The law (as practiced) is all about winning and not about the truth.
Generally speaking, the law itself is neutral. It is the lawyers and their clients who turn it into a win/lose dynamic.
That being said, there are severe negative consequences to binary thinking in a non-binary world.
According to a major new study released this week:
“Researchers have long known that lawyers are more prone than other professionals to heavy drinking, anxiety and depression. But the problem is worse than previously thought, especially for law firm associates.”
The long-awaited national study, funded by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, was published online in the Journal of Addiction Medicine. It found that more than a third of practicing attorneys — 36% — reported alcohol use “consistent with hazardous drinking or possible alcohol abuse or dependence,” according to clinical criteria.
More than a fifth of licensed, employed attorneys in the U.S. self-reported that they had a problem with alcohol. Another 28% of working lawyers said they were battling depression, and 19% said they struggled with symptoms of anxiety, according to the study.
Lawyers working in private firms reported higher levels of abuse than those in other environments, and junior and senior associates reported especially high levels of problem alcohol use.
Patrick Krill, an attorney and clinician who directs the legal professionals program at the Minnesota-based Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, said that the new research doesn’t delve into the reasons that lawyers seem especially prone to problem drinking and other substance abuse. But he said his own clinical work suggests some explanations.
‘There is a sense that it is a perfect storm of variables that lead to higher incidence of problem drinking, partly to do with people who are attracted to the profession in the first place: competitive, driven, ambitious, hardworking people who prioritize success and accomplishment way above personal health and well-being,” Krill said.
Those tendencies are only exacerbated by the demands on working lawyers, Krill said.
“You put them in an environment that is ultracompetitive, where they are encouraged to conceal any weaknesses they may have, and the prevailing coping mechanisms are dysfunctional — whether drinking or substance abuse…Heavy drinking is 100 percent normalized within the legal profession.”
The research project is the most comprehensive study of substance abuse and mental health problems in the legal profession since the 1990s, when studies found that lawyers had nearly four times the rate of depression as those in other occupations. Researchers said then that 15-20% of lawyers abused alcohol or other drugs, compared with about 10% of the general U.S. population.
These researchers found that substance abuse and mental health problems especially plagued attorneys in the first decade of practice, challenging previous findings that rates of alcohol abuse increased over the course of lawyers’ careers.
“It seems to be in the first 10 years of their practice that most lawyers are experiencing the highest rates of these problems now,” Krill said. “That is not to suggest that lawyers in the later states of their careers have lower rates of drinking. It is just most problematic in the first 10 years.”
Survey respondents who were 30 years of age or younger were significantly more likely to abuse alcohol, and 42 percent said the abuse started before or during law school. Of the 22.6 percent who reported they felt their use of alcohol or other substances was a problem at some point in their lives, 27.6 percent said it started before law school and 14.2 percent said abuse started in law school.
Most said the problem started at some point after joining the legal profession. About 46.7 percent said their problem drinking started within 15 years of graduating from law school, and about 14.6 percent said alcohol problems started more than 15 years after law school.”
“The Shield: Viking or Victim
I recognized this piece of armor when a significant group of research participants indicated they had very little use for the concept of vulnerability. Their responses to the idea that vulnerability might have value ranged from dismissive and defensive to hostile. What emerged from these interviews and interactions was a lens on the world that essentially saw people divided into two groups (ahem, like me and Sir Ken Robinson) that I call Vikings or Victims.
Unlike some participants who had intellectual or theoretical issues with the value of vulnerability, these folks shared the belief that everyone without exception belongs to one of two mutually exclusive groups: Either you’re a Victim in life – a sucker or loser who’s always being taken advantage of or who can’t hold your own — or you’re a Viking — someone who sees the threat of being victimized as a constant, so you stay in control, you dominate, you exert power over things, and you never show vulnerability.
As I coded the data from these interviews, I kept thinking about the chapter in my dissertation on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and binary opposition (the pairing of related terms that are opposite). While the respondents didn’t all use the same examples, a strong pattern of paired opposites emerged in the language they used to describe their worldview: winner or loser, survive or die, kill or be killed, strong or weak, leaders or followers, success or failure, crush or be crushed. And in case those aren’t clear enough, there’s the life motto of a high-achieving, take-no-prisoners lawyer, ‘The world is divided into assholes and suckers. It’s that simple.
The source of their Viking-or-Victim worldview was not completely clear, but most attributed it to the values they had been taught growing up, the experience of surviving hardships, or their professional training….
