Balancing the Bar

Happiness and the Practice of Law


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Diagnosis … Legal Industry is in need of change

How many lawyers do you know who are disillusioned with the practice of law?  I ran into a colleague I graduated from law school with last week and he said to me “I don’t know any happy lawyers”.  This got me to thinking what is it about the practice of law (i.e. the business of being a lawyer) which makes the job so difficult.  I came up with a list which says a lot about the business we are all engaged in on a daily basis. This list is not comprehensive and I would love to add to it. (So, comments are appreciated).  Perhaps we can’t even begin to repair a system if we don’t know what ails it.  I think the list below sets out a good case for why we need to change the way we practice and or how we deal with each other.

The Business of law needs to change because …..

  1. The most intellectual people are rarely the most successful lawyers.
  2. Legal profession attracts negative and hostile personality types who are more likely to be successful (i.e. narcissists, sociopaths, bullies and egomaniacs)
  3. Being good at what you do means less than being good at getting clients.
  4. Perfectionism is valued but is a double-edged sword.  It makes for great work product but can cause tremendous stress.
  5. Lawyers are 2 times more like to be depressed.
  6. Lawyers are 3 times more likely to have anxiety disorders
  7. Lawyers get less sleep that most other professionals.
  8. Lawyers have higher suicide rate than the general population, particularly male lawyers in their 50’s.
  9. There are far more lawyers seeking a job than there are jobs. New graduates have only a 50% chance of landing any legal job.
  10. Law school process can lead to depression in 40% of students within the first two years.
  11. We are profession that thrives on anxiety, fear, aggression and we make more money the longer our clients remaind in an adversarial situation.  
  12. We graduate a lot of new lawyers but most of them do not make it past 10 years in practice.
  13. Our law schools have misled applicants about graduate employment rates.
  14. The most successful lawyers are often the ones who are workaholics,  who can’t understand that working more does not make you more productive.
  15. Money neurosis blinds many to need or desire to change.  I make money so why bother. 

I could add others to this list, but I think most people will get my point.  There are way too many things wrong with our system to not address health and well-being on an industry wide basis.   Clearly, there are those who say “it has always been this way”.  My response to this is, so what?  Seriously, that attitude says I am willing to accept the existence of these issues because I am AFRAID to change the system.  Is it really easier to blindly follow a system on the premises “because it is this way at every firm”? To make such statements is to say “I accept to live in the misery I know because it is the same or worse elsewhere.”

Misery or as the Buddhist say “suffering” is so ubiquitous in our profession that it is accepted as standard operating procedure.  This saddens me.  It saddens me to hear about a colleague who develops a substance abuse issues, has depression or other health issues all of which are exacerbated by stress.  And it angers me that colleagues have a mental break downs and that fellow lawyers label those people weak or look for logical reasons why they are ill (i.e., money issues, health and/or divorce).  And worse of all in bothers me that some of the most well-respected lawyers choose to end their lives because of mental health issues.  Suicide is such a horrible end that condemns the lawyer’s family to a lifetime of asking the question why?  Sure, not all lawyers are miserable, but there are more unhappy rather than happy lawyers and that says so much about the way we deal with each other and gives the world around us just another reason to hate and or abhor us. 

Change in our industry starts from within.  It takes consistent diligent efforts like those undertaken by the Cincinnati Bar Association’s Health and Well-being Committee. It takes conscious decisions by each lawyer, judge, law professor and law student to address the issues outlined above.  Until these and other related issues are addressed we will continue to see our colleagues self-destruct in one way or another and the rest of us will be left with regrets and questions.  Or worse, some will say that lawyer was weak to crack under the pressure.

