The Stress of the Legal Profession: A Guide for Black Attorneys


stress of the legal profession
It’s often said that the holidays are the most stressful time of the year.  If this is true, any lawyer should be well-prepared to handle whatever the holidays bring.  Law is one of the most stressful professions in America.  While all attorneys experience stress, life as an African American attorney presents additional challenges.  This post will examine the stressful nature of the legal profession, the hardships faced by Black attorneys, and tips for coping with the stress of the legal profession.

The Stress of the Legal Profession

Those in the legal profession experience more stress than those in nearly every other professional career.   Lawyers outrank members of other profession in their levels of stress, depression, and other indicators of well-being.  According to research from the ABA, 36 percent of lawyers are problem drinkers.  (For comparison, the rate of alcoholism in other educated professions is only 12 percent.)   The ABA also found that 28 percent of lawyers experience depression, while 19 percent face anxiety.

The stress of the legal profession complicates life in a number of ways.   Lawyers, particularly those in BigLaw, seem highly prone to divorce.  And though M.D.s have the disgraceful distinction of having the highest suicide rate among educated professions, at number four on the list, we lawyers are not far behind.  And even when lawyers do not directly take their own lives, as one widow’s haunting letter recently reminded us, some BigLaw associates literally work themselves to death.  Clearly, the stress of the legal profession takes a toll on legal professionals.

Sources of Stress in the Legal Profession

Researchers have developed several theories as to why the legal profession is so stressful.  One explanation focuses on the profession’s culture.  Some argue that law school – the one-shot final exam, the ranking system, and the general competitiveness of it all – starts young lawyers down a stress-filled path.  Moreover, nearly all social events in the legal profession feature ample amounts of alcohol.  Making alcohol such a major part of legal socializing causes many attorneys to feel that it is not only socially acceptable to indulge, but necessary for their career advancement.

Other explanations focus on the nature of the profession itself.  These experts explain that the legal profession is unique in that nearly every person you encounter is a possible adversary – and not just opposing counsel.  Lawyers argue with co-workers, co-counsel, judges, and even clients.  This state of constant conflict causes stress.  Other research focuses on the lack of control lawyers have over their work.  While lawyers obviously control their work product, even when a lawyer does her absolute best, judges, clients, and others determine the final outcome.  Knowing that you can give your all and still not prevail causes stress and depression for many attorneys.

The final explanation realizes that the law is a high-stakes profession.  Cases concerning family law, criminal law, and personal injury can change a client’s life overnight.  A mistake by a corporate or estate attorney can cost a client millions of dollars.  Lawyers stress about these cases because they care about their clients and they want to provide quality representation.

No matter its cause (or causes), it is clear that stress in the legal profession is a real phenomenon.

African American Attorneys and Stress

While all attorneys experience stress, African American attorneys face stressors that their white peers do not.  First and foremost, despite decades of effort, the legal profession remains predominately white.  As a result, African American attorneys often feel isolated.  Additionally, racial biases in the profession – both implicit and explicit – cause African American attorneys to feel that they must excel beyond expectations.  This fear, known as stereotype threat, creates additional stress for Black attorneys.

While the legal professional is stressful for all Black attorneys, it subjects Black women to circumstances that create even higher levels of stress.  An older article from the ABA Journal reported that women of color were less likely to get prime assignments and given fewer billable hours.  The ABA summarized these findings by reporting that women of color were “overlooked and undervalued.”   The article concluded that the lack of respect was one reason why Black women and other women of color were leaving the profession “in droves.”

Handling the Stress of the Legal Profession

Though the legal profession can be quite stressful, the good news is that the profession is becoming more aware of this reality.  The ABA has created a list of simple, yet effective steps lawyers can take to reduce their stress.  Eating right, getting the proper amount of sleep, and exercising are easy ways to reduce stress.  If simple steps do not work, the ABA has created a list of Lawyer Assistance Programs (LAP).  These programs provide confidential help and support for lawyers who struggle with substance abuse or mental health issues.

If you are struggling with depression or substance abuse, please find and LAP or seek help from a medical professional.  If you are feeling isolated, find and join your local black bar association.  The African American Attorney Network is also a useful resource.  The Network was created to provide a place for African American attorneys and other attorneys of color to find the support and mentoring they need to excel in the profession.