By Julie E. Ganz, Esquire
The September following my graduation from law school, I had the opportunity to return to campus. It was not to welcome the incoming students, nor was it to visit a favorite professor. It was to remember a classmate who had succumbed to her long battle with depression. As I stood at her memorial service, I wondered who among my fellow lawyers was also suffering from depression in silence.
As a profession, we have begun to acknowledge the toll that the practice of law takes on many of us. For some, the stresses of practice lead to substance abuse. For others, marriages and friendships suffer. For many, depression becomes an overpowering burden.
Recently, concerned members of the legal profession have begun establishing positive support systems for other attorneys to turn to when addiction, depression and stress become overwhelming. Yet, despite the advances we have made in helping other members of the bar, we have historically overlooked a group in our midst who suffers from the same afflictions. We have traditionally forgotten the law students.
Attorney Andrew Sparkler has not forgotten. The suicide of Dave Nee in 2005, shortly after his graduation from Fordham University School of Law, left an indelible mark on Sparkler and many others. To remember Nee, Sparkler, along with Wynne Kelly and other friends and family of Nee, started the Dave Nee Foundation to provide support and education to law students suffering from depression.
To raise awareness of depression, decrease the stigma surrounding mental health issues, and provide information regarding the support systems available to law students, Sparkler and Kelly speak to each and every first year law student at Fordham through their legal writing classes. The students commonly voice a concern that they will not be found to have sufficient moral character to become a member of the bar if they see a therapist for mental health issues. If they admit they are depressed or anxious, they worry that the bar will reject them. Sparkler’s response: If every lawyer who has seen or should see a counselor or psychiatrist for help with mental health issues was excluded from the bar, there would be very few lawyers left.
In addition to speaking to law students, the board of the Dave Nee Foundation hosts a website, which not only provides resources for individuals experiencing depression but also presents a number of revealing statistics. For example, depression among law students is eight to nine percent prior to matriculation, 27 percent after one semester, 34 percent after two semesters, and 40 percent after three years. (G. Andrew H. Benjamin et al., The Role of Legal Education in Producing Psychological Distress among Law Students and Lawyers, 1986 Am. B. Found. Res. J. 225 (1986)). Stress among law students is 96 percent, compared to 70 percent in medical students and 43 percent in graduate students. (Helmers K.F. et al., Stress and Depressed Mood in Medical Students, Law Students, and Graduate Students at McGill University, Acad Med. 1997 Aug; 72(8):708-14). Entering law school, law students have a psychological profile similar to that of the general public. After law school, 20–40 percent have a psychological dysfunction. (Deborah Rhode, Legal Education: Professional Interests and Public Values, 34 Ind. L. Rev. 1 (2000)).
Sparkler likens law school to the perfect storm for depression. Those who choose law school tend to be intelligent, driven, successful people. They are used to working hard and reaping their earned rewards. The teaching style, where an individual is singled out in front of all of his classmates; the grading system, where a semester is made or broken based on one exam; and the competitive atmosphere, where hundreds of graduates compete against one another for limited jobs, mean that despite their hard work, many students will not see a reward. The usually successful student may become depressed, yet refuse to admit it to himself or others. To admit depression may be to admit defeat, which may be a first for the historically successful law student. The independent law students are often unwilling to ask for help.
While the Dave Nee Foundation is able to reach out to law students at a number of law schools in New York, Sparkler admits that more is needed. The dialogue started by Sparkler, Kelly, and others needs to expand, not only geographically outside of New York, but also to other members of the legal community. Only when administrators, students, lawyers and other professionals can speak freely about depression will the stigma disappear and those burdened with depression will be free to seek help. For more information about the work of the Dave Nee Foundation, visit www.daveneefoundation.com.
Julie E. Ganz, Esquire, is an associate with Fox Rothschild LLP in Exton, PA. She is a contributor to the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog at http://pafamilylaw.foxrothschild.com. She is an associate member of the Doris Jonas Freed AIC in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.
© 2011 Julie E. Ganz, Esquire. This article was published in the September/October 2011 issue of The Bencher, the flagship magazine of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the express written consent of the American Inns of Court.