A Necessary Conversation For JDs

Stressed student

“I hope there continues to be a conversation and dialogue about this.”

These are the words of Brian Clarke. The “this” is the growing number of law students and attorneys suffering from depression. According to reporting by CNN in January, lawyers rank fourth in proportion of suicide compared to other professions. Attorneys are 3.6 times more likely to commit suicide than non-attorneys. Bar associations from eight states have enacted mandatory continued legal education about mental illness and depression. And according to Brian Clarke, a former attorney and current professor at the Charlotte School of Law, this begins in law school.

Clarke has battled depression since 2005 during his days as a full-time attorney. After becoming a law professor, he incorporated a lecture in which he “comes out” to his classes about his struggle with depression and some brutal truths of the legal profession.

“I am honest with my students from the beginning,” Clarke says. “This is not Law and Order. It isn’t a John Grisham novel. It is a grind. It is billing hours and trying to keep your head above water.”

A DANGEROUS DISALLUSIONMENT

But why does the mental illness begin in law school? Researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia and Florida State University propose the controlling, institutional culture found in law schools has a “corrosive effect on the well-being, values, and motivations of students.” Studies have also revealed the humiliation, lack of control, and isolation experienced during legal has left nearly half of law students clinically depressed by the end of their legal education. The surveyed students had depression levels akin to someone unemployed or experiencing marital separation.

Clarke posits the disillusionment between what young idealistic law students think the legal profession will be and what it actually is can be a harsh reality. After spending time in a potentially calloused environment of law school, students are often released into the wilds of the legal profession to either sink or swim at a near Michael Phelps pace. First sleep goes. Then hobbies and passions. Then relationships. And then there is the stigma of depression.