Broken Hearted Idealists

June 25, 2012

“Broken-Hearted Idealists”

By:  Justice Bill Cunningham

Kentucky Supreme Court

A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine committed suicide.  He was a little younger than me.  And he was a lawyer.  I’ve had four friends commit suicide in recent years.  All lawyers.

Is there any link between these horrible events and their profession?

Only God knows.  Suicide is the most unfathomable of tragedies.

But I do know this.

According to a major study conducted 20 years ago by the National Institute for Safety and Health, lawyers were twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population.  Members of the legal profession most at risk were males between the ages of 48-65.  All my deceased friends were men.

A survey by John Hopkins University among 10,000 adults showed that, of all occupational groups, attorneys suffered from the highest signs of clinical depression.  Most lawyers tend to focus on the problems of their own clients and let their own mental and emotional needs go unattended. 15-18 percent of their group are alcoholics, as opposed to 10 percent of the general population.

While the research is limited in this area, indications are that lawyers are more likely to divorce than members of other professions.

There are two types of pressure in the practice of law.  First is the pressing need that is found in all professions—the heavy obligation of getting it right.  Whether it’s making the proper diagnosis in medicine or designing a bridge that won’t collapse, the lawyer is likewise faced with the pressure of getting it right every day.  At next Thursday’s closing of a multi-million dollar real estate deal, the lawyer had better make certain all liens have been released and there is no misprint or missing signatures in the paper work.  A misstep could cause the client delays and thousands of dollars.  Or it may be the criminal defense lawyer standing by his client as the jury returns to the courtroom with a verdict.  The client will either go out the front door with mama or out the back door with the sheriff to prison.  That defense lawyer only hopes and prays that, if his client is convicted, it’s because of the evidence and not his mistakes.

I could go on and on with endless examples where the lawyer is expected to perform every day at top speed.  There is an endless line of people with a smorgasbord of problems, constant phone calls to return.  A lot of people call with problems.  Few call with solutions.

And then there is the second most oppressive burden of a lawyer.  I’m speaking of the arena of human tragedy in which each of my suicidal friends worked.

Every lawyer worth their salt comes out of law school as an idealist.  Someone has said that lawyers are “humanists who fight.”  Young lawyers believe.  They think they can make a difference.  They want to make a difference.  To use the lance of the law to pierce injustice and evil.  To summons down the majesty of the law into courtrooms and board rooms so that people will always be treated fairly and justly.  To make the world a better place because of their efforts.

Once out in the day to day practice of law, they learn that justice is not always done.   Innocent people are abused and some go to prison.  People guilty of terrible wrongs go free, laughing at the very system of which they are a part.  Bad things happen to good people.  Bad people are unjustly enriched.

They learn that the system is not perfect, judges are not infallible, and even their own skills are inadequate to take on the vast sea of troubles on which they are afloat in their small boats.  But they keep fighting because there are, in fact, people they help; burdens they lift; lives that are changed and made better. They live from one small victory to another. If my lawyer friends are able to keep things in perspective and endure, they will spend a life time doing much good and leave behind a better world.  There will be countless people who will have been blessed by these barristers of American democracy.

Lawyers—most of them—are heroic.  You go home at night with your problems.  They go home with the problems of many.  And then they deal with their own personal problems— sick children, an alcoholic spouse, or a parent who is deep in Alzheimer’s—layered over by the demands of clients and judges and other lawyers.

But worst of all for practicing lawyers is the sinking feeling which settles upon them that in all the struggles, in the thick of battle, it all amounts to nothing.  The growing suspicion that all that they do makes no difference.  That all the worry, all the late hours and missed holidays from family and friends, and all the endless hours of worry, do not matter.  They become a weak-kneed boxer in the round 15. They keep flailing away.   But they lose their purpose.  They lose hope.

 . And unfortunately, in some instances, they have reason to despair.  In my 35 years in the justice system—years and years of sending people to prison for trafficking in illegal drugs—the scourge of illegal drugs is as bad today as when I started.  Maybe worse.  Drug abuse infests families of all social and economic class and spreads its malignant cancer into all crevices of our society.  No one, no family, is immune. But, we keep flailing away with no hope in sight.

The ballast in the hold for all successful and well-balanced lawyers was articulated by the famous Confederate General Stonewall Jackson.  “Duty is ours; consequences are God’s.”

The practice of law is not for the emotionally short-winded.  After a while, some lawyers burn out.  They become broken-hearted idealists.  Some become jaded, cynical, even bitter.  In short, they give up.

The great Victor Hugo wrote, “The human heart cannot contain more than a certain quantity of despair. When the sponge is soaked, the ocean could pass over it without its absorbing one drop more.”

This begs the darker question.  What becomes of the sponge?

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