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LEGACY FROM TRAGEDY– THE KENNETH D. JAMESON HEALTH AND WELL-BEING FUND

My law partner and friend Kenneth D. Jameson in May 2011 as a result of a long struggle with depression.  Ken was important to a lot of people, his wife, his children, his extended family, his law partners,  his clients and his friends.  He was a friend to everyone who got to know him.  Unfortunately, he lived with a secret that was so insidious that he was eventually left with no choice, but to take a leave of absence from the practice of law and seek psychiatric treatment.  Ken had depression.  For how long, no one knows.  Those who worked a long side him had little clue except that he had insomnia and difficulty concentrating.  Most people in his life were not aware of the magnitude or severity of his suffering.  His wife, Betsy, however, knew all too well.

After Ken’s suicide, most people suffered shock and a sense of guilt for not doing enough to save Ken.  The reality is, no one could save him. In Ken’s case, he was the only person who could dig himself out.  Unfortunately, toward the end of his life, his depression turned to despair and in his mind he did the only thing that seemed to fix the situation.  He committed suicide.   Ken was the ultimate fixer as anyone who knew him will attest.  Does this mean he was weak? No.  Does it mean that he didn’t love his family?  No.  He was ill.  He had a disease which many people suffer from in silence – A silence which is created by fear and shame.

Since his death, much has happened in his family.  His daughter received her master’s degree; his son cheered at OSU football games and Final Four Basketball games, birthdays, anniversaries and holidays have been celebrated.    Ken’s family has somehow managed to go on without him as have those of us who worked alongside him.   No one will ever forget him and his name is mentioned often by his colleagues family and friends. Yet, life goes on for those of us left behind.

Because of his death, I first approached the Cincinnati Bar Association in July 2011 about health and well-being education and support programing for attorneys.  I was delighted when Cincinnati Bar Association accepted my suggestions.  The Health and Well-Being Committee was formed in January of 2012 and our works is well underway.  But that isn’t all that happened.  Ken’s wife and best friend, Betsy Jameson, had an idea.  She wanted to find a way to memorialize her husband to provide a legacy for his children and his family, to help create something good out of a mind shattering tragedy.   Her idea was to set up a fund to financially support the Health and Well Being Committee.   So, with the help of the Cincinnati Bar Foundation, the Kenneth D. Jameson Health and Well-being Fund was officially established on June 27, 2012.

The fund was set up with an initial donation of $25,000 by Betsy Jameson and her children.  The fund is open to donations from inside and outside the legal community.  The hope is to have additional donations to add up to $100,000 within five years.  The fund’s use is  restricted to the goals of the Health and Well-Being Committee and will allow the committee to provide services to attorneys including a lunch time lecture series, support group services, law student outreach and etc.    This funds support  is allowing an acceleration of the committee’s activities and is helping change the legal community in Cincinnati and in Ohio.

As for Ken’s legacy, I can think of no better way to memorialize someone who embodied the dedication, commitment and kindness that our profession needs.  I hope that the work of the Cincinnati Bar Association Health and Well-being can help others who struggle with the disease that plagued my friend and that our actions can give hope and education to a profession that so desperately needs it.

If you would like to contribute to the Kenneth D. Jameson Health and Well-being fund you may do so by visiting the Cincinnati Bar Foundation website by clicking here.  Be sure to add the Jameson Fund to your donation description.  Or, you may send funds clearly marked as Ken Jameson Fund to the Foundation at the following address: Cincinnati Bar Foundation; The Cincinnati Bar Center 225 East Sixth Street, Second Floor Cincinnati, Ohio 45202-3209 attn: Rene T. McPhedran, Director.


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“The brain that wires together fires together.”  — Rick Hansen author of Buddha’s Brain

”The story lines vary, but the underlying feeling is the same for us all.” -Pema Chödrön  

We define our reality.  Our sense of happiness and unhappiness comes from within.  Others in our work place come and go, but the one constant everyone has is their ability to care and be kind to themselves.  Happiness and the practice of law seem to be opposites at times.  Anyone who works with or is an attorney will tell you there are a lot of very miserable people in our profession.  The thing is most of these people are smart, fun and kind, but don’t necessarily enjoy the drudgery, mundane, and business aspects of being a lawyer.

