Perfectionism, self-doubt and mental health in the legal profession

Studies show lawyers are more at risk of mental health issues than other professionals, writes Brook Greenberg

Brook Greenberg

Recent studies illustrate the troubling prevalence of mental health and substance use issues in the legal profession. 

Not only do lawyers experience depression, anxiety and substance use far more than the general population, they do more than those in other stressful professions. Law is also exceptional in that, unlike other professions, lawyers who achieve the traditional hallmarks of success are most at risk of experiencing mental health issues.

The underlying question that inevitably arises is: Why are our outcomes so much worse than others? A common response is to point to external stressors such as workload and billable hour targets. While these factors undoubtedly have a significant effect on mental health, less attention has been paid to the internal pressures many lawyers place on themselves. Self-doubt, which can manifest as perfectionism, self-criticism, or impostor syndrome, appears to be particularly pernicious within the legal profession.

An examination of these internal pressures may help explain why lawyers experience mental health and substance use issues differently than others.

Distinguishing features of life in law

We work in a profession that is adversarial in nature, and that often provides rewards detached from the quality of both a lawyer’s work and personal values.

Both law school and practice select for pessimistic perfectionists. While these traits may help propel some to career success, they also appear to increase susceptibility to depression, anxiety and substance use.

An adversarial profession

Lawyers almost always have a party “on the other side,” adverse in interest and seeking to better their position at your client’s expense. The other side is constantly waiting to exploit any weakness or mistake. As a profession, law seems uniquely capable of making intelligent people feel foolish and talented people feel inadequate.

Working in an adversarial environment makes lawyers less willing to admit any imperfection or weakness. The nature of practice increases stresses for lawyers, while discouraging them from acknowledging that they are experiencing such pressures. 

What law rewards

For most lawyers the quality of their work is not necessarily reflected in the outcomes achieved.  One can do an amazing job on a matter and fail. Yet, frequently, the measure of a lawyer’s success is cast in terms of these very outcomes that are beyond our control.

Lawyers in private practice are largely compensated for how much they work, rather than how good their work is. Financial rewards are unconnected to what many lawyers truly desire: to perform challenging and meaningful work, to help their clients solve their problems, and to be considered “good counsel.”

One of the consequences of a profession that does not reward what many lawyers truly value is that those experiencing extreme self-doubt have fewer positives to offset their over-critical inner voices.

Selecting for pessimistic perfectionists

Research shows that lawyers are not only more pessimistic than the general population, but that law school and practice encourage and reward pessimism as an attribute.

It is little surprise that law rewards those most able to identify worst-case scenarios and guard against them. However, excessive pessimism combined with a tendency to perfectionism leaves lawyers seemingly more susceptible to depression and anxiety.

Self-doubt and diversity

There is little research as to the effect self-doubt has on diversity or the relative lack thereof in the profession generally and within the partnership of law firms more specifically. However, it seems manifest that toxic self-doubt compounds existing barriers to entry or advancement in the legal profession and likely has a significant negative effect on diversity within the profession.

If those with the fewest barriers struggle with the consequences of self-doubt, the effect on those without such advantages are probably substantially greater still. 

Further study of the inter-relation between toxic self-doubt and diversity in the profession is undoubtedly warranted and necessary.

Lawyers dealing with self-doubt

Effectively addressing issues of self-doubt is extremely difficult. Stigma, shame and assumptions that lawyers should be impervious to weakness combine to keep self-doubt a deeply hidden matter.

Fortunately, there are strategies available to do just that. Jordana Alter Confino recently wrote that the key to addressing perfectionism is to increase self-compassion and to turn self-criticism into self-coaching. But challenging self-criticism on your own can be difficult. 

Confidential, professional assistance may be much more effective than self-help, but lawyers are often resistant to seeking out such support due to stigma and fear. Lawyers, of all people, should appreciate the importance of getting independent advice from a properly qualified professional. No one should dismiss toxic self-doubt as too insignificant to address. Self-doubt can be a serious and debilitating condition leading to extremely negative, but preventable consequences.

The legal profession dealing with self-doubt

The report The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, emphasizes that stigma and shame are the primary barriers preventing many lawyers from seeking support. Consequently, it is critical for the profession as a whole to address these matters, rather than simply leaving it to individual lawyers.

There are innumerable examples of law firms rallying to support lawyers with physical afflictions. What is needed is greater awareness and acceptance with respect to mental health issues, so that we treat mental health challenges the same way we treat physical challenges.

Achieving this goal requires education and training. While mentoring is frequently touted as a key aspect of lawyer learning and development, most mentors are not educated to address matters that may affect every third lawyer in the office. Mentoring and training need to involve open discussion of mental health issues.

What can we do?

Of course, we cannot make law a stress-free career, and no one would expect that. However, there are a number of things we can do to recognize and address the role toxic self-doubt plays in the negative mental health outcomes of lawyers.

As a profession we can increase our awareness and understanding of the prevalence and severity of mental health and substance use issues among lawyers. We can actively strive to make it as acceptable to seek support for mental health and substance use issues as it is for physical health issues. We can work to make it normal to talk about these issues openly. We can make mental health considerations an express part of training and mentoring. We can support each other through career and life-threatening mental health conditions the same way we support each other through physical disease and injury.

The full version of this paper can be found here.

Brook Greenberg is a partner in the litigation and dispute resolution group of Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP’s Vancouver office. He is also an elected Bencher of the Law Society of British Columbia and is currently Chair of the Law Society’s Mental Health Task Force.

**All of the views expressed here are his own, and are not provided on behalf of either Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP or the Law Society of British Columbia.

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