Why do lawyers, “an occupation particularly at risk”, display such high levels of psychological distress?  A team of Australian researchers constructed a stress model specific to lawyers, and used it recently to investigate this very important question.  Their study provides new and important insights into the previously reported, but unexplored high levels of depression and anxiety and depression suffered by lawyers in Australia, America, and other countries.

Overcommitment, an individual difference variable, helps to explain why lawyers experience such high levels of psychological distress.  A need to reduce overcommitment within the legal profession exists.  The insights provided by this study highlight the great need to identify lawyers at risk and also begin the development of interventions to prevent damage to lawyers’ lives and careers.

Lawyers suffer depression and anxiety at levels much higher than the general population.  According to one American study, lawyers ranked as the most depressed of 105 professions.  The psychological distress of lawyers has been described as “alarming”.  The mental and physical health landscape of this severe psychological distress has been well documented in several places, including America, Australia, and Canada.

Sadly, lawyers’ distress includes depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, and even suicide.  This suffering concerns and threatens their lives and health.  This serious business concerns not just them and their firms, companies, or departments, but the fallout impacts lawyers’ cases or matters.  Lawyers’ high level of psychological distress and mental ill-health impacts them, their clients, employers, courts, and the general community.

The Job Demands and Job Resources of the Legal Profession Feed the Beast of Lawyers’ Mental Ill-Health

A well-established occupational stress model [Job Demands Resources (JD-R) Model] assumes that every occupation has its own peculiar risk factors.  These fall into two categories:  job demands and job resources.  Each category encompasses psychological, physical, organizational, or social aspects.  Demands require continued physical or psychological effort.  Resources exist at four levels:  organizational, interpersonal, supervisor, and task.  Job resources assist us in learning, development, and growth, and operate to reduce demands and stress-related coasts.

Chronic job demands and lack of job resources exhaust our mental and physical resources.  This leads to job strain, a condition of energy depletion and health problems.  Under JD-R theory, strain develops when demands require specific resources and those resources exist in limited supply.  Increasing resources, the theory goes, without necessarily decreasing a job’s inherent demands, can buffer that strain effect.

The research team examined four lawyer-relevant job demands in this study.  We know these well:  time pressure [feeling not having enough time to do the work and doing work quickly], emotional demands [working with or around people with distressing problems], emphasis on profits [press to push limits of human productivity – constantly operating in crisis mode makes the practice of law the “business of law”], and competitiveness [number of lawyers increasing and insufficient business to support them – backbiting, aggression, and incivility].  Prior research has shown that these four broad demands have a significant positive relationship with depression and anxiety, feelings of pressure, and psychological strain among lawyers.

The researchers selected three lawyer-relevant job resources for their study:  job control [ability to influence one’s role and make decisions in that role], pay [extrinsic reward], and praise [intrinsic reward]. These have been found to buffer stress and relate to decreased depression in lawyers, and the investigators hypothesized that in high amounts, these resources would negatively relate to depression and anxiety.

Overcommitment – An Individual Difference Vulnerability Factor

Overcommitment, “a distinct personal pattern of coping with job demands”, reflects “excessive work-related commitment and striving, in combination with a strong need to be approved and esteemed.”  It closely resembles workaholism, a concept often associated with lawyers.  A strong inner drive to work motivates this behavior.  The overcommitted lack ability to withdraw from work.  Such constant involvement with work exhausts a person in the long term.

The authors noted that a recent review of studies found that overcommitted employees have range of about 2 to 5 times greater likelihood of suffering psychosomatic symptoms, including depression, compared to the less committed workers.  They also noted that prior to this study, “Despite is potential relevance to lawyers, it appears that overcommitment (or workaholism) has not been examined with respect to lawyers.”  The study featured in this post examined the hypothesis that high overcommitment with positively relate to depression and anxiety.

Workers with excessive work overcommitment overestimate their resources for coping.  They also underestimate the external demands placed on them.  This combination increases their risk of job strain.  Prior research with blue-collar workers showed that high overcommitted employees experienced worse health outcomes when they perceived high job demands.  This study extended the research about the effect of overcommitment to a lawyer sample.   This study is important because “a high degree of overcommitment is necessary by lawyers to meet demanding working conditions.”

Participants, Procedure, and Measures

Currently working Australian lawyers (n = 448) completed an online questionnaire.  The average age was 38 years old.  Participants had practiced an average of 12 1/2 years.  The participants came from small, medium, and large firms and worked in a wide variety of practice contexts, e.g. government, in-house.

The investigators used a number of scales or adaptations from scales, and measured aspects from the three broad areas of their study:  job demands (time pressure, emotional demands, emphasis on profits, and competitiveness), job resources (control, pay, and praise), and overcommitment (the inability to withdraw from work, disproportionate irritability).  Finally, they measured depression (mood states, e.g. lack of interest or involvement, hopelessness, and weekly feeling) and anxiety (arousal states, muscle tension, feelings over past week).