Misery begets misery and loves company.  The feeling in an office can be greatly enhanced or dampened by those you work around. Suffering of the mental variety is hard to watch either in yourself or others.  When you see it, you are hit by dread and or a sense of impending doom for the other person. Something is off and you can tell.    You can just run in and help, flee or flop down and wallow in the mud right along with the other person (i.e. commiserate).  That miserable person seems to be stuck in their own head and frankly, behaves as their own worst enemy.

There have been many times in my career I have sensed the misery of others  and or been on the receiving end of someone’s sharing of their misery regarding practice of law or firm management or life in general.  Most of the people I know who find themselves at a mid-career misery  moment are unhappy or under strain in other aspects of their lives. Many of them come from chaotic childhoods or have really negative experiences with other lawyers at other firms.  However, they are very bright.  They have advanced degrees and possess the ability to do something about their situations, yet seem frozen in place.  Stuck in the misery groove.  They lack the ability to process anything beyond the pain they feel.  Many times they are even paralyzed by the doubt that things will never improve or fear that the next career move they make is going to be as bad as where they are now.  So, they stay put and their misery can by contagious.

Contrast this with those really looking for a solution which requires them to take control of the situation and do something positive for their future.  It is amazing how few of the last group there are.  This group is not afraid of the consequences of a bad decision.  Or, if they are, they get over it and move toward what feels right or what is required of them.  The Buddhists say that if you have fear you should move toward it and only by doing this you can conquer it.  And if you do fail you should be thankful for the opportunity to learn and grow.  Even your enemies should be your teachers.   Could you imagine what would result if we all adopted these rules?  Taking chances and embracing change are the keys to learning and to career growth.

Is there something wrong with these negative people?  The thing is, being miserable or being drawn down by the negativity of others is perfectly natural.  Our brain is hardwired to dwell on the negatives.  Our brains have not caught up to the emotional rather than physical challenges we face. The brain is still wired to remember the negatives more than positives and can’t distinguish between mental and physical stress. This puts us at a biological disadvantage.  Once burned twice shy was fine when we were running from lions for our lives, but now our challenges are more psychological in nature.    Often times there are hidden memories or feelings of rejection that can surface and cause a mental reaction inappropriate to our situation.    These childhood or early career  triggers work to sabotage our careers and make our work relationships and personal lives

fraught with anxiety, fear, depression and other sorts of emotions.   Learning positive ways to notice this negativity and pause before we commiserate or learning to be empathetic without absorbing the misery of others is an important defensive tool most lawyers need to learn.

We are, in essence, a profession of fixers.  We deal with the problems of others and provide solutions.  This means many times we are dealing with emotional issues of our clients.  To the client, their matter is the most important thing on our desk.  They are in large part ignorant of the steps necessary to get a matter resolved and they have little patience.  Our personal history and client expectations can work to fuel our anxiety and stress levels.  When you add to this the general negative nature of lawyers, many of us work in emotion minefields.

It is important to create a system to deal with the emotions of others.  I have learned to separate my thoughts from that of the other person by identifying “his or her stuff” and list the emotions exhibited by the other party.  Truthfully, very little other people say or do has anything at all to do with us – most of the time their actions are the result of their own thoughts and fears. I find that if I am in doubt I ask for clarification, which short circuits disagreements and can get my relationship with the other person back on track.  It can also help to write about your thoughts in a journal of just a sheet of paper.  This will sort out what the issue really is and eliminate your own thoughts and fears before discussing the matter with the other person.

Expressing gratitude is also a way of reinforcing happiness.   I have recently started a gratitude journal focusing primarily on my work day.  I keep a running list of all the good things that happen in a day from a conversation with a coworker down to what I eat for lunch.   It reinforces the good feeling circuits in your brain and counteracts the negatives of the practice of law.  My outlook is becoming more positive and I am only in my second week.

Finally, if you are not happy in your current t situation start investigating other arrangements and or other options for your career. Staying in a place or job where you are unhappy is not good for you nor is it helpful to those around you.  In a profession full of “half empty” thinkers perhaps it is time reframe your thinking and make a new place for yourself where you can honor what is most important to you.


