Book looks at attorney distress

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  • | 12:00 p.m. February 2, 2004
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by Richard Prior

Staff Writer

It wasn’t that Susan Daicoff didn’t know any happy attorneys. They’re everywhere. Successful, smiling people parking their Hummers next to the yacht.

It was just that, to Daicoff, so many seemed unhappy.

She didn’t know the half of it.

“Lawyers suffer from alcoholism, depression, anxiety and other psychological problems at a rate that’s consistently twice that of the general population,” she said. “Something like one in five lawyers is walking wounded.

“That kind of psychological distress is pretty relevant to a psychologist. This population has an inordinate frequency of psychological problems.”

Some people were talking about the problem, but no comprehensive studies had been done. Daicoff, now a law professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, decided to tackle the project. After nine years of work that stretches back, sporadically, to 1991, the findings have been printed in her new book, “Lawyer, Know Thyself.”

Daicoff had the interest and the credentials to do the work. A 1983 graduate of the University of Florida Law School, she has been a practicing attorney in corporate, tax and transactional law. In 1995, she became an associate professor of law at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio.

She also earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology and worked as a mental health therapist for two years.

“I became interested in lawyer personality and lawyer distress,” she said. “What makes lawyers tick? What makes lawyers different from nonlawyers?”

In the process, she figured to learn something about the well-being of the legal profession.

She began her research in 1991, then put it on hold for a while while she practiced law. The project began in earnest in 1995.

The book lays out several possible reasons for “lawyer stress.”

One says that “extreme lawyer stereotypes” develop stress because they are so focused on achievement that they get frustrated when they don’t win all the time.

“You’re so ambitious and so aggressive that you end up being socially isolated,” said Daicoff.. “You end up sort of being this warrior in all aspects of your life. That tends to harm your personal life as well.”

The second theory is that those who lack a kamikaze attitude will become distressed.

“That’s what I think,” she said. “If you are too empathetic, too compassionate, too caring, too people-oriented, the current traditional practice of law tends to eat you alive.

“You experience a dissonance in your values and the values expressed by the profession as a whole, and you can develop stress.”

Daicoff conducted an empirical pilot study in Columbus to try to prove that hypothesis, “but the data didn’t prove it. That is my theory, but I’m not entirely sure.”

A third possibility comes from some “groundbreaking research” being done by a professor at Florida State.

“He found that law students’ distress was associated with focusing on extrinsic satisfactions as opposed to intrinsic satisfaction,” Daicoff said. “To the extent people are focused on money, power, prestige, grades, social approval, they tended to be more unhappy.

“To the extent they were focused on things that were intrinsically satisfying — satisfying because they enjoyed doing them — they were happier.

“Law school tends to shift people’s values. He suggests that we encourage people in law school to hang onto those intrinsic values and that they will then be happier in the profession.”

The end of the book discusses some alternative ways of practicing law “that provide a nice antidote to the traditional gladiatorial, adversarial practice,” said Daicoff.

Those alternatives come under the Comprehensive Law Movement, or what others have termed Law as a Healing Profession. They include collaborative law, creative-problem-solving and restorative justice.

“Many in that movement think people are going to have to learn to practice in these more compassionate ways, or they’re not going to be satisfied,” she said.

Daicoff, however, hopes this all doesn’t become an either-or proposition.

“I think there are some lawyers who are really happy being a lawyer, being a fighter, and seeing it as sort of a win-lose game,” she said. “I think there are some lawyers who find that extremely fulfilling.

“I would hate to lose those people. I would hate for the whole law profession to change. I guess what I advocate for is diversification of the legal profession.”

(Copies of “Lawyer, Know Thyself” are available through the American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C., at or e-mail address: [email protected])