Overcommitted female attorney working on vacationWithout discussing the data analyses or techniques, a summary of selected results provides the following:

  • General demands and lawyer demands had a significant positive relationship with depression and anxiety
  • High levels of job control and pay each had a significant negative relationship with depression and anxiety
  • High levels of praise did not relate to decreased anxiety
  • High overcommitment positively related with depression and anxiety
  • Compared to low overcommitted lawyers, the positive relationship of general demands on depression was more marked for high overcommitted lawyers
  • Compared to low overcommitted lawyers, the positive relationship of general demands on anxiety was more marked for high overcommitted lawyers
  • Compared to less overcommitted lawyers, the negative relationship of high pay on anxiety was more marked for high overcommitted lawyers
  • With high overcommitment, a positive relationship between lawyer demands and depression for lawyers with high control existed
  • For lawyers low in overcommitment, the positive relationship between lawyer demands and depression was weakest with high control and significantly related to depression for lawyers with low control
  • For high overcommitted lawyers with high control, general demands positively related to anxiety

Discussion, Implications, and Cautions About Priority Adjustments  . . . .

Lawyer working on vacationThis research investigated the “why”, and extends understanding about the connection between lawyers and their psychological distress – lawyers suffer from high levels of depression and anxiety.  The job’s high general demands (time pressure and emotional demands) and lawyer demands (emphasis on profits and competitiveness) feed the beast of lawyers’ mental ill-health, according to the findings from the authors’ study.  Lawyers suffer from “overcommitment” as defined in the psychological literature.  This post will not detail the limitations and future research possibilities from this research.  Instead, it closes by mentioning some key take-away points.

Overcommitment means that lawyers are unable to separate from and disconnect themselves from their work.  That is not a good thing.  This research employed a large, a diverse lawyer sample from a variety of workplaces, and it confirmed previous findings.  The study showed that lawyers high in overcommitment have higher risks for depression and anxiety.  Significantly, with that group, increasing job control and paying more and giving more praise does not seem to reduce the impact of job demands on strain and psychological distress.

Legal leaders should consider this study.  It presents “new” and important information and contributions to insight regarding lawyers, work, and professionalism from psychological science:

“The present study makes evident that being highly overcommitted to one’s job may have a negative impact on psychological well-being. It should be acknowledged that, as hardworking individuals, overcommitted lawyers also may strive to meet organizational goals, making them an asset to the workplace. However, the potential promotion of overcommitment within law firms should be considered carefully.”

Decreasing workloads or providing more resources will not help overcommitted lawyers handle the beast of mental ill-health related to their work.  Some key cautions to legal leaders and lawyers about this serious problem include:

“Indeed, increasing certain resources may actually produce greater strain for overcommitted lawyers and, for this reason, should be used cautiously within the legal profession. Rather, priority should be given within workplaces to identifying overcommitted lawyers, and to developing preventative interventions to reduce levels of overcommitment prior to the development of strain.”

A strong need to reduce the level of overcommitment with the legal profession exists.  Lawyers’ job demands and resources relate to their psychological distress, i.e. depression and anxiety, and job strain, i.e. depletion of energy and health problems.  We know more about the “why” now – their overcommitment to the work makes lawyers an occupation “particularly at risk”.  Legal leaders have good reasons now to begin exploring and considering interventions which can foster lawyers’ relaxation, teach them how to better cope with stress and anger, and to help lawyers rethink and adapt their overcommitment work-related attitudes and behaviors.  Leaders, and lawyers, what will you do now?

First Steps . . .

Judges, lawyers, court administrators, and other legal services actors, leaders and managers, and administrators can learn about and implement effective emotion regulation strategies.  I suggest that this more emotionally intelligent approach to legal services work can help those affected deal with overcommitment.  A suggested first step:  engage a qualified emotional intelligence practitioner who has practiced law for over 20 years.  Judges and lawyers, do not leave your organization’s and your own personal and professional development and career success to chance. . . . Contact me at dan@adlitemsolutions.com to arrange for an initial complimentary, confidential consultation about assessment-driven coaching strategies and interventions.

Thank you

Please visit again soon. See you next time.  Dan DeFoe JD MS – Adlitem Solutions | Organization Development for Professional Services Firms and the Legal Profession: People. Projects. Practices |www.adlitemsolutions.com| email:  dan@adlitemsolutions.com | Blog www.psycholawlogy.com.

Article Source:  Bergin, A., & Jimmieson, N. (2013). Explaining psychological distress in the legal profession: The role of overcommitment. International Journal of Stress Management, 20 (2), 134-161 DOI: 10.1037/a0032557.

Image Credits:  Why here / Lawyer job demands here / Overcommitted lawyer here / / Lawyer working on vacation here / Female attorney working on vacation here

Dan DeFoe

Owner and Lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions
I'm an attorney with 20+ years of experience and have an MS degree in organizational development psychology. I provide normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, assessment interpretation and feedback, and professional development planning and training activities for lawyers, judges, other legal services providers, and their organizations.

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