Pathways to Wellness in the Practice of Law

The Bencher—March/April 2020

By Don G. Rushing, Esquire, and Andrew B. Serwin, Esquire

The law is one of three great learned professions recognized in medieval tradition, a high calling that rewards practitioners with a sense of accomplishment, service to others, and intellectual challenge. The law also has been recognized as a “jealous mistress” who requires “lavish homage,” as Justice Joseph Story had it, and as a profession that demands for success that its practitioners “work like a horse and live like a hermit,” as Lord Eldon had it. The message is clear: If you want to be a successful lawyer, you better be ready to work hard. Fair enough.

But the toll the profession takes on its members far exceeds the effort of hard work for a variety of reasons, many of them self-inflicted. How do we do better at living both a professionally and personally fulfilling life? How do we find that elusive greater good of “happiness”?

How is the legal profession doing?

Professional attrition

Those choosing to go to law school drop out at a rate of between 2 to 25 percent per year, depending in large part on the selectivity of the school. Law school graduates leave school with an average debt of $84,000—basically, a full year’s pre-tax earnings. According to NALP, the employment rate for those coming out of law programs in the past few years has hovered around 88 percent—up from the lean years of the Great Recession. Yet only about 60 percent of those with law degrees actually practice law in the United States. M. Simkovic, F. McIntyre, “Timing Law School,” Journal of Empirical Legal Studies at 272 (2017).

What is driving folks to spend three years in law school, incurring tens of thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs, only to drop out of the profession?

Depression and anxiety

According to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s national study on attorney substance abuse and mental health, lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers. An American Bar Association (ABA) study conducted by that foundation found that 28 percent of lawyers struggle with some level of depression and another 19 percent have anxiety symptoms.

Feelings of depression and anxiety may lead some lawyers to “self-medicate” with alcohol and drugs, a separate but related problem.

Alcohol and drug abuse

About 21 percent of American attorneys engage in hazardous, harmful, potentially alcohol-dependent drinking. P. Krill, R. Johnson, L. Albert, “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” Journal of Addiction Medicine, February 1, 2016. Another 18–20 percent of lawyers abuse drugs, compared with 8–10 percent of the general population, which is a two-fold increase.

These issues also manifest themselves in lawyer disciplinary actions. About 25 percent of lawyers facing disciplinary action are found to be abusing alcohol or drugs or suffering from a mental disorder. And individuals with alcohol dependence have a 60–120 times greater suicide risk than the non-psychiatrically ill population. L. Sher, “Alcohol consumption and suicide,” QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, Vol. 99, Issue 1, January 2006.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lawyers rank fourth when the proportion of suicides in the profession is compared to suicides in all other occupations in the study population (adjusted for age). The legal profession weighed in with a suicide rate 1.33 times the norm. The ABA has concluded that lawyers experience depression and substance abuse at higher rates than the general population and may be at a greater risk for suicide.

What is driving our lack of well-being?

The causes of our lack of professional well-being have not been rigorously studied to date, but they appear to be multi-faceted:

  • Lawyers work long hours: A 60–80-hour work week is not unusual. Lawyers sometimes are poor at taking needed rest breaks, including vacations, to refresh themselves from their demanding work schedules.
  • Lawyers face client-generated pressures: Demands for responsiveness, results, and cost effectiveness ramp up the stress levels.
  • Lawyers face self-generated pressures: We are good at putting pressure on ourselves and are hard on ourselves. Personality types that seem to be attracted to the practice of law have a tendency toward perfectionism and a low tolerance for failure.
  • Lawyers, and particularly younger, less experienced lawyers, sometimes suffer from self-doubt: A sense of uncertainty whether we’re doing the right thing results. But there also is a reluctance to admit that doubt and to seek mentors and coaches to help gain confidence and exert control.
  • Lawyers are by nature competitive beings, and the profession reinforces our nature: They compete for clients, money, status, or “the win.” The competition can seem, at times, unrelenting.
  • Lawyers experience professional isolation: The law practice is frequently a solitary pursuit, inhabited by personalities that like to work independently. Lack of team-building and teamwork is common.
  • Lawyers too often engage in professional incivility and discourteous treatment of others: A “dog eat dog” work environment, particularly among litigators, is all too common. Courts are reluctant to step in and say “enough is enough—stop it.”

These long-term stressors create problems for body and mind. Our bodies are hard-wired to react to stress to protect against threats—the “fight or flight” response. Throughout human evolution, the usual pattern has been to turn on and then turn off the stress-response system so that the effects are self-limiting and situation specific.

When stressors are always present, like with the daily practice of law, our stress-response reaction stays turned on. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, and other glucocorticoids increase sugar levels in the bloodstream, alter our immune system, and suppress digestive, reproductive, and growth and regeneration processes. The consequences include anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory and concentration impairment. A. Mariotti, “The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain-body communication,” Future Science OA, published online November 1, 2015, (Last visited February 28, 2020).

