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For struggling attorneys, there’s plenty of places to turn

It didn’t take long for Elizabeth Cavell’s dream job to turn into a nightmare.

“My law-school goal, my career goal was to be a public defender,” said Cavell, a Wisconsin attorney who joined the state public defender’s office in Colorado shortly after her graduation from law school in 2009.

But, as her caseload grew, so did her anxiety. And the stress took a toll.

“It really started manifest itself physically,” said Cavell, who left the public defender’s office within two years. “I had reflux. I had a lot of trouble sleeping. I would wake up early in the morning with that buzzing mind. … And it was so, kind of, tormenting because it was my first job, my career goal and there were so many things I really loved. I love my colleagues, I felt part of a larger mission, I was passionate about the clients and the work and my role in the system.

“But it got so hard to be a person in the other parts of my life,” added Cavell, who had just gotten married around the time she took her first job. “There was always so much to do on my cases, and I felt guilty when I tried to do anything else. I had so much dread. It was tormenting to face the reality that it really wasn’t working out for the way I wanted the rest of my life to look.”

She’s not alone.

Karen Bauer, an attorney at The Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, works from the organization’s office on Monday. Bauer has developed an unexpected specialty in law-school debt and the repayment of student loans. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Karen Bauer, an attorney at The Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, works from the organization’s office on Monday. Bauer has developed an unexpected specialty in law-school debt and the repayment of student loans. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

A recent study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs found that attorneys in their first 10 years of practice are more likely to experience depression and anxiety and, contrary to long-held beliefs, are more at risk for substance abuse than more experienced attorneys.

“Our young lawyers are struggling,” said Linda Albert, program manager for the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Lawyer Assistance Program, who helped write the study.

“There’s this mounting anxiety and worry about, ‘Will I be able to make it?’ and that carries over into the culture of practicing law,” Albert added. “As an associate trying to prove themselves, if you don’t come in on Saturdays, for example, you’re not cutting it because people who are really working toward partner are coming in on Saturday. It really pits people against each other, and you can see where it drives anxiety, depression and substance abuse.”

Part of the pressure is financial.

“Just anecdotally, we know that law students and recent law school graduates are really freaked out about their debt — to put it mildly. And bearing heavily on that was student loan debt,” said Karen Bauer, an attorney at The Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, who has developed an unexpected specialty in law-school debt and the repayment of student loans since graduating from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 2009.

“People used to come out of law school with $30,000 in debt and their first year they made that $30,000,” Bauer said.

Now, the cost of a legal education is closer to $100,000, and salaries are not keeping up with what recent graduates owe.

“As a result, most people going into the law cannot make the traditional 10-year repayment schedule,” Bauer said. “If I tried that, it would be half of my take-home pay. There’s just no way. And it’s causing new lawyers to question why they chose the legal profession.”

Need help?

Consider contacting the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Lawyer Assistance Program. The hotline is available 24 hours a day. And, by Wisconsin Supreme Court rules, any calls are confidential and exempt from reporting to the Office of Lawyer Regulation. Call 1-800-543-2625 for more information.

If you’re worried about anxiety and depression, here are a few things to consider, according to Linda Albert, program manager for the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Lawyer Assistance Program:

Do a self-check.

“Ask yourself, ‘How am I sleeping? How am I eating? How is my drinking? How is my social life? How am I thinking? How am I behaving? When I do need to back off, am I?’ Sometimes, we get so overwhelmed; we don’t realize we’re just running ourselves ragged. We shut down and we’re no longer really functioning,” Albert said. Ignoring emails, postponing calls or generally avoiding work can also be signs of depression and anxiety.

Check in with others.

Oftentimes, a loved-one or family member will spot signs of depression or anxiety even before a person who is suffering from those conditions. If you’re having trouble deciding whether you’re having trouble, ask yourself: How would the people in my life know if I were struggling?

Talk about it.

Therapists are certainly a valuable – and confidential – option. But talking to family and friends can also be helpful. “It’s just important to talk to someone else about what’s going on and get out of this, ‘I can think my way through it’ mentality, because that’s not what’s going on,” Albert said. “It’s not about the intellect; it’s about the emotions.”

Take action.

Depression and anxiety can lead to lackluster performance on the job. Sometimes, that can lead to a meeting with a boss. Other times, it can lead to action by the Office of Lawyer Regulation. If the OLR does get involved, make sure to respond. “When you don’t respond to that letter from the OLR, that’s when they’re brought up on charges of failing to respond,” Albert said.

And remember …

“You can get help,” Albert said. “It won’t be detrimental to your career. Having a problem like depression, even alcoholism, as long as you have not fallen down on your responsibilities to your clients, you can go to treatment. You can take medication. These are illnesses. And, like other illnesses, they can be treated.”

In fact, Bauer said, a 2013 State Bar of Wisconsin survey of young lawyers found that nearly half of respondents said, “if asked, they would not go to law school again.”

Cavell said she never regretted her decision to become an attorney. But, after burning out as a public defender — she left within two years — she seriously questioned how she might use her law degree.

“It worked out, the way life works out,” she said.

Cavell began practicing in Wisconsin in 2012 and has since joined the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison, where she works as a staff attorney. She also has a 1-year-old son and volunteers for the Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program. These developments have all helped her make peace with her career change.

“But quitting my job just felt like such a terrible failure,” Cavell said. “I really had no choice but to leave for my mental health and physical health and sanity. But, at that point, I didn’t have another job.”

Compounding her anxieties was the burden placed on her by her student debt.

“I felt so trapped, and it was just so hard for me to see any other path,” Cavell said. “I can see that now it was possible to recapture those things I loved (about my work) and felt so impossible to leave. It’s just so difficult to see that path when you’re stuck and unhealthy.”

Talking with friends and family helped.

“People were supportive, especially the people in my life with more work and life experience,” Cavell said. “Almost everyone has been through something like this. People don’t talk about times of crushing anxiety and stress, but the truth is most people have some kind of a similar story. And a lot of them are like me. What’s incredible is that this (Hazelden study) is showing that so many lawyers, especially new and young lawyers, are really struggling with the same level of impairment and debilitation.”

It’s part of the reason Cavell, Albert and Bauer agreed to speak about the trials and travails this month at the State Bar of Wisconsin Annual Meeting and Conference in Green Bay.

“We all struggle early on, and we’ve all had to take jobs we didn’t like. But,” Albert said, “the research findings have demonstrated that we now have this inverse relationship between stress symptoms, like anxiety and depression and substance abuse, and that attorneys in their first 10 or 15 years of practice are most likely to suffer.

“And, as I work more with graduating law students, they’re talking to me about how anxious they are about getting a job and being able to pay back their student loans and support themselves. And when they do get anxious and stressed they do engage in behavior to help deal with the stress like increase their drinking or their work or they isolate themselves.”

Albert hopes the dialogue spurred by this year’s study will help bring about beneficial changes. But, she acknowledged, there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Bauer agreed. “The challenge for the legal community is to help them ride it out until it gets better.”

For now, Cavell is happy to be a piece of living proof that things can improve.

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