By Phoebe Clewley
It’s no secret that the legal profession is ranked among the highest for mental health problems, including clinical depression and anxiety. While stress-related illnesses such as substance abuse, insomnia, addiction, and depression are not new to the profession, recent advancements in technology and its use by attorneys have spurred arguments that mental health problems are at an all-time high and progressively getting worse.
Prior to rapid growth in the technology realm, lawyers suffered high rates of mental illness due to factors that remain prevalent today. Attorneys across the board agree that the legal profession attracts a high-achieving personality type. The combination of perfectionist tendencies coupled with the demand of a legal career yield heightened rates of depression, anxiety, and psychotic illness among professionals in the field. Encouraged by employers to meet unreasonable demands, attorneys often put unnecessary pressure on themselves despite professional and financial success. Furthermore, according to Andy Imparato, the CEO of the American Association for People with Disabilities, antisocial behaviors in the legal field can lead to isolation, which ultimately exacerbates stress, anxiety, and depression. Imparato further argues that these behaviors are often rewarded by firms who offer promotions to those who meet unreasonable expectations. According to Dr. Standish McCleary, an attorney turned psychologist, a truncated emotional life – due to training that encourages intellectual abstraction – can lead to avoidance of emotional instability and suffering among attorneys. Denial of a condition and persistence to perform for the client and for the partners at a firm ultimately leads to deterioration in work product and unwelcome addictions or psychotic illnesses. While these demands have remained prevalent, the rise of technology has seen a shift in pressures which ultimately exacerbates mental health issues.
With technology’s rapid expansion into the realm of business, the thought was that artificial intelligence would afford attorneys the opportunity to exhibit more flexibility and creativity in their everyday work. However, several signs suggest this is not the case. While pressures to stay late and finish necessary paperwork are less common today, demands to be available 24/7 are largely due to the growth of technology use in the profession. As advisors to clients, attorneys are consistently faced with difficult questions that take time and deliberation to deliver a strategic response. The fast-paced nature of being constantly connected and available does not allow attorneys to exhibit the skill and expertise necessary to stand out to employers and ultimately advance in their careers. In an age of immediate satisfaction, expectations of instantaneous prowess from attorneys leaves professionals attempting to exceed expectations while still providing sound legal advice. With little room left for thinking through a problem, attorneys are likely jumping the gun with advice in efforts to meet the demands from employers. While time demands are being met, the work product is likely lacking. Ultimately, attorneys find their careers faltering when they expected to be recognized for excellence. As exhibited throughout history, these factors exacerbate psychotic illnesses and poor mental health.
With little room left for self-care or reflection, attorneys are left vulnerable to prolonged anxiety, chronic stress, depression, and substance abuse. With increasing pressure to keep up with the technology age in a profession that already demands unreasonable work hours and turnaround times, attorneys likely find themselves lacking the expertise necessary to implement technology into their practices. Due to the rapid increase in technology use, education surrounding its implementation and intended use was not part of the discussion. Instead, attorneys were left to grapple with the changes on their own while demands for unreasonably high performance accelerated.
Several professionals have called for education surrounding the changing nature of client demands due primarily to digital and technological advances. However, while conveying the importance of “powering down” in an effort to promote mental health wellness is an important lesson, the message needs to be conveyed and respected universally. Paramount to an attorney’s success is the ability to deliver to the client in an environment that allows for reflection as opposed to a regurgitation of poorly constructed advice. To achieve this goal, firms must allow attorneys the space and time to debrief, reflect, and “power down.” Instead of promoting unhealthy work behaviors, firms should facilitate healthier practices by rewarding the work product as opposed to the time spent working. Perhaps eventually this practice would infiltrate the legal profession in a way that would allow attorneys to perform at their peak, meet the demands of the client, and ultimately avoid the threat of depression and psychotic illness.
Student Bio: Phoebe Clewley is a current second year law student at Suffolk University Law School, where she is a staffer on the Journal of High Technology Law. Prior to law school, Phoebe received her BA in psychology from Smith College and worked as a Legal and Compliance Associate at Foundation Medicine, a Biotechnology firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.