The Tragedy of the Modern Lawyer

Did you ever hear the tragedy of the modern lawyer? I thought not. It’s not a story that law schools would tell you. It’s not a Sith legend but a story all too common when I sit down and chat with my peers in the legal field.

Whether we’re in litigation or transactional work, the practice of law is complicated, and so it’s often only a matter of time before we’re tasked with doing something that throws us completely out of our element and expertise. But we’re lawyers. Clients come to us with questions, and we’re expected to have the answers. That’s why we get paid the big bucks. So, we roll up our sleeves, put on a stone-cold mask of professionalism, and throw ourselves into the work. But even when we go on to conquer whatever new challenge lay before us, beneath that mask, the feelings of anxiety and self-doubt can still haunt us.

How could it not? What right do we have to give legal advice on a subject we were frantically researching only a few days before? Or take on an opposing litigator several years our senior? These kinds of thoughts lead us to feel like “imposters” in a profession characterized by high standards and even higher expectations. Even worse, we keep these thoughts to ourselves because we live in terror of being exposed before our colleagues and clients.

Sometimes that anxiety and stress will pass. Some lawyers might even say it’s normal; part of the price we pay to be a part of the profession; that it’s a “fake it ‘til you make it” kind of thing. But the fact is, the legal profession has never really reckoned with its mental health challenges, and it shows in the statistics.

According to studies by the Legal Profession Assistance Conference of Canada (LPAC) the rate of alcoholism in the legal profession at between 15% and 24%. The Journal of Addiction Medicine found the rate of problem drinking among US lawyers was between two and three times higher than among other highly educated professionals, including physicians.

And perhaps even more damning than the fact that about 1 in 5 of us are drinking our way into an early grave, is the burnout rate in our profession. The Canadian Bar Association found that 58% of lawyers in Canada have experienced significant stress and burnout. In 2010, the Law Society of Alberta found that close to 30% of lawyers leave the practice of law entirely within 5 years of being called to the bar.

The answer to this problem, like many things in law, will depend on a case-by-case basis. I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do know that if you want to solve a problem, you have to acknowledge it exists in the first place. Pretending there isn’t a problem in the face of clear evidence doesn’t work in litigation, so why do we pretend it does here?

Max H. Shin, Associate Lawyer