file0001179129151Mental Health Awareness Month isn’t just about those who might accidentally land in the criminal justice system. It is also a time to consider the mental health of lawyers. For those legal practitioners seeking to grow their own professional happiness and satisfaction, it turns out that money and prestige aren’t on the list of essential ingredients. A New York Times article recently showcased a Yale Law School study which revealed that it was those lawyers making the least money that scored highest on a happiness survey. These included most notably public defenders and Legal Aid attorneys. The findings of this study were similarly echoed in a Minnesota Lawyer blog.

Lawyers don’t necessarily score high points for happiness compared to other professions, given their high incidence of suicide and alcohol abuse. This negative mental state might also be built into the occupation itself, as lawyers must always be aware of that half-empty glass in the form of possible worst-case-scenarios. Our legal system is adversarial by nature where one party’s win must mean another’s loss. Also, a Westlaw search of lawyer disciplinary cases before the Minnesota Supreme Court reveals that clinical depression is often packed in the baggage of the disciplinee. (In case you’re wondering, Minnesota case law allows psychological afflictions to be a mitigating factor in disciplinary proceedings. See In re Wayhrich, 339 N.W. 2d 274 (1983)).  This lawyer predelection against happiness also appears to start early.  The Yale study concluded that 70 percent of the law school students were affected by mental health issues.  Additionally, this article from the Journal of Legal Education showcased a different study that revealed increasing levels of depression among law students as they progressed toward graduation. Basically, only eight percent of students showing signs of clinical depression upon entry, but 32 percent did by the end of first year, and 40 percent by graduation. (Here’s another provocative theory: The growing student debt load that students accumulate during law school might leave them increasingly susceptible to depression, especially as they face an iffy job market.)

If your mental state has deteriorated to the point that your work quality could be affected, see about getting some help through an organization like Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.  Are you a law firm associate on the fast track to partnership hoping that true happiness will finally enter your life when you make partner?  An author of the Yale study believes that this likely won’t prove true. His conclusion from the findings is that prestigious firm jobs simply do not provide the “feelings of competence, autonomy or connection to others—three pillars of self-determination” that public service-oriented jobs do. But you don’t have to leave the firm partner track to take advantage of these happiness factors. For an afternoon of public service, consider volunteering for our Housing and Conciliation Court clinic. Our volunteer lawyers find that the offering answers and advice to our community’s residents who need it most to be an immediately rewarding and satisfying experience.


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