A Formerly Depressed Lawyer Shares Critical Lessons He Learned

by rocketmatter-admin April 5, 2019

As Rocket Matter reported in its depression series, lawyers are 3.6 times as likely to be depressed as people with other jobs. More than 25% of lawyers suffer from depression. Far too many deal with addiction.

These stats really strike home because these issues have affected me, too.

I became dysfunctionally depressed in 2004 and had to quit practicing law after 27 years in the business. I was exhausted with managing clients, fighting with my partners over my compensation, and managing a stressful domestic law practice. The fact that I was successful didn’t matter—my marriage had failed and my children were struggling.

Looking back on my legal career, I realized I was not prepared to deal with the downside of the legal profession. I was judging myself based on my results, not my talents. I was competing with my partners rather than collaborating with them.

I was the fourth largest producer and yet one of the lower paid partners in the firm. Apparently, I was the only one who thought that was inequitable. Making matters much worse, my senior partner was also my father, a highly successful trial lawyer who felt “support” meant “criticize.”

I woke up one morning and could not force myself to literally “suit up” and go to work. I was done. I retired from law after nearly three decades in practice.

However, in the last 15 years since then, I've educated myself on health, wellness, and spirituality. I look back on my days as a lawyer and now realize some key points that could have helped me so many years ago.

I hope what I've learned can help others. Here are some of the biggest lessons:


    Losing does not mean that the lawyer did anything wrong.

    In some divorce cases, you just don't get the results you want. It's so personal and things are sometimes out of your control. At times, I had to realize that my real role was to simply hold my client's hand through a rough time in his or her life.

    Quite often I run into former clients who tell me they are and were truly grateful for my efforts on their behalf although we did not get the result they wanted. If I had been able to realize that nuance back then, I may have practiced law longer. I assumed that since we didn’t get what the client wanted, they didn’t like me or thought I was incompetent. In fact, they appreciated what I was doing for them. I just didn’t know it.

    How to Avoid Burnout as a Solo Practitioner

    In the fourth quarter of 2021, morale in the legal workplace was grim. 52% of lawyers felt that they experienced burnout at their job, and it’s no surprise that nearly 46% of attorneys felt like their well-being declined.

    Lawyers are perfectionists, but there is no such thing as a "perfect" lawyer.

    I was a successful attorney, but I did not feel that way. I was focused more on not losing than on doing the best I could. I was my biggest critic rather than my biggest cheerleader. I knew that no lawyer wins every case unless they do a really good job of screening and vetting their clients. And even then you don't always get everything you want. The problem is that when you are depressed, it is nearly impossible to be positive.

    Now I know that the pursuit of perfection causes inflexibility and stress. We forget that being a competent lawyer is good enough. Most “Type A” lawyers feel that winning is everything and losing means incompetence. However, even competent lawyers sometimes won’t get the biggest verdict or bring in the most cash.

    Stress management is key.

    Exercise, a healthy diet, avoiding drugs and alcohol, and maintaining a social network all can help reduce the negative effects of stress. If you are in a position that requires unhealthy billable hours, you need to consider changing that position. Losing your mental health is not worth a partnership or high income. Listen to your family and friends if they are concerned about your mental and emotional health.

    Ask for help.

    If you are struggling with self-respect, self-esteem, or insecurity, especially if you are combining that with drug or alcohol abuse, you need help before it gets too toxic. You can lose everything you worked so hard for, including your marriage, your bank account, and your reputation. Every bar association has a section with counselors for emotional and mental health. Take advantage of it. These services are confidential and can be lifesaving. Also, this article has a ton of great resources. But bottom line: Get help!


    About the Author

    James Gray Robinson, Esq. was a third-generation trial attorney, specializing in family law, for 27 years in his native North Carolina up until 2004. Since then he has become an individual and business consultant who works with a wide range of people, professional organizations, and leading corporations. Robinson’s mission is for all people to have fulfilling, peaceful career experiences and work environments. At the age of 64, Gray passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney.

    How to Avoid Burnout as a Solo Practitioner

    In the fourth quarter of 2021, morale in the legal workplace was grim. 52% of lawyers felt that they experienced burnout at their job, and it’s no surprise that nearly 46% of attorneys felt like their well-being declined.

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