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LAWYERS WITH DEPRESSION BOOK PROJECT — personal accounts wanted!!!

My colleague and friend, Dan Lukasik over at Lawyers With Depression is working on a book about depression in the legal industry.  The book will tell the real life stories of attorneys who suffer from depression.  He needs help in the form of lawyers who are willing to talk about their struggle with this disease and how the practice of law affects them.

The book will be more than just a recitation of statistics and general overview of the topic.  Dan is providing a forum for others to tell their real life stories of depression, recovery and the practice of law.  In addition to this, he will devote time to the CBA’s Health and Well-being Committee and our efforts to address these issues in Cincinnati.

I am helping him as best I can and one of the ways,  is by asking people to come forward to share their experiences with him.  This can be done anonymously.  Dan’s work on the part of lawyers with depression is amazing.   Dan has depression himself and has managed to maintain his practice and become a public voice of lawyers with the illness.

This project will mean a lot to so many people.  So, if you would like to participate or know someone who would please have them visit his website by clicking here.  Even if you are not interested in helping with the book you should still check out his web page it is a wonderful resource on the issue.  Finally, if you know someone who suffers share the website information with them.  Depression can be an isolating experience so having a website ran by an attorney and this book can be a comfort to many.


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“THERE ARE A LOT OF ILL PEOPLE AT AA MEETINGS”…. An introduction to Lawyers Assistance and the AA Conundrum

A long-term member of Alcoholics Anonymous, who is an attorney  and I recently had a conversation.  It was our first meeting and it was moments before my first speech as Health and Well-being Chair.  His first statement to me after hello was that he did not agree with my statement that stress and mental illness caused people to abuse substances.   After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I responded that I believed medical evidence was on my side and that he should consider the coexisting (comorbidity) condition research.  After all, fifty percent of people who drink are depressed and even if they don’t have a mental illness when they start drinking or consuming the addiction can trigger a disorder.  My colleague’s response was that the medical community treats the addiction first so it couldn’t cause the abuse or they would do the opposite.  Eventually, we agreed to disagree and he actually stayed and listened to my speech.

The conversation stuck with me for a week or so.  For years, I have been reading, or shall I say, absorbing, all the information I could find on neuropsychology, psychology and addiction.  Recently, in preparation for this speech I even attended a NAMI seminar on comorbidity of mental illness and substance abuse.  Was I misinformed?  What in the world did AA teach people about their brain and mental health?

So, I spent some time online researching AA and its role in helping people obtain and maintain sobriety.   I even put an app on my phone so I can read the Big Book as it is known.  What I discovered were sentiments such as “AA is a cult”.  That seemed a little extreme.  Yet, there is some element of AA which tends to be insular in nature.  And, then there are parts of program that have very religious overtones.  After all AA’s twelve steps contain many mentions of the “power greater than ourselves” and mentions to God “as we understood him”.

Clearly, AA works for many people.  Some people have used the supportive nature and sponsor system to obtain and maintain sobriety for decades and or a life time.  But, only 5% of AA members make it to one year.  In fact, many relapse and some never maintain a sober life.  AA does not work for everyone and there are other support groups and alternative treatments to assist struggling attorneys in their battle against addiction. AA is a support group and as a social support group it works well.  It is not psychotherapy and it should not be used as a substitute for psychotherapy.

Why then is AA so prevalently used by Lawyers Assistance Programs? I think that answer is simple-most Lawyers Assistance Programs were started by recovering alcohol judges and lawyers. But, the bigger issue is how can we as lawyers provide complimentary programming to lawyers with substance abuse AND mental health issues?  Or even more basic, should we?  My answer to this is simple.  YES.  It is time that science, psychotherapy and AA be used in combination by Lawyers Assistance Programs throughout this country to help struggling attorneys.

