Depression in the Legal Profession

by Anne Chambers, LCSW

On November 22, 2013, Judge Paul Wilson, the newest member of the Supreme Court of Missouri, gave remarks at the Missouri Bar Fall Committee Meetings Lunch. Some excerpts from his speech follow:

So I want to take my 10 minutes with you today to put four separate facts on your radar screens.

1. The gap between the amount of legal services people need throughout our society and their ability to pay for those services has never been larger.
2. This year, the number of unrepresented litigants in our courtrooms will approach 100,000 – and the number has never been that high before.
3. More than 50% of all new lawyers leave private practice within five years of entering the profession.
4. Practicing law is now at the very top of the list of professions with the highest incidence of medically significant depression, disillusionment, and dissatisfaction.

…Simply let me say that I find these four facts to be very troubling. And, when you’ve had some time to think about them, I believe you will find them troubling, too.

I am not suggesting these facts are related, though I think that the relationships between these facts is worthy of study. What I am suggesting is that these four isolated pieces of data may be symptoms of a larger problem . . . a serious risk . . . both to the practice of law, in the short term – and to the rule of law in the long term.
In January, 2014, several articles brought concerns about depression and suicide in members of the legal profession to the national spotlight.  In a CNN article entitled “Why are lawyers killing themselves?” Flores and Arce noted that lawyers “rank fourth in the proportion of suicides by profession.”  Weiss noted that “according to age-adjusted information provided to CNN by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, professions with the most suicides are: 
1. Dentists
2. Pharmacists
3. Physicians
4. Lawyers
5. Engineers
Patrick Krill, attorney and Director of the Legal Professionals Program at Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center, responded to the CNN article with an opinion piece.  He noted suicide is the third leading cause of death in the profession versus the 10th leading cause of death in the general population. He referred to “significantly heightened rates of depression and substance abuse” in the legal profession as a concern, indicating that “while not all people who are depressed commit suicide, a majority of those who commit suicide are depressed.  Similarly, people who struggle with substance abuse are about six times more likely to kill themselves.” 

The architecture of depression contains some cruel elements, including feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness. It generates the impression that things are bad, will only get worse or at least not get better and that not much can be done about it.  Depression can darken thinking, suggesting to its victim that if you get help or let others know the depth of your concerns, perhaps others will think badly of you instead of offering support. The negative thought spiral is generated by the depression, serving to isolate the victim from reaching out and causing them to feel more alone. Depression does not go away on its own, and has nothing to do with weakness or lack of willpower. Those impacted often suffer in silence.  

The truth is that most people who seek assistance for depression start to feel better in a matter of weeks. Reaching out for help from a doctor, counselor or other is an act of hope. Treatment can be game changing, and sometimes life saving.  The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s website at provides information on prevention, warning signs, risk factors and what to do when you suspect someone may be at risk for suicide.

Judge Wilson concluded his remarks with inspiration and a call to action, noting:
We have got to find a way to take better care of each other in this profession… We need to find ways to make each other’s lives and work easier, not harder.…And we’ve got to find ways to make sure that every lawyer – especially new ones – is able to find the meaning and value in this work that they have a right to expect  and receive. What we do matters. What lawyers do makes a difference in our society. Satisfaction and joy in service come from knowing that makes a difference, and feelingthat we make a difference. Depression, disillusionment, and dissatisfaction are what fill the void that is created when the joy and satisfaction of making a difference are missing.

When we, as a profession, stand up and say that we are collectively responsible for ensuring access to our courts for all who need that access – and when we, individually, take the opportunities that we already have to provide those services to those who need them, we might find that we can change all four of those facts at the same time. If we will help each other do this, I believe we can increase the public’s confidence in our profession – and increase each lawyer’s joy in being a part of our profession – at the same time.
Depression is treatable. For confidential screening, please contact the Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program at 1-800-688-7859.  You deserve to feel good about yourself and the work you do.  

1. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  “Preventing Suicide: Risk Factors and Warning Signs,” , 2014. 
2. Flores, Rosa and Arce, Rosie Marie. “Why are lawyers killing themselves?” , CNN, 1/20/14. 
3. Krill, Patrick. “Opinion: Why lawyers are prone to suicide,”, CNN, 1/21/14. 
4. Weiss, Debra Cassens. “State bars battle lawyer depression; legal profession ranks fourth in suicide rate,” , 1/22/14.
5. Hon.Wilson, Paul, C. Missouri Supreme Court Justice. Remarks at Missouri Bar Fall Committee Meetings Lunch, 11/22/13.