Mental Health and the Law

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Guest post by Gregory A. Mattacola.

Attorney mental health is an important issue for lawyers to address as part their practice. A lawyer today need only perform a cursory scan of his or her mail and e-mail to be hit with all the various areas one supposedly needs to manage in order to be an effective attorney. The seminars and webinars range from rainmaking to real estate and everything in between. Yet glaringly missing from all these learning opportunities is mention of that lawyer’s health – both mental and physical.

All of these offerings purport to make one a better lawyer and businessman but how about simply making the lawyer better – whether that be mentally, physically or spiritually? There is a deafening silence when it comes to these issues and it makes one wonder why. Is there not a need?

On the contrary, all signs point to lawyers needing help in the area of mental health more than ever before. Harvard Law Professor Joseph Story said in 1829 “The law is a jealous mistress and requires a long and constant courtship.” If the good Professor were to view the law as she exists today, his words would undoubtedly be much harsher. The profession is more competitive than ever with more lawyers fighting for their slice of an ever shrinking pie.

Technology has taken the practice of law to light speed making it possible to do what used to take a week, in less than a day. Yet, lawyers aren’t spending those other four days with their children – they are simply working more. Thanks to Blackberries and iPhones and Skype and e-mail and all the other gadgetry that exists, clients have instant access to attorneys and they know it and expect it. So lawyers give them that access less they lose the client to one of a dozen waiting competitors.

Combine all these variables and add the one constant – the lawyers themselves and what they are comprised of. The law goes not generally attract slackers. Attorneys tend to be the proverbial Type A perfectionists who want to control every last detail just to make sure the job gets done right. In other words, lawyers sweat the small stuff. And the big stuff. And everything in between. The old adage, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it” was tailor made for attorneys. And no matter how busy lawyers are, their instinct is to say “yes” – because that is how they are wired.

The result? Attorney’s mental health suffers. Lawyers become overwhelmed, stressed to the max and bounce from one task to the next without ever feeling like they are gaining on the ever growing to-do list. They feel as if they aren’t serving their clients well enough and work harder and longer to try and remedy that. And then comes the guilt of neglecting their families and not measuring up at home. Is it any wonder that a 1990 Johns Hopkins study found lawyers to be at the top of the charts amongst 104 occupations in depression? Depression and anxiety, according to some reports, are being cited as the main problems facing lawyers seeking counseling – more often than drugs and alcohol.

Mental health issues of depression, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, poor eating and sleep habits, skyrocketing blood pressure and cholesterol counts – these have become the battle scars of the busy attorney – things lawyers suffer through but which they don’t talk of or show anyone. The quality of an attorney’s life plummets accordingly. Yet, it does not have to be that way.

There are numerous ways, large and small, in which lawyers can take back their lives. There are ways to achieve a sense of balance while still running a successful practice and serving clients in a responsive and thorough manner. These things do not have to be mutually exclusive.

This series of posts will focus on the health of lawyers, mental and physical, and will encompass everything from getting rid of the guilt to exercise and nutrition to office organization and task management – all of which will serve to help lawyers greatly improve their quality of life and actually start to enjoy their profession again. After all, if learning how to plan a client’s estate warrants spending some of a lawyer’s valuable times, then improving that lawyer’s mental health and quality of life is certainly worth a moment or two of painless blog reading.

(image: based on EUSKALANATO)

Greg Mattacola owns a small firm in Rome, New York, and writes The Mattacola Law Firm Blog.

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  • Steve Imparl

    Thanks for addressing this important topic. I believe that balance is essential for long-term well-being and success, and mental wellness is an integral component of a balanced, happy life.

    It appears you are well on your way to achieving and sustaining balance. I visited your law firm’s Web site. One thing that touched me deeply was that you mention the lawyers’ pets in the bios section. That’s a nice touch and says a lot about your commitment to work-life balance.

    Keep up the good work! I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

  • Valerie Houghton

    Great piece on a tough topic. As a “hybrid”professional, I often reflect on how it would play itself out if we were taught about “countertranference” in our legal training as we were taught about it in graduate school (family therapy)… I see the “secondary trauma” effects on my colleagues and friends… and myself! (That’s why I have my own therapist and mentors) Thanks for writing- I’ll be looking for your next post!

  • Greg,

    That’s really good advice and applicable not just to those in the law profession but business in general. One of the byproducts of all this connectedness is that people expect to be able to access you 24 – 7. And that certainly takes its toll on our health and well-being.

    I’m looking forward to the next posts where hopefully you’ll have some solutions to de-stress and effectively manage people’s access to your cell and e-mail – without losing clients.