Hank Greenberg: Lawyers And Depression

Oct 2, 2019

One of America’s greatest lawyers, judges and public servants was Charles Evans Hughes.

He was a giant in American life during the first half of the 20th Century, serving as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. secretary of state, and a two-term governor of New York.

What the nation didn’t know is that Hughes suffered in silence with depression and anxiety. He received electroshock treatments for his condition, and sometimes required a day in bed to recuperate following an especially stressful workday.

In Hughes’ time, mental illness was hidden in the shadows and stigmatized. Public disclosure of his condition and treatment would have been a career-ending event.

Today, thankfully, the public’s awareness of mental illness is on the rise. But the stigma of mental illness, unfortunately, remains.

No one of is more than a degree of separation away from someone fighting a daily battle against mental illness - be it a spouse, parent, sibling, or friend.

Fifteen percent of adults will suffer from depression at some point in their lifetime. Lawyers are especially susceptible to depression and anxiety, given the rigors of the profession. The hours are long, and the stakes are high.

Prosecutors fret that one mistake could lead to a criminal walking free; defense lawyers worry that their clients may go to jail.

Millions, even billions, of dollars may be at stake in a case and could be lost due to a single legal miscue.

Lawyers’ skills are constantly being tested, questioned and judged - often in the public eye.

Nearly half of all lawyers struggle with depression at some point during their career. In fact, the legal profession suffers from the fifth highest number of suicides by occupation.

Just getting to BE a lawyer is stressful. Law school can be a grueling experience that takes at least three years to complete. Graduates typically carry student loan debts that take many more years than that to repay.

Some students become physically ill due to the rigors of law school and studying for the bar. Personal relationships crumble. And trying to manage stress becomes a stress all its own.

So many students are leading lives of quiet desperation. They do not seek help out of fear that doing so will endanger their ability to become lawyers.

The fear of having one’s career impaired or destroyed by the disclosure of a mental health diagnosis is rampant.

According to an American Bar Association survey, 42 percent of law students felt they needed support for a mental health issue, but only half actually sought it. And 45 percent said they believed seeking help for mental health would hurt their chances of gaining admission to the Bar.

The hard truth is that stigma around mental illness remains a significant barrier to treatment within the legal profession, and society at large. It is unacceptable that bravely and smartly addressing mental health challenges could be a danger to one’s professional life.

There is much work to do to remove the stigma associated with mental health treatment so those who are suffering can get the care that they need — without fearing the impact on their careers.

I am proud to say that the New York State Bar Association is fighting to remove the stigma that many fear could haunt them during their careers, for simply seeking out needed counseling or other assistance.

Our Lawyer Assistance Program helps attorneys, judges, and law school students. We also provide support services to families, law firms and others concerned about mental health or substance abuse issues.

This program is free and Bar Association membership is not required to qualify. All conversations will be kept strictly confidential. The Lawyer Assistance Program can be reached at 1-800-255-0569 or LAP at NYSBA dot org.

Henry ‘Hank’ Greenberg is president of the New York State Bar Association.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.