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Dissenting from Death: Preventing Lawyer Suicide

Michael Steven Webb


  • Alarming statistics reveal lawyers in the United States rank 5th in occupational suicide rates, facing a 3.6 times higher risk of depression than nonlawyers.
  • Organizations like the Dave Nee Foundation and state bars provide resources and hotlines for lawyers dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts.
  • The study suggests that law school practices, like the Socratic method, may contribute to high stress levels among law students, emphasizing the need for reforms and mental health education in legal education.
Dissenting from Death: Preventing Lawyer Suicide Montano

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As the holidays creep closer on the calendar, chances are that a depressed lawyer in the United States is contemplating  suicide before December 31, 2021 arrives.

Statistics on the suicide rate of lawyers in the United States are cause for concern. The Dave Nee Foundation in New York, a think tank for the study of lawyer depression, ranks American lawyers 5th occupationally in the incidence of suicide. According to the Nee Foundation, lawyers are the most frequently depressed occupational group in the United States and are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than nonlawyers. Approximately, 26% of lawyers who seek counseling admit that they suffer from anxiety and depression.

Research by the Nee Foundation conducted in the State of North Carolina revealed that over 25% of North Carolina lawyers experience physical symptoms of extreme anxiety at least three times per month each year, with 37% of  North Carolina lawyers  suffering from depression, and 11% of North Carolina lawyers suffering from suicidal ideation. Suicidal ideation means simply having thoughts or ideas about the possibility of ending one’s life.

Recognizing that depression and suicide are serious problems for North Carolina Lawyers., the North Carolina State Bar supports North Carolina Help for Depressed Lawyers ( Its agenda includes depression and suicide for all members of the legal profession. North Carolina requires attendance at a CLE course regarding substance abuse and lawyer mental health at once every three years in addition to suicide prevention training for CLE credit. A North Carolina lawyer CLE Suicide Prevention Course prominently published the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK)  when listing Suicide Warning Signs.

Other states sponsor or support similar organizations for lawyers suffering from depression or suicidal ideation.

For example, the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program maintains an online site for lawyer suicide prevention (

In Connecticut, Lawyers Concerned For Lawyers makes a confidential hotline available. (1-800-497-1422).

The District of Columbia Bar provides similar services through its Lawyer Assistance Program which includes stress, substance abuse and suicide ( Another study cited by the Nee Foundation found that 19% of Washington D.C. lawyers suffer from significantly elevated levels of depression.

It is very likely that your state or city bar association provides similar services. They can be easily found with internet searches including terms like “lawyer stress”, lawyer depression” or “lawyer suicide”.

So what in the heck is going on in the minds of America’s lawyers? Clearly, we are not, for the most part, a mentally healthy group of individuals. But why are we depressed?

It appears that at least some of the blame belongs to American law schools. While 43% of graduate students and 70% of medical students experience stress, according to the Nee Foundation, law students experience stress at the eye-popping  rate of 96%.

The Nee Foundation notes that “Entering law school, law students have a psychological profile similar to that of the general public.” Depression among matriculating law students is 8-9%, according to the statistics, while after the first semester, law student depression increases to 27%, then upticks to 34% after the second semester. By graduation and bar exam time, depression among newly minted lawyers hovers around 40%.

(Note to skeptics: If you doubt these statistics, then this author doubts that you ever attended law school.)

Having attended three years of law school to earn my juris doctor degree, one year to obtain an LL.M. degree in taxation and an additional two years of law school (part-time) to earn an LL.M. degree in generalized legal studies, I have no quarrel with the Dave Nee Foundation’s numbers. I have seen firsthand the psychological distress, dissatisfaction and substance abuse that follows law students into the legal profession.

