You’re definitely not alone.
In over 20 years of helping people recover from eating disorders, I have been shocked at how many of my clients are attorneys or law students.
So I decided to conduct a bit of online research. And the results were astonishing.
In a recent, large-scale study of law student mental health from the Journal of Legal Education, 27% of law students (18% of male respondents and 34% of female respondents) screened positive for eating disorders (www.abovethelaw.com).
One of the most famous attorneys brave enough to come out and disclose his troubled history with eating disorders is Brian Cuban, author of The Addicted Lawyer. In his book he describes a culture in the legal field that encourages over-functioning, stoicism and hard partying. In that type of environment, seeking help for any kind of problem (which is often misconstrued as weakness) can feel impossible.
In his popular blog, Mr. Cuban shares: “I felt completely stigmatized and alone in my eating disorder and did not feel that anyone could understand or help. Adding to the stigma was my profession. Not only was I a male with an eating disorder, I was a male lawyer with an eating disorder. How stigmatizing was that?”
Common Challenges Faced by Practicing Lawyers
For many years I have empathically listened to frustrated confessions from attorneys and law students who have had the courage to come see me for help with their own eating disordered behaviors (often combined with drinking or drug problems).
They describe work environments that place almost unbearable amounts of stress on them to amass as many billable hours as possible on the private sector side, and to handle an overwhelming caseload that could be easily divided among two or three attorneys on the public sector side.
Law students are often pushed to the limit to not only excel in classes but to endure the infamous “Socratic method” where students can be relentlessly grilled and criticized in front of their peers.
The Nebraska Law Review reports: The most common complaint against the Socratic Method is that it is cruel and psychologically abusive. Socratic professors are quick to criticize imperfect student answers, subjecting students to public degradation, humiliation, ridicule, and dehumanization. This torture often scars students for life.”
Add to that stiff competition for scarce internships, and the fact that most law school graduates face low starting salaries combined with huge amounts of debt; it is understandable that many law students and practicing attorneys can develop eating disorders and other dangerous behaviors to try and cope with the pressures.
If you are a law student or a practicing attorney, ask yourself if you are prone to these risk factors developing eating disorders or substance abuse problems:
Inadequate structural support
Lack of social support
Greater work expectations
Having a personal history of abuse and/or trauma
Being overly conscientious and perfectionistic
Short-staffing, mandatory overtime, and unpaid vacation time.
Presentation of job-related tasks as normal that most people would find uncomfortable (such as mediating high conflict divorces, defending abused children, and working 60 hours or more per week)
Remember that receiving counseling from qualified eating disorder professionals is by far the most important step you can take to recover.
What You Can Do
However, here are other steps you can implement on your own to enhance the progress of your counseling.
Making a conscious decision to put your self-care first not last
Maintaining a balance of work and play
Practicing intuitive eating
Practicing joyful movement
Limiting exposure to high stress clients and diversifying your caseload
Respecting the limits of your workday schedule
Taking regular breaks
Eating lunch and taking a full hour away from your desk
Maintaining a safe, private and comfortable workspace
Delegating tasks you find joyless
Use of alternative therapies: massage, reflexology, aromatherapy, etc.
Acknowledging when you help clients and improve their lives
Taking time for self-reflection and creative expression
Spending quality time alone
Allowing yourself to cry
Seeking supportive counseling or coaching
Safeguarding your worldview (i.e. most people are good rather than most people are only out for themselves)
Separating professional disappointments from personal worthiness
Learning to say no
Celebrating small accomplishments
Not believing you work better under stress
Know the signs for compassion fatigue and burnout
Maintaining a realistic view of a client’s goals
Maintaining membership and participation in professional affiliations and organizations
Getting regular quality supervision or group supervision
Do something different professionally (i.e. write an journal article, give a lecture, mentor a law student)
Spend regular time with friends and family
Listen to the people who love you – you may be the last person to admit you have an eating disorder, drinking or drug problem.
See your friends often
Take your vacation time
Pursue interests outside of work that help you make friends too
Maintain your professional network
Seek mentors and lean on them
Spend time in nature
Practice deep breathing
Get a pet
Have faith in the resilience of your clients
Consider working less and earning less and downsizing to compensate
Remind yourself of the sacredness of your work and your role as a helper
Ask your organization to include trainings on burnout, compassion fatigue and dealing with addictions
Express yourself in staff meetings
Seek out supervisors who appreciate and support you
Celebrate milestones as a team, such as anniversaries and birthdays
Seek out support through your EAP program if you have one.
For all of you hard working law students and attorneys out there, I will leave you with the caring advice of Brian Cuban:
“I was bulimic and exercise bulimic (compulsive exercise with the primary goal of offsetting calories). Maybe you are dealing with one of those or the fastest-growing eating disorder, binge eating disorder. If you are suffering in silence as a law student or practicing lawyer, know that recovery is possible, but like with addiction, you have to take that first step forward regardless of the type of eating disorder.”