Correlation and Causation in Lawyer Depression

The Wall Street Journal and its Law Blog focus again today on what seem to be irrefutable statistics on the higher incidence of depression among lawyers than among the general population. I don’t mean at all to make light of this; too many family and friends deal with this issue, and I realize how complex a combination of biochemistry and environment depression is. I wonder sometimes if environmental stimuli to depression outpaced the evolution of the human body’s ability to generate seratonin. (Hmm. Were people clinically depressed, in our modern sense, five hundred years ago?)

But do lawyers become depressed, or do people with a biochemical predisposition to depression become lawyers?

[Cross-posted at Legal Profession Blog]

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9 Responses

  1. Jeff,

    As with the vast majority of chronic conditions, I don’t think there is any real way to answer this question, nor do I actually think the answer is all that important, given the finding that lawyers — for whatever reasons — seem to demonstrate much higher levels of depression.

  2. Calvin TerBeek says:

    Perhaps the more salient question(s) is: did lawyers report these high(er) levels of depression 50 years ago? At what point do we see the change? A reasonable hypothesis is that the change occurred around the time profession became primarily concerned with billable hours.

  3. Adam Kolber says:

    One reason you might think the causation/correlation issue is important (in response to Daniel’s comment)is if you are trying to decide whether or not to enter the profession.

  4. Frank says:

    There is some controversy about the status of certain conditions as depression. For example, one might argue that a condition of malaise that would not lead to dysfunction in many professions would lead to big problems for many attorneys.

    If that is the case, and people in general are more likely to report conditions that impair their professional life than conditions that do not, we might see a higher rate of depression among lawyers than among the general population.

  5. Let me explain my point a bit more.

    Jeff suggested that practicing law might cause depression, or perhaps persons who are already susceptible to depression practice law in large numbers. Either way, if you are deciding whether or not to practice law — and don’t have any real insight as to whether you are prone to depression — the numbers suggest a decent basis for concern that deciding to practice law may lead to depression, regardless of whether the practice causes the depression or simply reflects a susceptibility (though I find it hard to believe that the practice of law is randomly correlated with such a spike in depression, as opposed to contributing to it in some meaningful way).

    Whether this greater likelihood is actually caused by legal practice or reflects the fact that larger numbers of persons with predispositions to depression seem to practice law, the consequence is the same, IMO: the odds, as Paul Gowder noted on L&L a few weeks ago, are significant that one thinking about entering the profession may suffer from depression. This is why I’m not really sure the distinction is all that significant.

    In any case, even if it is, I’m not optimistic we’ll be able to figure it out any time soon, any more than we can figure out the causation of any other complex chronic conditions, the vast majority of which demonstrate extremely intricate and multifactorial causation.

  6. Purely anecdotal, but as a former HS debater, I knew a lot of people who suffered from depression (myself included). These folks aren’t lawyers yet, but many of them wanted to be/will be, and they all certainly have the skill set for it. So I’m guessing that the factors that lead to depression predate starting legal practice.

  7. eric says:

    There have been studies (alas, I can’t get my hands on a citation right now) comparing law students and medical students, in which the mental health profiles of the incoming students were pretty similar, but among graduating students, the lawyers showed a greater incidence of mental health problems than the doctors. Assuming those results are valid, that would suggest that there’s something other than self-selection going on. It would also suggest that something other than the pressure of billable hours is responsible. But this does remain an unsolved puzzle.

  8. Calvin TerBeek says:

    The self-selection thesis’s plausibility arises from the “typical” lawyer’s Type A, perfectionist, driven personality. This personality type, according to a recent NY Times article, is more likely to lead to mental health problems. But don’t these same type of people — highly driven, etc. — populate most if not all of the more “prestigious” professions?

    Moreover, why not cops? Why not miners? While perhaps these professions experience depression at higher rates than the general population (wouldn’t be surprising), the question is whether self-selection is happening here too.

    Here is a link, Eric, to a paper by US Dist Judge Schliltz (former law prof at Notre Dame) that, if memory serves, collects some of that data you were referring. The title of the paper is “On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession”.

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