TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Monday, July 17, 2017

NY Times:  The Lawyer, The Addict

New York Times, The Lawyer, the Addict:

In July 2015, something was very wrong with my ex-husband, Peter. His behavior over the preceding 18 months had been erratic and odd. He could be angry and threatening one minute, remorseful and generous the next. His voice mail messages and texts had become meandering soliloquies that didn’t make sense, veering from his work travails, to car repairs, to his pet mouse, Snowball.

I thought maybe the stress of his job as a lawyer had finally gotten to him, or that he was bipolar. He had been working more than 60 hours a week for 20 years, ever since he started law school and worked his way into a partnership in the intellectual property practice of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a prominent law firm based in Silicon Valley. ...

Peter, one of the most successful people I have ever known, died a drug addict, felled by a systemic bacterial infection common to intravenous users.

Of all the heartbreaking details of his story, the one that continues to haunt me is this: The history on his cellphone shows the last call he ever made was for work. Peter, vomiting, unable to sit up, slipping in and out of consciousness, had managed, somehow, to dial into a conference call. ...

The A.B.A.’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs’ most recent national report identified alcohol as the No. 1 substance-abuse problem for lawyers. The second most commonly abused substance was prescription drugs. ...

At Peter’s memorial service in 2015 — held in a place he loved, with sweeping views of the Pacific — a young associate from his firm stood up to speak of their friendship and of the bands they sometimes went to see together, only to break down in tears. Quite a few of the lawyers attending the service were bent over their phones, reading and tapping out emails.

Their friend and colleague was dead, and yet they couldn’t stop working long enough to listen to what was being said about him.

Peter himself lived in a state of heavy stress. He obsessed about the competition, about his compensation, about the clients, their demands and his fear of losing them. He loved the intellectual challenge of his work but hated the combative nature of the profession, because it was at odds with his own nature. ...

The Law School Effect

Some research shows that before they start law school, law students are actually healthier than the general population, both physically and mentally. “There’s good data showing that,” said Andy Benjamin, a psychologist and lawyer who teaches law and psychology at the University of Washington. “They drink less than other young people, use less substances, have less depression and are less hostile.”

In addition, he said, law students generally start school with their sense of self and their values intact. But, in his research, he said, he has found that the formal structure of law school starts to change that.

Rather than hew to their internal self, students begin to focus on external values, he said, like status, comparative worth and competition. “We have seven very strong studies that show this twists people’s psyches and they come out of law school significantly impaired, with depression, anxiety and hostility,” he said.

Academics often study law students because students are considered a bellwether for the profession. “They are the canaries in the coal mine,” Dr. Benjamin said.

Will Miller, the lawyer and former methamphetamine addict, said that in his experience, law school encouraged students to take emotion out of their decisions. “When you start reinforcing that with grades and money, you aren’t just suppressing your emotions,” he said. “You’re fundamentally changing who you are.”

Research studying lawyers’ happiness supports this notion. “The psychological factors seen to erode during law school are the very factors most important for the well-being of lawyers,” Lawrence Krieger, a professor at Florida State University College of Law, and Kennon Sheldon, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, wrote in their 2015 paper “What Makes Lawyers Happy?” Conversely, they wrote, “the factors most emphasized in law schools — grades, honors and potential career income — have nil to modest bearing on lawyer well-being.”

After students began law school they experienced “a marked increase in depression, negative mood and physical symptoms, with corresponding decreases in positive affect and life satisfaction,” the professors wrote.

Students also shed some of their idealism. Within the first year of law school, students’ motivation for studying law and becoming lawyers shifted from “helping and community-oriented values to extrinsic, rewards-based values.”

Young lawyers in treatment at the Center for Network Therapy, an ambulatory detox facility in Middlesex, N.J., frequently tell Dr. Indra Cidambi, the medical director, that the reality of working as a lawyer does not match what they had pictured while in law school. She has found that law students often drink and use drugs until they start their first job. After that, Dr. Cidambi said, “it’s mostly alcohol, until they are established as senior associates or partners and they move back to

opiates.”

“These aren’t the majority of lawyers,” she added. “But there are quite a number abusing drugs, and once they get to heroin, it’s very hard to break it.” ...

Being a patent lawyer is intellectually grueling work, and Peter was good at it — really good at it — for a long time. Perhaps the arrogance that grows from a profession in which your advice is worth $600 an hour is what allowed him to believe he didn’t need to ask for help, that he could kick this on his own. Just another item on his lengthy to-do list.

In fact, while cleaning out his house I found a list of New Year’s resolutions Peter wrote in December 2014, tucked into the bottom of a dresser drawer. “Run three races, spend more time with kids,” his note to himself read.

And in red marker, the word “quit.”

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Comments

So many bright minds get funneled into the big-law grind and quite often the more successful they are at meeting big-law performance standards, the more damage they suffer.

Posted by: Greg | Jul 17, 2017 2:35:47 PM

L.A. TIMES: "An overdose, a young companion, drug-fueled parties: The secret life of USC med school dean," by Paul Pringle, Harriet Ryan, Adam Elmahrek, Matt Hamilton and Sarah Parvini: "In USC's lecture halls, labs and executive offices, Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito was a towering figure. The dean of the Keck School of Medicine was a renowned eye surgeon whose skill in the operating room was matched by a gift for attracting money and talent to the university. There was another side to the Harvard-educated physician.

"During his tenure as dean, Puliafito kept company with a circle of criminals and drug users who said he used methamphetamine and other drugs with them, a Los Angeles Times investigation found. Puliafito, 66, and these much younger acquaintances captured their exploits in photos and videos." http://lat.ms/2u1STgR

Posted by: Tuphat | Jul 17, 2017 4:38:52 PM

Remember last year when that one law professor tried to claim that the much greater levels of depression and substance abuse among law students & lawyers versus the general population was all just a matter of genetic predisposition (it's not) and therefore there's nothing law schools and law firms should do about it? This person literally compared it to law schools trying to affect changes in their students' height. Good times.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Jul 18, 2017 9:17:03 AM