1. Archive

The legal battle within takes toll

You know the old joke: How do you save a lawyer from being depressed? (Who cares?)

Well, Ellen Carni makes a living at it, specializing in the woes of top-flight lawyers at some of New York's biggest firms.

They stagger to the psychologist's tweed couch with severe depression, anxiety, insomnia and other maladies common among urban professionals. But Dr. Carni sees problems that go beyond lawyers' long hours and pressures to bill _ to the fundamentals of the practice of law in the 1990s.

Other therapists cite growing evidence that lawyers suffer more than other workers. For example, a 1990 Johns Hopkins University study showed that severe depression is more likely to occur among lawyers than members of 103 other occupations. And researchers at Campbell University in North Carolina found that 11 percent of lawyers in the state thought of taking their own life at least once a month.

Although making generalizations about a profession is difficult, therapists who treat a lot of lawyers see recurring themes:

1. The Nonlawyer Within

"Many lawyers go into the field for idealistic reasons, then discover they have to distort their personalities," says New York psychoanalyst Michael Eigen. "They have to twist themselves out of shape. They have to become more nasty and aggressive than they would normally be, and the hidden, sensitive self can't bear that."

Lawyers aren't the only professionals who must step out of themselves to function effectively, he says, but lawyers' angst is exacerbated by other factors. "Unlike doctors, the sensitive lawyer who wants to help someone must often hurt someone else," Dr. Eigen says. "That can have a corrosive effect on the soul. With doctors, the feeling of helping people at no one else's expense helps compensate for a certain alienation from the self."

Murray Stein, a Jungian analyst in Wilmette, Ill., says eight of the last 10 lawyers he treated were unhappy at work, in part because of a mismatch between their personality and the job. (Jungians believe in "typologies" of people.) The problem comes up because law firms often recruit the "introverted, thinking-type" people who did well in law school _ only to require them a few years later to start drumming up business and do other "extroverted-type" things, Dr. Stein says.

2. Memos and the Void

Psychological theories dating back to Freud hold that human beings need to feel they can control their environment _ and have an impact on it. The problem for many lawyers, especially young ones at big firms, is that they toil for years without seeing the results of their labors. Associates can spend hours churning out memorandums for senior partners, who may or may not use them and in any case rarely bother to respond. Litigators spend months, even years, on pretrial filings and often switch to different matters or leave their firms before the case is resolved.

"The time from the beginning of a case to the end is very long, and if you are not the lead person on the case, sometimes you never see the effect," says David Abramis, a psychologist in Santa Monica, Calif. "We humans are designed for the feedback to happen quickly. The longer it takes from the time you do something until the time you see a result that has "you' in it, the more tension gets built up."

3. Too Bonded to the Bar

A major law firm recently asked Beverly Hills, Calif., psychoanalyst John Lundgren to consult with one of its top partners who was behaving erratically. "He had been very prominent in the '80s merger mania, a high-flying rainmaker, but suddenly clients were scrutinizing his bills more carefully," Dr. Lundgren says. The analyst determined that the lawyer was so wrapped up in his work that he could no longer separate it from himself.

"Because the self and the role are so confused, the evolving sociological phenomenon (of client scrutiny) is taken too personally," Dr. Lundgren says. "It's not just a feeling that the law firm is going through client changes and economic changes, but it's felt as a deep threat to self-esteem."

Seth Aidinoff, a psychiatrist with many Wall Street patients, says the increasing competitiveness and cost pressure of the legal business are particularly torturous for older lawyers. "They had a very strong sense of a special professional identity. Now there's a loss of the partnership mentality, the sense of collegiality," and they take it personally, Dr. Aidinoff says.

4. So I Really Am a Shark

According to the Gestalt school of psychology, people internalize qualities projected on them by others. So lawyers may be in trouble because they are taking in society's distaste for what they do. "Nobody ever says they want a nice lawyer," says Vivien Wolsk, a Gestalt psychologist in New York. "They say, "I want a barracuda. I want a real throat-slitter.' So lawyers have these qualities dumped on them."

Dr. Wolsk says that many people who become lawyers were "good boys and girls" who grew up doing things people wanted them to do. But then they become the representatives of others, "still doing things people want them to do, but not nice things," she says.

5. Oedipus and the Managing Partner

The psychological agony of junior lawyers arises when partners are omnipotent, and associates are infantilized, some therapists say. "Young lawyers are ordered around by partners and have very little say," says Dr. Carni of New York. "It pulls on this whole childhood feeling that "if I don't please my parents, I will be abandoned and die.'

" Associates under the heel of an all-powerful partner may connect the experience with early-childhood memories of a parent, she says.

Moreover, unlike other companies, most law firms don't draw clear lines of authority. Rather than having one boss, most associates can be called on at the drop of a hat by numerous partners. Dr. Carni says associates often tell her that they are trying to please many partners who make conflicting demands at once. "Whose need do you meet?" she asks.

6. Law Is in the Details

Finally, many therapists say their lawyer patients complain that the work itself is too detail-oriented and dull. "It's obsessional. It's splitting hairs over the differences between words," says Larry Hirschhorn, a psychoanalytically trained management consultant in Philadelphia. "It's hard for most lawyers to get passionate about that" _ unless they're stuck in the anal stage.