Growing Pains: Young Lawyers and Ignoring Depression
Posted Apr 13 2013 11:39am
I won’t mince words about this: depression is a real illness, and it really, really stinks. That may be an obvious point for anyone drawn to read this, but obvious as it may be, it is worth repeating aloud occasionally for people like me who learned it the hard way.
To the extent that the depression literature addresses its prevalence within our profession, most of it seems to be directed to, or at least about, our more veteran practitioners: the shareholders and shareholder-aged lawyers among us who have been honing their craft for a decade or more. But depression is not an ageist beast. To the contrary, it is indiscriminately opportunistic and content to sprout quietly from a tiny seed, and young lawyers should not be afraid, as I was, to acknowledge this.
You see, we young lawyers are eager to hit the ground running in our careers. We have typically been successful at everything else we have done in life, and don’t for a second think that our journey through this profession will be any different. Already Type-A overachievers to begin with in many cases, our desire to succeed these days is heightened by the fact that, especially for young “BigLaw” associates, we know there is a long line of potential replacements waiting in the wings. Contrary to many of our veteran colleagues, the only legal market we have ever known is that of the Great Recession, where the supply of new lawyers far outpaces the demand for their services.
So we put our heads down and work because that is what we have always done, and because want to be as good at our careers as we have been at everything else in our lives. However, for many of my peers (lawyers who have been out of law school for six years or less), our burning desire to succeed from Day One, coupled with the modern legal services landscape, is creating a potentially expensive psychological cocktail.
Nine weeks ago, at the ripe age of twenty-eight and nearly four years out of law school, I was diagnosed with depression after failing to heed the warning signs that festered unattended to for over a year. I was stunned by the news. How could this have snuck up on me?
I had always prided myself on being even keeled and thoughtful, someone who always had a good feel on his internal pulse. I had done well in law school, too. I graduated near the top of my class, was the editor-in-chief of the law review, worked as a research assistant, and had two law review articles to my credit. During my 3L year, just after Lehman Brothers collapsed and the hiring market started to spiral into the abyss, I got a state court appellate clerkship with a great judge (who happened to be an even better person, and has been one of my best sources of support these days). I was smart, worked hard, and generally checked off all the boxes budding young lawyers were supposed to.
As my clerkship term was winding down in early 2011, I received an offer to join an Am-Law Top 10 law firm, the biggest and best in town. It was an opportunity of a lifetime, and I happily accepted. Sometime thereafter is when things started to fall apart. During the 2011 holidays, it struck me just how much I had been grinding at the firm. I was still getting my feet wet to some degree, but my overwhelming desire to please and be perfect meant that I was seeing my wife for barely two hours a day during the week, and going weeks if not months at a time without seeing any other family or friends. I was working so hard, and yet the billable hours weren’t reflecting it. “Suck it up,” I thought, “you’re a young lawyer paying your dues. All of your peers are in the same boat and you’re lucky to be paying them here!”
And so it trudged on, constantly tweaking my schedule and searching for any edge to achieve that magical balance between the ideal young associate and fulfilled human being. For the better part of a year, I suppressed any feelings that didn’t sync with my war chant: “You’re blessed. People would gladly trade places with you. Represent yourself, your family, your law school!”
As time wore on, I began to lose the control I had always had over my life. A classic overachiever, I had always striven to be the consummate All-American Kid, juggling an apparently impossible plate of demands, goals, and desires with aplomb. For the first time in my life, the internal and external pressures I was feeling were making it difficult for me to juggle, and as the balls hit the ground I felt myself sinking into a pit of deep frustration. The frustration turned to anger, which turned to sadness, and ultimately the pervasive emptiness that is depression’s hallmark.