August 5, 2014 at 1:00 am

Former attorneys make the case for lawyer therapy

Therapists from their calling understand more, two experts say

Therapists Alan Levin, left, and Gayle Victor say attorneys have a higher incidence of depression, substance abuse, suicide and divorce than the general population. (Chris Walker / MCT)

After three decades as an attorney, Alan Levin was a name partner at a respected downtown Chicago law firm, making well into six figures a year, but he gave it up for a different calling.

He went through a divorce, started therapy, remarried and found a new purpose volunteering as a counselor at men’s weekend retreats. Four years ago, after quitting law and going back to school, Levin and another lawyer-turned-therapist, Gayle Victor, together launched a counseling practice catering to a unique clientele — attorneys.

Their clients have included an experienced litigator who became so anxious the night before even routine court appearances that he couldn’t sleep, a lawyer whose fear of disappointing her superiors made it almost impossible to write briefs, and others who found themselves burned out or unable to cope with the demands of the profession.

Attorneys have a higher incidence of depression, substance abuse, suicide and divorce than the general population, according to Levin and Victor, citing several studies. They said the disdain that the public feels toward lawyers — combined with a cutthroat culture inside many law firms — makes the profession more punishing than other stressful white-collar jobs.

“It’s an incredibly stressful, killing occupation — killing in the sense of spirit-killing,” Levin, 66, said at his and Victor’s north suburban Evanston, Illinois, office, marked like many such practices by a waiting room containing abowl of Jolly Rancher candies and the recorded sounds of waves crashing into shore.

Lawyers are rarely thanked by clients and often seek “emotional compensation” in how much money they earn, Levin said.

Their firm, Care for Lawyers, is hardly the only one treating attorneys. Besides standard therapy practices, there are a handful of Chicago-area attorneys who became licensed therapists and treat clients.

In New York, psychotherapist and attorney Will Meyerhofer blogs about his practice treating attorneys, recently writing about female clients who said they had been sexually harassed at their law firms.

There’s also the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program, a nonprofit group that helps attorneys, law students and judges with mental health or addiction issues. Its executive director is a therapist who once practiced law.

With attorneys making up about a quarter of their practice, Levin and Victor said lawyers can sometimes find more fulfillment by simply changing jobs or making internal changes.

For instance, the experienced litigator who almost went into a panic before making even a routine court appearance switched to a different area of law that he found more rewarding. The client paralyzed by fear that her work wasn’t perfect left the law firm to start her own practice.

The hardest part for attorneys can be admitting they need help before a meltdown, the therapists said.

“Lawyers are a particularly stubborn population in seeking help for themselves, and we thought that it might be more inviting to people to seek that help if they were going to therapists” who were lawyers themselves, Victor said.

Lawyers also can be a challenge to treat because they tend to view sharing any vulnerability or emotion as weakness, and their training can make them experts at deflecting blame, the therapists said.

“Because lawyers are so good at attributing blame to other people, displacement and rationalization are sophisticated defenses that lawyers are very adept at,” Levin said. “They’re often paid a lot of money to do it in a trial, but in your personal life, it doesn’t work so well.”

For those who step through their doors, there is an appreciation at finding someone who, Levin said, “wasn’t making jokes about them and didn’t think less of them” because of their profession.

“If a lawyer comes in and says he just got a TRO (temporary restraining order) and I have to prepare a response by 5 p.m., we know the setting,” he said. “He doesn’t have to explain a damn thing.”