Fifteen years ago, when Paul Messing told people he worked as a public defender, he felt pride. Today, he feels like a pariah.
“You feel like everybody is out to get you,” said Messing, the deputy chief of the Philadelphia public defender’s office. “And you live it; you live it 24 hours a day.”
Amiram Elwork has heard it before. Lawyers comprise half of his psychology practice in suburban Philadelphia. He has seen the effects of the stress Messing has felt: depression, divorce, suicide, anger, alcoholism, drug addiction and a mental problem he calls “justifiable paranoia.”
Rather than treat the problems once they have taken a toll, Elwork has begun addressing them before they occur. He has taught a course at the Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Del., called “Non-Legal Challenges in the Law Practice.”
“It’s not your imagination that someone is out to get you all the time,” Elwork said.
Widener, where Elwork is director of the Law-Psychology Graduate Program, has billed the course as the only one of its kind offered in any law school curriculum.
On the first day of class, Elwork doused his 15 eager students with harsh realities of practicing law.
He told them about several studies that found attorneys suffer from depression and substance abuse at twice the national average. He told them associates often work 60-hour weeks to fulfill their billing requirements. He told them that by the year 2000 there will be one attorney for every 300 people; if they get a job, it probably will not pay what they expected.
They will work in a politically charged, bottom line-oriented environment that will not leave time for the intellectual musing they enjoy in law school, he said. Their mistakes would be considered monumental.
He talked about the burnout, the disillusionment, the dissatisfaction, the lack of vacations and society’s general dislike of lawyers.
“He laid it on thick,” said Laura Wampler, a third-year student. “I thought, ‘Why didn’t we take this class first year when we could have gotten out of this?’ ”
On the second day of class, Elwork began to show the students how to avoid becoming one of the statistics.
“I was startled at first,” said Kathy Banfield, a fourth-year evening student. “But by the end of the class I said, ‘This won’t happen to me. I’m prepared.’ ”
No one in the class dropped out of law school, as far as Elwork knows. But they re-examined what area of the law they wanted to practice after learning about the strong points of their personalities and the compatibility with various practices.
“It was a little frightening to see how naive the students were,” said Ann Britton, a law professor at Widener who monitored the class.
Before entering a practice, Cathy Sikorski did not have the insights Elwork offers his students. She quit practicing law after nine years.
She said she never thought she would “save the world,” but she also said she never understood the workaholic environment of law.
As time went on, Sikorski began to doubt she wanted to spend the rest of her life focused almost solely on work. Five years ago, she opened up her own business in her Pottstown home.
“People still say, ‘You’ll go back.’ . . . They can’t understand giving up a career like that, that there could be anything bigger or better,” she said.
The time and effort it takes to first become a lawyer prevents many who are dissatisfied from leaving the profession.
“All of this happens gradually,” said Philadelphia lawyer Neil Perloff. “By the time you realize it’s happening, you’ve created a career for yourself. You also get a feeling that maybe you can change things. You see you can’t and it impacts on your psyche. Then, it becomes to late.”
Many lawyers think their only alternative is to quit. Until the profession itself changes, Elwork often helps them find ways that they can continue to practice, but in a less stressful environment.
“Anyone who is concerned about justice,” he said, “should be concerned about this issue.”