By Sandra Macke-Piper, MSC|CPA|LPC
Sometimes in life you get to do unexpected, really cool things. Such was my experience last week when I was invited to the Missouri Bar Annual Meeting and Judicial Conference to be part of a panel about the de-stigmatization of mental health issues in the legal community. To prepare, I did a fair amount of research. Among the many interesting bits of information discovered, here were a few:
Students entering law school have the same levels of happiness as students entering grad school. Sometime in the first year, that changes and by the end of year one of law school, students are significantly less happy than their grad school counterparts.
Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among lawyers. Cancer and heart disease are 1st and 2nd. To put that in perspective, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States overall.
Harvard Law School for 2019/2020 has a pdf document, which is over 500 pages, covering all their legal class offerings. Suicide, compassion fatigue, vicarious traumatization, and self-care are mentioned exactly zero times. Actually, suicide is mentioned one time, but it is in relation to the laws around physician assisted suicide and not as a potential problem faced by those practicing law.
Washington University Law School in St. Louis has counseling available to their law students, as well as various programs to help students who need mental health support. But there is nothing incorporated into their curriculum. This is true across the country.
So what? Most lawyers and judges make a good living. It is their choice to go into this field. They are heartless, soulless creatures anyway, right? Some people actually think that about lawyers. And I contend, nothing could be further from the truth.
Prior to preparing and attending the conference, if someone would have asked me to list the helping professions, I would like to say I would have thought of lawyers and judges. If I am honest . . . firefighters, counselors, police officers, social workers, EMT’s and so on—would all have come to mind immediately. But lawyers and judges—probably not. However, those who work in the field of law are in helping professions as well. As such, they need to be better prepared for the emotional toll.
What emotional toll? Well. When do we seek out the assistance of a lawyer or need a judge? It is not when things are going swimmingly well. Divorce, child custody, rape, murder, child abuse, neglect, and a multitude of seemingly unsolvable disputes involving anything from fences to business contracts. These people help the rest of us navigate our legal system, sometimes right wrongs and, if not, get a better result than lay person might otherwise have gotten.
As I listened to the various speakers at the conference, it gave me a new appreciation for the difficulties embedded inside the practice of law. A judge talked about the pain of having to listen to crimes against children; of having to sit on his bench with a neutral expression, giving away none of the horror he felt at what had been done to a four-year-old girl. There were frequent comments, from lawyers and judges, about having to take off their “lawyer-hat” and put on their humanity, as though somehow, they were separate. And yet I understood. They must wear a face of neutrality even if inside they are sad or angry or horrified.
These sharp and extremely intelligent men and women got into the field of law because, at least most of them, wanted to help people. They wanted to be a part of something bigger than themselves; a system that aspires to an ideal of justice and fairness. However, I imagine it must seem more like heading into a war that never ends, with an unlimited supply of pain, ugliness and unfairness--at least at times.
Things are changing. Because of the high rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicide, the Missouri Bar is doing a lot to change the culture and raise awareness. They are setting up programs at various law schools and working in conjunction with law schools to make more mental health resources available. Additionally, while at the conference I observed a lot of comradery and support of each other within the group. The legal professionals I witnessed were willing to speak up and do so with great articulation. It felt like a tribe of people who belonged together. Overall, the people with whom I spoke were surprisingly optimistic and resilient.
I spent two-and-a-half days with a front row seat to a culture that has a richness and complexity to it that is hard to describe. Compassionate, dedicated, hard-working, funny, friendly, social.