Recently, I asked a different colleague, one  who helps struggling attorneys, to take me to an AA meeting.  I also told him about my interaction with the long time AA attorney.    The phrase he used sums up the problem in a nutshell -“there are a lot of ill people at AA meetings”.  Now, this is coming from a man who knows the legal system and the problems lawyers face.  He helps lawyers in crisis.  He explained to me that AA is about accountability and that some AA members have lots of mental health issues.  Of course, he has promised to take me to an open meeting to learn more about the program.

So, my question is – why is our profession relying on AA to support attorneys in recovery.  Is it just because it has helped those in charge of the Lawyers Assistance programs quit or just because “we have always done this”?  Isn’t it time to face the reality that many people need more than AA.  Are we setting people up for failure?  Is the use of AA promoting a religion and insisting troubled lawyers adopt a faith-based system?

I am going to be asking all of these questions and reporting back on my findings.  First, I am going to a meeting and if there are lawyers there I am going to ask them why they drink and if the practice of law contributed in any way to their addiction.  Further, I want to know what if anything the bar association could do to stop others from developing addiction issues. Then, I am going to review some disciplinary case statistics and just see how well the AA solution has worked for lawyers in crisis.   Updates will be forthcoming.


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Distiguishing Depression, an illness, from disaffection in Lawyers.

What is depression and how is it distinguished from life’s down moments/  The blog ‘The Depression Cure” has an interesting essay entitled Depression Tragically Misunderstood.  The topic caught my attention.  Is the word depression misused and does this give rise to the “snap out of it” attitude so many lawyers  have?

Depression is a long-term problem.  Sadness is something we all have in our lives and  something which is often referred to as depression.  Depression in a clinical sense is an illness.  Depression in the common everyday conversation often times means you are sad, blue or down.  “I feel depressed today.”  I hear that from others often.  People, on the other hand,  who are clinically depressed are in need of medical and psychological treatment. They have a  brain disease.  It is no different from diabetes or heart disease.  In fact, the disease was best described by Freud as Melancholia.  Churchill once described his depression as his “black dog”.

Many lawyers fail to acknowledge depression as a real possibility of allowing their career ups and downs going unchecked.  Many times people accept a demoralized, disillusioned and disappointing existence as a part and parcel of being a lawyer or at least maturing as a lawyer.  So, we accept that are down periods and daily negativity as are part of our work and therefore, we begin the process of rewiring our brain to become accustomed to these states.  The more you become accustomed to the state the more your brain functions that way.

Being sad or disappointed is such an everyday thing for many attorneys.   There are so many variables in our lives that make the practice of law unstable – clients, opposing counsel, co workers, support staff.    Further, it becomes a habit to look at things negatively and to expect the worst out of your day.   In fact, it is what lawyers are known for.

The thing is every one has a negativity bias.  We are more likely to remember the negative things because of our “once burned twice shy predisposition”.  Many times this is a subtle thing but if you actually pay attention to the reactions of lawyers around you it can be quite evident that  negativity is the life blood of our industry.  Phrases like “this case is a looser” or “they will not hire me” or “associates are just like barn cats” are great examples.

So this negativity bias is a glass half empty approach.  Combine that with self-criticism many have and the general lack of civility and you have a great recipe for sadness, anxiety and in some cases depression.  The good news is that you can stave off some of this.  Try taking a walk at lunch, meeting a friend who is not an attorney for lunch or keeping a list of all the good things that happen in your or a list of what you are grateful for.    I try to find something to be grateful for everyday.  On bad days,  I am grateful for the fact that I have a job that allows me to use my brain and my communication skills to make money.  I repeat this when I am having a rough day and I also repeat “It is what it is while it is”.

Finally, instead of saying you are depressed trying the following to describe your moods – disillusioned, demoralized, unmotivated, stresses, anxious, mental exhaustion.   Chances are when you really think about it, you are feeling one or more of these feelings.  The great thing about these states is they are temporary particularly if we don’t reinforce the thoughts by dwelling on them.  They will normally pass away on their own.  If, on the other hand, you feel a black fog or can’t shake your down mood after an extended period of time you may want to not only label it as depression but also seek help.

