more likely to commit suicide than average. Are male lawyers who blog at greater risk?
Ronald Maris, Ph.D., Director for the Study of Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior at the University of South Carolina, points out, “Occupation is not a major predictor of suicide, and it does not explain much about why the person commits suicide.” Indeed, even the American Psychological Association says of “Suicide by profession: Lots of confusion, inconclusive data.”
So corroborating evidence tying suicide by occupation is sparse. Some researchers even maintain that “occupation may not be much of a factor in suicide. Psychologists have long documented that among the top predictors for suicide are diagnosable mental disorder, co-morbid substance use, loss of social support and availability and access to a firearm.”
Nevertheless, CNN still tolled the bell and highlighted Kentucky where it says at least 15 attorneys have committed suicide since 2010. USAToday in their own report last June, reported a different number and said 12 lawyer suicides have taken place in Kentucky during that time. Either way, these are tragic incidents, especially for the families left behind. But either number represents less than one percent of Kentucky’s 17,500 lawyers. Indeed, across the country, the CDC lists suicide as tenth among the leading causes of death. Heart disease and cancer are 1 and 2.
Mandatory mental health.
But leave it to your friendly state bars to respond to the supposed crisis with the usual knee-jerk overreactions and pious prescriptions. Mistaking action for achievement, they hold meetings, create task forces, and in several jurisdictions, impose mandatory continuing legal education programs on mental health. Recalling my undergraduate Jesuit logic and philosophy class — it’s argumentum ad populum — ‘if many believe so, it is so.’
Which brings me to a recent commentary on the purported prevalence of new lawyer anxiety and the usual state bar claptrap to supposedly fix what ails these new lawyers.
Written by Wisconsin lawyer“The Legal Watchdog,” the title says it all, “State bar recommends new lawyers do free legal work to reduce their anxiety from not having money or legal training.” It’s worth reading and is reblogged below with express permission of the author.at
State bar recommends new lawyers do free legal work to reduce their anxiety from not having money or legal training.
By Michael Cicchini, MBA, CPA, JD
In November, 2013, a “special task force report” by the State Bar of Wisconsin concluded that a large number of new law grads can’t find jobs to pay off their staggering student debt loads. In addition, many of those who were fortunate enough to be employed (or underemployed) were afraid to practice law because they didn’t know how. Here’s a nice excerpt of a summary of the report from the bar association’s e-newsletter:
“My debt is higher than a mortgage for a nice house. It’s all I think about. And I know I will be strapped in a job I don’t want paying debt for the rest of my life,” said [one new lawyer].
“I’m buried under debt. I’m terrified that this is what the rest of my life is going to look like. I’m also scared to start my own practice, because I don’t have the practical litigation experience. I can’t afford a pet, let alone kids. I live paycheck to paycheck. It’s very, very scary and disheartening,” was another response from a new lawyer.
Another lawyer said the job search left the lawyer feeling “suicidal” and “terrified.” The lawyer also feels alone and scared of making a mistake in practice but is hesitant to tell anyone about these mental struggles for fear of being disbarred.
. . . [A] task force member and past president of the State Bar’s Young Lawyer’s Division said the lawyers who made these sorts of comments “are fast becoming your average member of the State Bar.”
So, in short: lots of stress due to high debt loads, no jobs, and the fear of practicing law because of the lack of training and the related risk of disbarment. So what is the state bar’s solution?
In December, the state bar sent out an email to all members titled “Reduce your stress with exclusive benefits for State Bar of Wisconsin members.” One of those “benefits” was the “opportunity” to do pro bono legal work, because “volunteering can help improve people’s mental heath.” Fortunately, “Whether you are an experienced lawyer or just getting started, there are pro bono opportunities available to you throughout the year. Visit the State Bar’s online volunteer directory[.]”
Now, in fairness, even though this email came out after the state bar’s “special task force report,” the person who slapped this email together probably didn’t even know the task force report existed or, if he did, probably never had any reason to read it. But although these two documents are not related, the irony is rich. First, the state bar acknowledges that new grads are stressed out (to the point of having suicidal thoughts) because they don’t have any money and don’t know how to practice the profession they just paid handsomely to learn. And second, to alleviate this stress the state bar recommends that these new lawyers offer free legal services to real people with real legal problems. This is almost too much for me to process, but two thoughts come to mind.
First, while I appreciate the softball my mandatory state bar just lobbed me, this whole “giving back” culture is starting to grate on me—in fact, this is the classic stuff of law schools and state bar organizations. Granted, this particular state bar’s email thinly disguises the “giving back” theme with a self-interested twist: give back for your own good—it will reduce your stress! (No thanks. Practicing law creates stress, and I’ve done enough involuntary unpaid legal work this year. I’ll just sit on my couch and watch a bowl game instead.) But more to the point: new law grads are saddled with staggering debt, haven’t been taught how to file a motion let alone try a case, and, if they are lucky enough to find legal work, are unwillingly thrust upon an unsuspecting public—and now they’re supposed to worry about giving back? I think they’ve been drained of most of their life force already.
And second, while I can’t do anything about the legal job market and its approximately one legal job for every two law grads, I can do something about teaching grads and students how to practice law—at least in my field of criminal law. So, if a state bar wants to hire me to design a training program for newly licensed attorneys, or if a law school wants to hire me as a prof to design and teach a series of courses on criminal law, procedure, and practice, let’s talk. And don’t think of my salary as an additional “expense”—think of it as “giving back” to your membership or students.