Criminal lawyers are masters of disguise. They learn to shroud fear, surprise, uncertainty, and a plethora of other emotions that might damage their credibility with jurors or belie a position of strength with an adversary. Similarly, those same skills enable them to conceal the repercussions of a dark side of practicing law. Stress, depression, mental illness, and substance abuse. These struggles are reality for many of our colleagues. There is help, thankfully. But the path toward healing begins with a frank discussion of this life threatening problem.
Criminal lawyers are prone to depression. Our pursuit of excellence is a jealous mistress. We are generally perfectionists, loners, and exceedingly competitive. Our profession is uncommonly stressful as we compel ourselves to perform at high levels. Moreover, equally talented professionals oppose us by working to deconstruct our best efforts. Adversity is our stock-in-trade. Imagine a surgeon entering the operating room to save an injured child. Then envision their angst as a second, equally talented physician enters the room, but now assigned to kill the patient.
We become workaholics to manage clients in crisis. Our caseloads become overwhelming. Anger works its way home to our families. Treasured hobbies go by the wayside. Vacations cease. We stop socializing because we believe we haven’t the time. Our chief source of joy becomes winning the next case. Lest we forget the age-old adage that “all glory is fleeting.”
Lawyers ranked fourth when the proportion of suicides in the profession was compared to suicides in all other occupations.1 Lawyers were 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.2 Victims tended to be trial attorneys and men of middle-age. CNN’s review of 50 state bar associations found eight associations so concerned about suicides that they took measures to stop the deadly pattern.3 California, Montana, Iowa, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina added a “mental health” component to mandatory continuing legal education.
Aren’t criminal lawyers meant to be super-human? We are not supposed to have these problems . . . but we do. Self-medication begins with a drink to numb the stress of a stomach-knotting day. Libations become a habit. Then a way of life. We stop returning client phone calls. We begin appearing late for court. We find ourselves before grievance committees. Strikingly, the stigma attached to depression, anxiety, and mental illness prevents us from seeking help.
Gratefully, our State Bar offers support through the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP) at 800-343-8527. These conversations are confidential, including the caller’s identity. Without proper intervention and treatment, substance abuse and mental illness are both chronic health conditions that worsen over time. Consequently, TLAP provides confidential support and referrals for criminal lawyers, law students, and judges who are experiencing issues with substance use and/or mental health. It provides peer assistance programs and customized CLE and education. TLAP also provides monitoring services for attorneys whose licenses are on probationary status resulting from chemical dependency or mental health issues. Lastly, TLAP volunteers are dedicated men and women who are in recovery themselves and who aspire to support colleagues in crisis.
Do not acquiesce to your master of disguise. Please don’t allow the stigma of depression and mental illness to dissuade you from seeking help. Call TLAP for yourself or call for a friend.
1. Weiss, Debra Cassens. “State bars battle lawyer depression; legal profession ranks fourth in suicide rate.” ABA Journal Online, 22 January 2014. Web.
2. Trenary, Elizabeth. “Lawyers and Depression: Understanding the Connection.” University of Miami Law Review Online, 17 February 2014. Web.
3. Flores, Rosa; Arce, Rose Marie. “Why are lawyers killing themselves?” CNN Online, 20 January 2014. Web.
(“Off the Back” featured in the “Voice For The Defense” May 2015)
Stephen Gustitis is a criminal defense lawyer in Bryan-College Station. He is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He is also a husband, father, and retired amateur bicycle racer.
“Off the Back” is an expression in competitive road cycling describing a rider dropped by the lead group who has lost the energy saving benefit of riding in the group’s slipstream. Once off the back the rider struggles alone in the wind to catch up. The life of a criminal defense lawyer shares many of the characteristics of a bicycle rider struggling alone, in the wind, and “Off the Back.” This column is for them.