In addition to socialization and life experiences, many of these folks held jobs or worked in cultures that reinforced the Viking-or-Victim mentality: We heard this from servicemen and -women, veterans, corrections and law-enforcement officers, and people working in high-performance, super competitive cultures like law, technology, and finance.
What I don’t know is if these folks sought careers that leveraged their existing Viking-or-Victim belief system, or if their work experiences shaped this win-or-lose take on life. My guess would be that a larger percentage of folks belong to the former group, but I don’t have the data to do more than speculate. It’s something we’re researching now.
One issue that made these interviews some of the most difficult was the honesty with which people spoke about the struggles in their personal lives — dealing with high-risk behaviors, divorces, disconnection, loneliness, addiction, anger, exhaustion. But rather than seeing these behaviors and negative outcomes as consequences of their Viking-or-Victim worldview, they perceived them as evidence of the harsh win-or-lose nature of life…
[W]hen we lead, teach, or preach from a gospel of Viking or Victim, win or lose, we crush faith, innovation, creativity, and adaptability to change…. Lawyers – an example of a professional largely trained in win or lose, succeed or fail — have outcomes that aren’t much better. The American Bar Association reports that suicides among lawyers are close to four times greater than the rate of the general population.
An American Bar Association Journal article reported that experts on lawyer depression and substance abuse attributed the higher suicide rate to lawyers’ perfectionism and on their need to be aggressive and emotionally detached. And this mentality can trickle down into our home lives as well. When we teach or model to our children that vulnerability is dangerous and should be pushed away, we lead them directly into danger and disconnection.
The Viking or Victim armor doesn’t just perpetuate behaviors such as dominance, control, and power over folks who see themselves as Vikings, it can also perpetuate a sense of ongoing victimhood for people who constantly struggle with the idea that they’re being targeted or unfairly treated. With this lens, there are only two possible positions that people can occupy – power over or powerless.
In the interviews I heard many participants sound resigned to Victim simply because they didn’t want to become the only alternative in their opinion – Vikings. Reducing our life options to such limited and extreme roles leaves very little hope for transformation and meaningful change. I think that’s why there’s often a sense of desperation and feeling ‘boxed in’ around this perspective.…
Ultimately the question that best challenges the logic behind Viking or Victim for both groups is this: How are you defining success?
It turns out that in this win-or-lose, succeed-or-fail paradigm, Vikings are not victorious by any metric that most of us would label ‘success.’ Survival or winning may be success in the midst of competition, combat, or trauma, but when the immediacy of that threat is removed, merely surviving is not living. As I mentioned earlier, love and belonging are irreducible needs of men, women, and children, and love and belonging are impossible to experience without vulnerability. Living without connection – without knowing love and belonging – is not victory. Fear and scarcity fuel the Viking-or-Victim approach and part of reintegrating vulnerability means examining shame triggers; what’s fueling the win-or-lose fear? The men and women who made the shift from this paradigm to Wholeheartedness all talked about cultivating trust and connection in relationships as a prerequisite for trying on a less-combative way of engaging with the world.”
The world recently lost its greatest chef to suicide and the story exemplifies everything about which Brene’ Brown writes.
“Benoît Violier, the French-Swiss chef who scaled the heights of gastronomy to preside over a small Swiss restaurant that was named the best in the world in December, has died by what appears to have been suicide. He was 44….
The precise circumstances of Mr. Violier’s death remained unclear, but other top chefs have been pushed to suicide, buffeted by a high-pressure world that demands perfection and where culinary demigods can be demoted with the stroke of a pen….
According to the French news media, Mr. Loiseau had been distraught over a slight demotion in the Gault & Millau guide, one of the world’s most influential arbiters of culinary excellence, and was worried that he could lose a star in the next edition of the Michelin guide….
Gabriel Waterhouse, a young and innovative British chef, who until recently was at Galvin La Chapelle, which has one Michelin star, said star chefs like Mr. Violier operated in an extremely competitive atmosphere, in which speaking about fears was taboo….
The expectation of creating a masterwork every day could push some chefs to depression and exhaustion.”
Certainly, success as he defined it doesn’t appear to have made him happy.
We have the issue of perfectionism in a world in which nobody and nothing is or can be perfect. Apparently, he may have sincerely believed that the potential loss of one Michelin star was worth his life. Of course, we get into the binary Viking-or-Victim worldview.
Beware of the Viking-or-Victim worldview, one that is prevalent among those involved in the practice of law.
We don’t live in a binary world, which results in a great many problems for people with binary worldviews.
This ultimately begs the question: Are you certain that you want binary thinkers helping you solve your problems?
Might I suggest considering mediation or collaborative law instead?
This article originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.
Photo credit: Getty Images/516985301