E. Martin Putney, a 59-year-old solo attorney lawyer whom I knew many years ago when I maintained my own solo private practice in Lawrenceville, Georgia, was a victim of lawyer suicide. Martin shot himself on the morning of May 21, 2018 in the parking lot outside the Union County Courthouse in Blairsville, Georgia, which sits in  a rural setting in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

I do not know any of the details surrounding Martin Putney’s suicide. All that I know from reading news accounts of the tragedy is that Martin had a hearing scheduled that afternoon in Union County Superior Court in one of his cases. I don’t know if the case involved family law or criminal defense which can tend to be particularly high stress practice areas. Yet, based upon my own experiences as a former solo practitioner, it isn’t difficult to fathom some of the unbearable stressors that could have led Martin to take his own life. Ungrateful, surly clients; a constantly fluctuating cash flow known as “feast or famine;” a sense that nothing one does as a solo lawyer in a small community is for the greater good – these are just some of the possible demons that could have haunted my former colleague all the way to his untimely death.

Honestly, I have been there myself: teetering upon the precipice of extinction by my own hand. Wondering why I had not chosen carpentry or plumbing or even electrical engineering, so that I could see a tangible result from physical rather than mental labor, I, too, was driven on one occasion to attempt to wrap myself with the cold shroud of eternal darkness. Fortunately, however, I failed, and I exist today for the purpose of trying to make others see that life can be better, and should be better, than death.

Sometimes, when I think of the tragedy of Attorney Putney’s suicide, I am reminded of an elegiac composition by the French composer, pianist and conductor from the late 19th and early 20th century, Maurice Ravel. Ravel  wrote a hauntingly beautiful overture entitled, “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” Listening to Ravel’s “Pavane,” one experiences almost viscerally the mourning and despair felt by the survivors of the perfect princess of Ravel’s imagination.

Yet, as Ravel later explained to his appreciative audiences, his musical composition wasn’t about the death of a princess at all. Instead, it was the whimsical, “wistful daydream” of a fictional, dancing 16th Century Spanish princess.

(A pavane, you see, is a courtly dance associated with the creative souls who lived during the Renaissance in Europe.)

For sure, there will be no compositions entitled “Pavane for a Dead Lawyer” written for my deceased colleague Martin Putney, or for that matter, any other lawyer who chooses to end her or his life by committing suicide.

But there can and should be hope that somewhere in the United States, there is someone who has been touched by the life of a lawyer who is this moment reflecting upon the good done for them by their attorney while handling their case. And we surviving members of the legal profession should seize upon those good vibes and work to create an alternate pathway for distressed lawyers, so that our numbers do not dwindle due to suicide.

We need to get busy. State bar associations now acknowledge suicide among lawyers is a real problem and offer lawyer assistance programs to American barristers and solicitors who are exhausted from simply trying to survive in an adversarial and often nasty line of work. It’s a good start, but it’s not enough. Perhaps mandatory continuing legal education in lawyer mental health is in order ( as it is in North Carolina), right beside those required CLE courses in professionalism and ethics.

More important, though, is the hard look that  law school deans  in the Unites States need to give law school instruction practices. Is the Socratic method, long trumpeted as the divine instrument for reshaping the law student’s mind into an analytical tool, really the best way to teach law students? Or is it merely a sadistic device for the torture and humiliation of students who have volunteered to fall deeply into debt for the hope of improving society?

The study and practice of law must life affirming, not destructive, not full of gloom and doom. With fondness, I frequently recall the words of the fictional Captain

Augustus McCrae, the (non-lawyer) retired Texas Ranger of Larry McMurtry’s immortal novel, “Lonesome Dove”. As Gus put it to his pardner, Captain Woodrow Call, “By God, Woodrow, it ain’t dying I’m talking about, it’s living.”

And Gus is right, of course. No more dying. No more idle talk of lawyer depression and suicide. Instead, we need to live, friends, and live our lives as lawyers well. And, most of all, we need to be able to seek help in the places discussed above whose mission it is to help and hopefully save emotionally struggling lawyers to live their lives as lawyers well.