For a long time, I’ve been hesitant to write this article. 

I struggled with how to “frame” it, so that it would be both informative and hopeful. So that, when I was telling this story, it would help the people who read it—not make them feel worse. 

But the truth is, based on the questions I’ve been getting from the the numerous lawyers and firms I work with—and the fact that this pandemic has, in many ways, complicated our lives in ways we didn’t see coming—I believe that there’s a critical problem in the legal profession that’s worth looking at, and it’s worth looking at head-on.

I think, most of the time, it’s easy to look away. It’s easy to dismiss, to minimize, to deny, and part of this is baked in our very own human psychology (mine included). But I think being honest and upfront about our reality, and the reality of the legal profession, is critical, not for the profession itself, but for the well-being and lives of the people within it. 

Of course, all of this starts with a conclusion. And it’s a conclusion drawn from the research, and one that, anecdotally and experientially, I’ve seen time-and-time again, from very far-away to right up-close.

It starts with a citation in the Harvard Business Review article, “America’s Loneliest Workers, According to Research,” published in March of 2018, that states this:

Legal work is the loneliest type of work.

As a follow up to this article, my friend and colleague, Jeena Cho, authored an American Bar Association (ABA) article in July 2018, titled “Lawyer Loneliness: No. 1 Public Health Issue,” to which I was a contributing author. 

But being involved, and seeing the statistics firsthand, did something I didn’t expect—it created more questions than answers for me. And if you glance at the data, the contributing factors are right there, looking like a laundry list: competition, time demands, limited high-quality relationships, lack of collaboration, and the pressure to “keep it together” at all times. To boot: the high prevalence rates of depression, stress, burnout, anxiety, and addiction within the legal profession have also been noted as playing a role in the data—data that is alarming, and data that, I believe, we should all be paying closer attention to.

Although many of the lawyers that I work with would never directly say, “I feel lonely,” many of them, still, qualitatively feel this way. 

I think the solution isn’t to keep doing the job, as it’s usually done. The solution, I believe, is to widen the lens, and accurately evaluate and pinpoint possible root causes. Without an awareness of the real causes, the conversation to solve the problem can’t even start. And when we’re dealing with the fact that law might just be the loneliest profession in the world, what we’re dealing with is a puzzle. It’s a puzzle researchers, psychologists, and people in the profession are trying to solve, with the end-result (hopefully) being a direct improvement in the well-being of the people in the profession itself.

If we look closely, what we’ll see are key factors that create the problem, from the ground-up. Factors that show us the puzzle for what it is, giving us a starting ground, and giving us a place to start the conversation.  

So, with that said: let’s talk about it.

Clue #1: How Do Lawyers Relate to People and Solve Problems?

First, we have to consider something that, at first glance, is easy to overlook:

How do lawyers go about relating to people and solving problems?

While it’s not common knowledge, the research supports this: Lawyers tend to have a preference for introversion, intuition, and thinking, all traits that can make a lawyer effective at their job.

We can break it down. 60% of lawyers are introverts as compared to 25% in the general population. In his book, The Creative Lawyer, Michael Melcher describes the practice of law as “the introvert paradise.” And as Dr. Larry Richard cited in his research with thousands of lawyers, lawyers score lower in sociability (12% vs. 50%) as compared to the general population. 

Plus, just to hit the nail on the head, Dr. Richard has gathered data using type surveys, based on Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, finding that male lawyers score higher than the general population (81% vs. 60%) on the Thinking type as opposed to Feeling type (19% vs. 40%), and female lawyers scored higher (66% vs. 35%) on Thinking type compared to Feeling type (34% vs. 65%).

So what does this mean? How does it relate to the big-picture? 

I’ll say something that might seem counterintuitive: being introverted, within the research, isn’t linked to loneliness. But this personality style is typically less sociable.

So put simply, it means that Thinkers need to build Feeling skills and Feelers need to build Thinking skills. 

Thinking without the balance of feeling can lead to being adversarial, insensitive, and detached. And this, mixed with a grab-bag of chronic stress and the inability to acknowledge (or even express) feelings, can lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and chronic loneliness.

