Are Attorneys Society’s Canaries in a Coal Mine?Attorney Mental Health Series: Part 1

Attorneys may very well be our canary in a cole mine. Attorneys play a vital role in our society. So many of our conflicts are played out with the assistance of attorneys. In fact, attorneys also represent, in sheer numbers, quite a significant proportion of our society (roughly 1.3 million in the U.S.). The significance extends far beyond mere population figures. Many of the most powerful leaders in our communities in the United States are attorneys—whether the people with whom they work or the people who vote for them, know it or not. 1 Like it or not, attorneys wield a great deal of control in our society.

The Scrutiny of Attorneys

Attorneys’ prominence attracts both positive and negative appraisals. Close scrutiny of attorneys’ activities is understandable when one considers the power attorneys wield. The professional activities of attorneys reach the rest of us, chiefly and most directly, through influence over the nature and content of our system of laws and through the related processes involved in law enforcement. But attorneys’ influence also indirectly reaches us, by influencing the development of our educational institutions and of the cultural climate. Attorneys’ broad-ranging influence arguably lies at the root of their membership among the cultural elite, but it also compels some commentators to closely scrutinize attorneys’ activities.

This scrutiny has revealed a strange phenomenon. Our society seems at once to respect and to despise attorneys. The popular press is rife with examples of passionate criticisms of the legal profession. The authors of one book, particularly critical of lawyers, stated in the introduction, only partly with facetious intentions, that “if reading this book turns even one young mind from the path of law school and toward a healthy and productive life, our work will have been worthwhile”. Indeed, the public’s negative appraisal of the behavior of attorneys has been a topic of great concern, both to attorneys, and to academics interested in examining attorneys’ values and beliefs. In view of the prevalence of negative appraisals of attorneys’ behavior, it is indeed ironic that few citizens would quarrel with the ideals which lie at the foundation of the United States’ legal profession, as described by John Adams, in 1759: “to what greater Character can any Mortal aspire, than to be possessed of all this knowledge, well digested, and ready at Command, to assist the Feeble and Friendless, to discountenance the haughty and lawless, to procure Redress of Wrongs, the Advancement of Right, to assert and maintain Liberty and Virtue, to discourage and abolish Tyranny and Vice”.

Psychological Research of Attorneys

In a free society, the way attorneys are perceived by non-attorneys is vitally important. Our reliance on attorneys makes this so. As a result, it would seem important to carefully examine how attorneys tend to behave and how they tend to feel—what makes attorneys “tick.” The problem is, this requires attorneys’ interest and involvement, and that is not so easy to acquire. Thus, the field of psychology has not engaged in enough of this kind of research.

Attorneys and Legal Training Banner, Picture of Harvard School of Law Library

Examination of Attorneys through their Legal Training

A number of years ago, in 1997, to be exact, I completed a study that examined law students at various stages of their legal training. My intention was to seek to determine what types of people are drawn to law and how legal training might impact a person’s personality development.

Why Study Attorney’s Mental Health?

The causative role the public might play in the development of a personality style common among attorneys has also not been addressed extensively by the field of psychology. It’s unfortunate, because, any discernible differences in the ways attorneys think and behave are likely related to goals attorneys are asked to achieve. Behaviors tend to serve functions. For example, if asked, any attorney could provide examples of people who sought their assistance and expressly stated a desire to inflict emotional and financial pain on a business or person with which they have a legal dispute.

Another reason to study attorneys’ behavior and feeling states is to assess their health statuses. Alan Goodwin’s research was aimed at acquiring information regarding lawyers’ behaviors to provide a window through which both short and long-term health risks might be assessed.

Are Attorney’s Different or the Same as Non-Attorneys?

One of the primary hypotheses driving this research effort was the notion that attorneys are, in fact, different from non-attorneys. As an attorney who is now a licensed psychologist, I believed that to be true—but I did not have research to support my suspicions. In truth, I did not know in what ways I would discover lawyers differ. For this reason, I sought to examine the precise nature of the differences.

Similarly, I sought to examine whether any differences between attorneys and non-attorneys might be detected as stable traits in young people who seek to become lawyers, or whether the differences are acquired some time after the start of classes at a law school.

Since there are so many lawyers, having such varied interests and playing such diverse roles in our society, it is very difficult to study them as a single group. In this sense, Alan’s study constituted a search for commonalities among lawyers.

Attorney Mental Health Part 2 coming soon…


  1. The High Priests of American Politics: The Role of Lawyers in American Political Institutions

Additional Resources:

Alan Goodwin