By Careen Shannon and Angelo Paparelli
According to statistics provided to CNN by the Centers for Disease Control, among professionals in the United States lawyers rank fourth in suicides (exceeded in misery only by dentists, pharmacists and physicians). Lawyers are also nearly four times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.
Clearly, practicing law is never a 9-to-5 job. Being a lawyer is a high-stress, plummeting-prestige profession—the work is demanding, the economics of the profession are increasingly challenging, and in the views of some, the psychic or status rewards of working as a lawyer rank below nail technician. Far be it from us to suggest that immigration lawyers are immune to the effects of such stress. But among the countless lawyers we know in dozens of different specialties, we think it is fair to say that the immigration lawyers are the happiest. Why?
The stress in most lawyers’ lives is caused primarily, we believe, by a few key factors. First, the American legal system is deliberately adversarial. Our adversarial system of law is meant to be fairer than the inquisitorial approach used in many civil law countries by allowing each side in a dispute to zealously defend its position before an impartial arbiter (judge or jury). But the pressures of such a system can take a toll on the advocates—the lawyers—who work within it. In fact, lawyers have been compared to soldiers in this regard: “Both lead physically tough lifestyles: long hours, separated from family life and both are sent to fight other people’s conflicts, no questions asked.” The qualities that can make for a good lawyer—intelligence, diligence, perfectionism, competitiveness, being hard-working and achievement-oriented—can also create the isolation, panic and anxiety that often lead to depression.
Second, contrary to how the life of a lawyer is depicted on television or in the movies, much of what lawyers actually do on a day-to-day basis can be mind-numbingly boring. Think document review, drafting boilerplate contracts, performing endless legal research, completing innumerable government forms (especially in fields like tax and immigration), and preparing for trial or finishing a brief late into too many nights. Not really anyone’s idea of fun.
Of more immediate concern to members of the legal profession nowadays are the financial pressures presented by a changing economy, and the fear that lawyers will be replaced by non-lawyers and by the increasing use of technology. In tough economic times, corporate and individual clients alike are seeking more for less—more and speedier legal services for less money. A related pressure flows from what Professor Richard Susskind argues in his book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future, is the inevitable liberalization of legal services, whereby non-lawyers are permitted to provide services traditionally considered to constitute the practice of law. This is already the case in many other countries, and in the United States is institutionalized in immigration law practice, where certain non-lawyers accredited by the federal Board of Immigration Appeals are allowed to represent immigrants in removal proceedings or in administrative matters before the Department of Homeland Security.
As discussed at length in a recent article in The Economist, whereas automation in the world’s advanced economies in the 20th century served mostly to replace workers with machines in the manufacturing sector, technology in the 21st century is automating “brain-work,” including some of the work typically performed by white-collar professionals such as accountants and lawyers. This type of disruptive economic growth will inevitably have a significant impact on the practice of law. Indeed, Susskind’s more sobering prediction is that the future of law will be “a world of virtual courts, Internet-based global legal businesses, online document production, commoditized service, legal process outsourcing, and web-based simulated practice.” That’s enough to drive any lawyer to drink.
So why do we think immigration lawyers are different? Notwithstanding the innovative use of technology to simplify and automate many of the more mundane aspects of law practice, including gathering information, tracking deadlines and completing forms (of which our firms, Fragomen and Seyfarth Shaw, are leading examples in the world of immigration law), immigration practice fundamentally revolves around people. Whether you’re helping a Fortune 500 company manage its global mobility program, defending an individual against removal (deportation) in Immigration Court, or helping a U.S. citizen’s foreign spouse apply for permanent residence, as an immigration lawyer you are ultimately assisting people through a major personal transition that will profoundly transform their lives and the lives of their families.
Economic pressures and technological development are moving us inevitably toward a more data-driven, data-input system of immigration benefits procurement, and the trend toward reliance on technology carries with it the threat of dehumanizing both the practice of law as a profession and the truly intimate odyssey for the immigrants we represent. But while the CDC has not provided statistics about the mental health of immigration lawyers in particular, it is clear to us that immigration lawyers labor in the finest tradition of law as a “helping profession.”
This ability to help others, without a true adversary such as a litigation opponent staying up all night devising ways to destroy opposing counsel—not just a government lawyer with an impossible case load who often has too little time for assertive advocacy—distinguishes immigration lawyers from the suicide-prone attorneys described in the CNN article. To be sure, we’ve seen immigration lawyers react poorly to the stress of the practice, especially those of the people-pleaser sort who have a hard time communicating bad news to clients, and just want always to say yes. But they are by far a speck in the immigration-lawyer universe.
As immigration lawyers, we have expertise in a complicated area of law that we apply in the service of our clients. For those of us who work in the private sector, we have skills that are also uniquely valuable to an underserved population of indigent immigrants for whom there is a severe shortage of qualified non-profit and pro bono legal counsel. Attorneys who do not specialize in immigration law also have skills that are easily transferable to representing immigrants facing deportation or applying for asylum or seeking various types of lawful immigration status.
In one of Careen’s first pro bono cases as a young lawyer—an asylum matter in Immigration Court—the case concluded with Respondent’s counsel, the client and the judge choking back tears. Angelo’s pro bono cases have also included life-changing experiences, for Angelo and his clients, as he has blogged, here, here and here.
So, feeling stressed out or depressed? Take a sip of the helping-profession elixir that brought many of us into law in the first place, and take on a pro bono immigration case. Whether you are already an immigration lawyer, or a lawyer in another specialty looking for meaning amid the stress and frustrations of law practice, we promise you that in addition to helping a person in need and fulfilling the highest ethical calling of the legal profession, the experience will leave you feeling fulfilled beyond all expectations. And it is far superior to talk therapy and antidepressants.