28% of lawyers suffer symptoms of depression, according to a study commissioned by the American Bar Association. That means that depression is three times as common in lawyers as in the general population. Yet too often lawyers with depression suffer in silence or aren’t even aware of their symptoms.
Enter Dan Lukasik, a Buffalo, NY, trial lawyer. Dan runs Lawyers with Depression, a website that’s changing attitudes toward mental health in the law.
His website has been awarded numerous times, and he’s been featured in CNN and the New York Times, among others. Dan also speaks at law schools and bar associations around the country about overcoming depression.
Dan partnered with the Erie County Bar Foundation to produce A Terrible Melancholy: Depression in the Legal Profession, a short documentary about depression in the legal profession. I applaud the video’s participants in speaking honestly about depression, from a lawyer’s experience coping with the suicide of a classmate to a judge’s silent suffering.
Dan suffers from depression himself. Beyond medical recommendations, such as medication and therapy, Dan explores personal topics, such as his relationship with his family and his own bouts of depression. Knowing the statistics is less powerful than understanding a personal experience. Dan’s description of his suffering hits home:
I was always tired, but couldn’t sleep well. I would go to bed early and wake at 3 a.m., unable to go back to sleep. Sometimes I’d watch TV while my family slept. Other times I would shower, shave, get dressed in my suit and tie, and go to an all-night coffee shop. I’d wait until the sun came up and then drive to work—with no one the wiser to the inner torment I was going through.
Dan speaks to the silence that many lawyers with depression endure. I felt like I had to wear camouflage because there were enemies all round. That camouflage can be Dan’s sitting at a coffee shop in a suit and tie, or it can be sarcasm and irony used to disguise true pain.
Dan also speaks to depression’s contradictions. He’s tired but can’t sleep. The clinical symptoms of depression themselves include contradictions: sleeping too much or sleeping too little; gaining weight or losing weight. Reading the symptoms is confusing. Reading Dan’s story is enlightening.
“It’s like crossing the border of another country,” Lukasik said. “You enter this land that is devoid of joy, that is very painful. It feels like a physical thing. It does not feel like an emotional thing. The worst part of it is a lot of people don’t feel anything.”
Dan says that he felt like “cement was running through his veins.” It’s an evocative image of the fatigue that depression breeds. I’ve visualized my depression as a buzzing surrounding me, like the static from an old television tuned to the wrong channel. It’s a cocoon that surrounds me and muffles messages from the outside world.
I feel melancholy, but I also feel nothing. Another contradiction.
Dan has practiced law for over 25 years, so his insights about the profession’s intensification of depression come from experience. Lawyers are taught to be pessimistic. If we’re too optimistic, we’re not doing our job. We’re supposed to anticipate all future problems. Unfortunately, as Martin Seligman points out, a characteristic that’s good for your profession isn’t necessarily good for your life.
Junior lawyers also endure high pressure and long hours combined with, crucially, low “decision latitude.” Low decision latitude means you have few choices in your work, and it’s associated with depression. Junior lawyers fit exactly into this frame. They don’t make decisions about cases or deals; instead, they take orders from higher-ups, often without understanding why. Working long hours is a lot different when you’re deciding what to work on.
And of course, the law is an adversarial profession, with winners and losers. Even in my corporate practice, opposing counsel could fight tooth and claw for contract provisions, even though ostensibly a deal isn’t a zero-sum game. The process is exhausting.
The legal game isn’t going to change meaningfully. Hours and decision latitude may improve as a lawyer becomes more senior. But a lawyer will always need to be pessimistic. Law will always be adversarial.
Depression is a disease, like diabetes. I don’t fault a diabetic for taking insulin, and I don’t fault a depressed person for taking antidepressants. But doesn’t a diabetic have a responsibility to himself to avoid candy? Similarly, I have a responsibility to avoid what worsens my depression. And if the law isn’t going to change, where does my responsibility begin?
Depression doesn’t have the final word in the closing arguments of the lives of those who suffer with it. Hope does.
Dan is right. Hope wins. I don’t interpret hope as blind faith that my job was going to get better. I saw the lives of senior associates and partners; that faith would be misplaced. Rather, hope is believing that I have the power to change both myself and my circumstances. And that hope has made all the difference.
In A Terrible Melancholy, Judge Michael Miller relates that his colleagues paid therapists in cash. They didn’t want a paper trail of their therapy, fearing it could hurt their professional standing. Dan will support those who have chosen the path of law. But ask yourself, is this the path I want to walk in my one life?