A Necessary Conversation For JDs

The personalities often drawn to the legal profession combined with the nature of the career and lack of tangible positive results create a perfect storm for mental illness. Attorneys are generally driven, independent, competitive, and strong personalities. Most start off with the goal of creating impact and helping others. But they often find a business hell-bent on bottom lines and making money.
“In the last 15 or 20 years law has changed from a collegial profession to a business,” Clarke says. “There used to be a lot more support and mentoring and focus on grooming the next generation of lawyers.”
Yes, other professions have high levels of stress. Surgeons have the lives of others literally in their hands. But more times than not, if you work hard and do a good job as a surgeon, your patient lives and is better off for it. No matter how hard you work and how good of an attorney you are, you can still lose a case. And to the competitive perfectionist, the loss doesn’t just go away. It festers.
“A lot of people think you have to be a jerk to be a litigator,” says Clarke. “But we can catch more flies with honey. We don’t have to fight about everything. We don’t have to battle to the death.”
Clarke says a discussion needs to happen. And that conversation is starting in his classroom and other law classrooms around the nation. Clarke outlines his conversation in a recently published article, “Coming Out In The Classroom.” He spends the first part of his Civil Procedure course building his credibility as a former attorney and professor. He intimidates. He demands respect. Clarke then “intentionally shatters his student’s perceptions” by divulging his previous mental breakdowns and continuing struggles with depression.
“It is ultimately education,” says Clarke. “It is just openness and vulnerability. People aren’t ashamed of having high blood pressure or cancer. We are talking about a chemical imbalance in the brain.”
The conversation is a very real portrayal of the difficulties in the legal profession and that many suffer from depression and often ends in tears. And according to Clarke, it is OK. He has had many students confide in him after his discussion.
“If one person seeks help for their struggles after I speak to the class, I am beyond happy,” says Clarke. “We have to continue to be open to remove the stigma of depression. Sunlight is the ultimate disinfectant.”
Some state bar associations are offering resources for attorneys. California enacted a Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) dedicated to supporting attorneys and state bar applicants who suffer from depression. Counselors offer free assessments and then put participants in contact with helpful resources. Montana has a similar program. The Mississippi state bar has an online assessment test. The Texas state bar has a mental illness help section on their website.
“It is so easy to look something difficult like this in the eye for a second and then turn away,” says Clarke. “The most important thing is to continue to look the issue in the eye and talk about it.”

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