Clue #2: The legal culture, as it is now, encourages people to work hard at all costs. 

Several common themes I’ve noticed in my work with lawyers: closing doors all day to get work done and “focus,” not using the restroom because there is too much work to do, not making time for lunch with other friends and colleagues (only for client interactions), and not being able to have honest conversations with co-workers when one is actually struggling. 

All of these are descriptions; descriptions of real scenarios that can happen—and do in fact happen—within the practice of law. 

Over time, the conclusion one draws from this is an intuitive one: isolating from others, and working in an office where you can hear a pin drop all day can take a toll on the psychology of the people within it.

These behaviors aren’t exceptions in the culture, but instead become roles. And everything from an intense loneliness—to feeling more withdrawn, to experiencing little joy in their work (and their personal lives) often ensues.

Clue #3: Lawyers have difficulty setting “healthy” boundaries.

In my years of working with lawyers, I have noticed that few—a rare breed, frankly—are able to actually set clear and articulate boundaries.

And it starts in the beginning: when an associate begins at a firm, there is a clear “fear” of setting any type of boundary. No one wants to be seen as the lawyer that can’t take on every assignment, because the culture is one where lawyers are used to showing up, and achieving anything less equates to the feeling of visceral failure.

So when a lawyer feels overwhelmed, most don’t say anything. But the truth is that—when they are overwhelmed—they’re often unsure of how to actually proceed. 

Some, of course, attempt to start by saying, “no.” And some lawyers decide it’s easier to leave (It is estimated that 80% of associates leave within the first 5 years of practicing). 

But if they stay, they sometimes aren’t clear on the incentive, and it’s just easier to keep staying the course, even if they realize at the time it’s not a wise choice.

This is, of course, precisely when it happens: I see many lawyers lose their voice. Their vision of success becomes altered the longer they ignore outside cues. And for those who do exercise their “voice,” there can be a price to pay. 

Maybe they don’t receive work from that partner for a while. Maybe they are told to shrug it off and encouraged to keep at it. Or, if they have a strong, wise mentor, they might be encouraged to speak up, and respected for doing so.

Nevertheless, it can be hard.

Clue #4: Lawyers have a vicious “inner critic” that’s part of their psychological makeup.

The “inner critic.” We all have one, and as one of my friends says, “I don’t know what happened to the inner critic when she was a child, but she is really mean”!

The problem, of course, is when we let this “inner critic” skew our appraisal of reality. And lawyers view themselves in a highly skewed way. 

I have to be honest: they can be  brutal. And quite frankly, it’s sometimes difficult to listen to. There is no compassion. It’s only “in or out.”

While we all deal with this “inner critic” in it’s varying degrees, I have come to believe that, through years of psychological work within the profession, lawyers are much harder on themselves than most people ever are.

Add to this the inability to share their own struggles with someone—usually, out of fear of failure, or a general discomfort in disclosing personal information with others—and you have a formula for isolation, despair, and defeat. 

And, if it isn’t stopped or managed, it gets worse.

Where To Go From Here

From here, I’d like to highlight something that, I think, is important to say: lawyers do incredible, essential work. Work that matters—and work that helps real people, in the real world. My husband is a lawyer, he is a proud one, and the profession, when it’s working right, makes the world a better place.

We are all better-off, I believe—including those in the profession from every rank and class—if we acknowledge these factors, and work to change the statistics. 

This is only a starting place, of course—a brief sketch of the derivative factors, a place to start the conversation. 

But going forward, the health of lawyers doesn’t have to be a public health issue. If we trade real solutions for fake ones, and address root causes instead of approximate ones, talking about the statistics—at least on loneliness within the legal profession—might not even merit a passing glance.

We need to dig deeper and widen the lens. And that’s a place that, at least within my lifetime, I’d like to see it go.

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It’s time to let go of “business as usual” and start your journey to becoming the lawyer you want to be without sacrificing your well-being. Reach out and let’s get you started on this journey today.

    Thank You.

    I’ll be back to you shortly. In the meantime, feel free to learn more about my practice by checking out my recent blog posts.

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