For Bertrand Russell, the mark of a civilized person was “the capacity to read a column of numbers and weep.” By his standards, we law students must be one notch below barbarian. Law students are so inept at seeing the bigger picture, we’ll bask in the headlights of an oncoming car—just, you know, to keep our options open.
Despite overwhelming evidence, law students enter careers that have incredible rates of depression, substance abuse, and dissatisfaction. And, to top it off, these are careers that make the world a deadlier, dirtier, and less fair place to live.
When I told my friend’s father I was going to HLS, he said: “Congratulations. But Christ, don’t become a lawyer. Last week at my 25-year Harvard reunion, I attended a panel on ‘mid-life career changes.’ It was basically a therapy session for lawyers.”
This isn’t news to us. We know the numbers. We know the famous Johns Hopkins study that found lawyers lead the nation in depression rates. We know that lawyers beat out dentists in the ‘90s (go lawyers!) as the profession with the highest rate of suicide. Heck, even the ABA found that 18-20 percent of lawyers suffer from alcoholism or substance abuse—twice the national average.
But do we appreciate the take-away of all this? The lack of time to spend with our kids? The impact on marriage and other relationships? The crushing psychological dissonance of spending the vast majority of one’s waking life doing something so… depressing?
So what is it about us law students? Why do we enter careers that make us, on the whole, so terribly unhappy? Some suggest we’re more depressed before law school—that we’re all OCD gunners deep down. Yet multiple studies have found that law students enter law school with a similar psychological profile to the general public—and that we leave with “strong declines in positive affect, life satisfaction, and aggregate SWB [subjective well-being].” Ouch.
But setting aside the soul-sucking effects of law school, the inability to take numbers seriously isn’t unique to law students. Instead, it’s the same psychological phenomenon that gets us to focus on isolated, horrific incidents instead of broad, horrific patterns.
It’s why we can read about grisly murders every day in the tabloids and not process the staggering number of gun deaths every year. It looks like it will take the nightmarish killing of 20 white, upper-middle class, innocent children for the country to respond to the 11,000 gun-related deaths per year (not counting the outrageous number of suicides).
The problem’s even bigger with car and tobacco deaths. Where September 11th killed 2,977 people, over 42,000 Americans died from car accidents in 2001 and nearly 443,000 Americans die prematurely from tobacco-related causes every year. We don’t allocate a fraction of the $4 trillion spent on military efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to address those much deadlier problems.
And, lastly, it’s no coincidence that the most abstract and intractable problem is the deadliest—climate change. Scientists estimate that climate change is ALREADY responsible for over 400,000 deaths a year. By 2030, the carbon crisis is predicted to have taken up to 100 million lives.
Okay, okay, wait, wait! Before you check out in light of all these darn numbers (which is, after all, the problem), let me bring it back to law school.
It’s easy to understand why we don’t have comprehensive gun regulation in the US: Americans don’t appreciate the enormity of the problem, and the NRA lobbying machine has completely dominated the political process.
The exact same logic applies to car deaths, tobacco deaths, and climate change: Americans don’t appreciate the enormity of the problems, and lawyer have completely dominated the political process—opposing everything from air bags to health warnings to emissions standards.
But where the gun nuts have the NRA, the world’s most powerful corporations have BigLaw.
And this is where the self-delusion of law students reaches new heights. Not only do we ignore the profound rates of depression and dissatisfaction in the legal profession, we also ignore the very nature of our work—working for (and often arguing on behalf of) the companies that oppose the changes that will make our world safer, healthier, and fairer.
We couldn’t imagine working for the NRA, but we’ll work for its much richer, deadlier, and more influential cousin.
Even if we don’t work at a firm that directly defends tobacco companies for lying to the public (you know, like Davis Polk or Paul Weiss or Jones Day or Womble Carlyle or Covington & Burling or Kirkland & Ellis or Dewey & LeBouef), we comfort ourselves by saying we’re just shifting money from one corrupt corporation to another.
We are not the climate deniers or the financiers who’ve left millions homeless, we argue. We are merely their transactional lifeblood. Don’t you see the difference?
When viewed honestly, it’s no wonder that lawyers are so depressed and so eager to leave the profession. They sacrifice their family, friends, and free time—for what, to embolden the world’s wealthiest companies as they deny the consequences of their actions?
Perhaps the biggest delusion is not that we will be happy in our jobs. It is that we are doing something harmless.
The good news is that we are smart, we are educated, and we can see the headlights coming from miles away. It’s time we recognize the road we’re on—and get off before it’s too late.