So many of us have misused the term “depression” that it has lost its medical meaning and this makes those with such an illness less likely to come forward or discuss it with others who know.  When someone around us comes forward and says they are depressed we tend to  think back to  that time of disillusionment, stress or etc. and how easily it went away.  Because our down time passed so easily we think people with depression can “get over it”.

It is never that simple, and someone in the throes of depression should never be told to “get over it”.  Part of the problem in our profession is that we expect those around us to “get over things” and not discuss them.  We sweep are down moods aside or “compartmentalize” them and they come back to haunt us when we least want them.   We treat people with stress as if they are weak and unworthy of support.  Only the strong are supported and the strong are those that keep buggering on regardless of what life throws at them.  So, it is the expectation that events are taken in stride.

What has this resulted in?  Low moral, increased rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.  Isn’t it time we stopped this behavior? Isn’t it worth reassessing our reactions to the mental distress of others around us?


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Just like Kudzu… it grows faster than you can imagine.

Have you ever seen Kudzu growing on the side of a hill?  I grew up in the Mountains of Eastern Kentucky and you know Kudzu, a vine of asian origin, is amazing it grows, grows and covers mountains and whatever is in its way.  I haven’t thought about kudzu in forever but yesterday it came to mind.

You see, this time last year I had a great idea.  I was going to meet with the CBA and develop a program to help attorneys in trouble.  It was a simple idea and my goals were very basic.  Get the information out there, educate others about the issues and keep lawyers from self destructing.  It was a no brainer and an unspoken truth – lawyers are unhappy people.  Many people acknowledge this fact, but no one had ever taken the next step to do anything about the issue.

So, what started out as a simple idea just keeps growing, growing and now has momentum all its own.  You guessed it, just like Kudzu.  Now, the issue is what should be done and when.  Do we just provide information and articles, do we set up a support group or groups for lawyers now or wait and what about law students?  Dealing with so many competing things and so many personalities is like herding cats as a colleague and friend told me recently.   Perhaps, the idea was good, but requires some rethinking or at least an organizational structure.  After all, having the idea is the first step in creating something, what comes after that is work.

My main issue is inclusion, for others it is to find the solution.  I want to give people a way to reach their own resolution and for the to be feel safe sharing what has happened in their life.  Others don’t seem to be interested in this and just want to develop a  “fix” to the problem.   You know lets all live a balanced life.  How do you the two types of solutions/actions.  Is it enough that a person’s your heart and ideals are in the right place even if their fixer mentality means that they wish t0 dictate solutions to people.  And what about the fact that the solution based approach ignores the human suffering that is behind the issue.  Saying you don’t want to hear someone’s problems is not acceptable.     There must be room at the table for those who have suffered from depression, stress induced mental and physical illness.  Isn’t this the purpose of the project?

Yesterday, I found myself defending the rights of others to tell their story and the need to have those stories be a part of the solution.  The fixers among us fail to see the value in this and frankly, don’t feel it is worth their time to hear.    I can’t seem to shake my frustration and anger at the idea that members of a group devoted to Health and Well-being can’t see the value in first hand accounts about the downside of practicing law.  So, what to do?  Create a place for those who wish to share – a support group?  Is it our job as a committee to create programing and that’s it?  Who are we to say what the solution is?  Isn’t that a personal thing for each person to find on their own.

I am not sure what the answer is, but I can tell you there must always be room for those who want to share their struggle and who want to be a part of the process of finding a solution.  Neither the Committee as a whole or any one of its members has the solution to these issues/problems.  There is no quick fix.  The lack of a quick fix is what this is about.

There are no hard and fast rules on how to have a balanced life.  If their were, then life would come with a check list and we all know that is not how life works. As much as we like to think that we can control our life, we can’t.   The point is to lead people in the right direction and support them along the way.  Who better to help with this process than those who have been through it who have struggled with illness and come out on the other side.