So, what can we do to cope better with the stress and avoid impairment of the quality of our personal and professional lives?

What are some prescriptions for help?

Seek professional help for depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicidal ideations.

Lawyers tend to have a strong need for control and are reluctant to admit they need help.

They fear loss of control and confidentiality and sometimes are so overwhelmed by the pressures they face that they feel there is nothing that can be done. The first step in regaining control and avoiding a nasty public disclosure, however, is acknowledging you need help and getting it.

Fortunately, there are resources to provide that help that are just a phone call, email, or office visit away. Talk candidly with your family doctor about your health issues, both physical and emotional. Be candid about what ails you. Seek assistance with drug and alcohol problems. State bar associations frequently provide this type of help on a confidential basis.

Move toward a state of happiness.

The pursuit of happiness has consumed the thinking of our most gifted philosophers, is a central theme in some of the most important lessons of the Bible, and is one of the cardinal principles identified in our founding documents. Aristotle saw happiness—seeking Eudaimonia—as a goal in life to become our best selves. The Bible viewed happiness, called “ashrê,” or “well-being,” as living wisely according to God’s plan. The Buddha sought an end to suffering. Thomas Jefferson identified the pursuit of happiness, along with life and liberty, as an unalienable right in that great piece of Enlightenment writing, the Declaration of Independence. In other words, happiness is pretty important.

While happiness is a state, and joy an emotion, they are related. There are some essentials for both that are worth pursuing. We think the sole essential for happiness is to avoid self-inflicted suffering, to be content, and to live within one’s means. But we also think it is possible to increase the joy experienced in life through these practices:

  • To be skilled, efficient, energetic, earnest, and learned in your profession;
  • To conscientiously protect one’s livelihood and means of support for family; and
  • To have virtuous, trustworthy, faithful family and friends and spiritual aspirations.

Set goals and do a self-assessment.

We can do ourselves a big favor by periodically taking the time to step back and reflect on where we are and where we’re going. We’re not talking about “to do” lists or action plans. We’re talking about self-assessments. How am I doing—really? Am I on the path I wish to pursue, or is this someone else’s expectation for me? What does “success” look like for me? And perhaps most importantly, am I happy? And if not, why not?

Take care of the spiritual side.

Obviously, spirituality and religion are not the same thing. Whether or not one claims a religion, we all can cultivate our spiritual side. One of the best ways to calm the mind is to find a time for daily prayer, meditation, contemplation, and deep relaxation. Prayer and meditation quiet the mind and allow us to empty ourselves and just listen for what’s there. This is a time to seek help from a higher power to restore us to sanity when we feel we’ve gone a bit insane.

Detach in conflict.

Conflict in the practice of law is inevitable. We operate in an adversarial system, whether we litigate or advise for a living, but many of these conflicts are not truly personal, even though they often feel like they are. How we manage the conflict is crucial to how our bodies respond. Professional detachment, a necessary first step, involves the separation of professional judgment on behalf of the client from the emotions of the situation. Simply be present without judgment of whatever occurs. Try to see difficult circumstances as learning experiences. Look upon the situation without struggle, avoidance, or aversion. Just breathe. Watch the show. Observe how things are as you stand a bit outside of it. L. S. Das, Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World, Broadway Books (1997).

Commit to life-long learning.

This may sound trite, but it bears repeating. When we became lawyers, we earned a place in a great learned profession, a profession of reason. The legal profession is an invitation to life-long learning, intellectual growth, and the accumulation of knowledge. Commitment to a personal philosophy of “better next year” will yield rich rewards.

Take good care of the machine.

Just as you maintain equipment that helps you function in life, you also must maintain the principal piece of equipment that allows you to live life and practice law—your own body—to manage stress. The checklist for good personal maintenance is straightforward but requires self-discipline to accomplish. This includes:

  • Exercise, adequate sleep, and good nutrition, which are critical to coping with the demands of the profession.
  • Non-legal pursuits that provide outlets for creativity, diversion from work, and relaxation.
  • Vacations—true time for re-creation—which help recharge your batteries. But a true “get away” requires that you amputate the cellular device attached to your hand for periods of rest and peace.
  • Friendships, finding someone you can talk with, and community. Finding a group of people you can relate to and share things in common with can help you enjoy a healthy lifestyle.

The Punchline

The profession cannot continue with business as usual in the face of the toll taken on its practitioners. Engagement in the behaviors that lessen aspects of the practice that cause suffering and increase the opportunities for joy will move us toward a state of happiness in our lives. This is the pathway to wellness in our profession.

Don G. Rushing, Esquire, is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and a member of the Louis M. Welsh American Inn of Court in San Diego, California. Andrew B. Serwin, Esquire, is a partner of DLA Piper in San Diego and a preeminent privacy and security lawyer.

© 2020 Don G. Rushing, Esq. and Andrew B. Serwin, Esq. This article was originally published in the March/April 2020 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication 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 written consent of the American Inns of Court.