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The law is one of the most stressful professions and work stress among lawyers is increasing faster than in many other occupations

Are lawyers more prone to epidemics?

Are lawyers more prone to epidemics?


Dr Bob Murray explores seven ways lawyers can boost their immune systems to guard against the toll of an epidemic  

The problem: more lawyers will have gotten sick from covid-19 compared to other professionals. But there are a number of aces you can use.

The pandemic that researchers had long been predicting arrived. It’s health and economic legacy will be around long after the current outbreak has faded from the headlines. But the researchers at the World Health Organization (WHO) and elsewhere say that covid-19 is just one of many we will face as we encroach more and more into wild spaces and the climate warms.

Along with many businesses (including our own), most of the big law firms throughout the world sent their legal and non-legal workers home. The good news is that nearly all of the firms will probably survive the crisis—even if some of their lawyers did not.

On March 15, The New York Times had a great piece on which workers were most likely to get sick from covid-19. To no one’s surprise, dentists came top of the list of endangered professionals. Then came most other healthcare workers, paramedics and flight attendants – all of whom, they predicted would be in grave danger of contracting the illness.

Lawyers came safely a long way down the list, along with garbage collectors. Janitors and maids were slightly more at risk than toilers at law. Maybe some room for legal complacency?

Not so fast. The New York Times’ analysts were simply looking at those professions that had most contact with other people and they assumed that the more individuals you were forced to interact with, the more at risk you were.

There is truth to that. But, it’s not the whole story. As a scientist, I know that there are risk factors which put members of the legal profession very much in jeopardy from this and future epidemics.

Your chances of getting a mild or a more serious case of any viral illness have more to do with your immune system than with the numbers of people you face-to-face with. And it’s not even just how strong your immune system that makes the difference, it’s how well it works.

The law is one of the most stressful professions and work stress among lawyers is increasing faster than in many other occupations. Every stressful event – the loss of a client or a case, being asked to bring in more revenue in a declining market, a relationship break up (lawyers have the highest divorce rate of all professionals) or dealing with angry, stressed or difficult clients or team members – reduces the ability of the immune system to function properly.

Even having to work from home brings its own stressors. There are interruptions, diversions, housework you never had to do before, noise, loneliness, isolation – all of these are stressors. What’s more, most studies have shown that working from home is far less productive than working in the office. For most people the novelty soon wears off and all that is left is the stress. Anyway, our DNA dictates that the more isolated we are, the more stressed we become.

Another thing specific to the law is the negativity of the work. Solicitors are always looking at the possible downsides inherent in any matter. Lawyers, like social conservatives, are prone to what’s called the ‘negativity bias’, – an outlook on life in which possible unpleasant outcomes have more influence on thoughts and behavior than pleasant ones.

Added to this natural tendency are the interpersonal conflicts that clients bring with them. Both the bias towards the negative and the stress and conflicts of others lead to depression. Law, though not the most depressed profession (farming and health care, teaching and entertaining – especially comedians – score much higher), is up there. Mental health is a real problem for lawyers in most jurisdictions. Suicide is on the rise.

Depression and anxiety are killers in themselves. Both have the capacity to seriously impair immune functioning – and even the immune system itself. Since lawyers are more depressed than the average professional, they are more prone to a lowered immune system and therefore to being stricken by any illness.

Recent research has shown that there’s a powerful feedback loop between a person’s mood and their immune system. A person becomes depressed, this lowers their immune system’s functioning and this in turn darkens their mood.

Studies have also shown that lawyers are, on the whole, pessimists. That’s unfortunate because optimists live longer than pessimists. Optimists have better functioning immune systems – even if they are often less ‘strong’.

The net result of all this that the legal profession is, despite the chart in The New York Times, more prone to contracting a nasty dose of covid-19 or any of the looming future epidemics than many others.

But there are solutions – even for solicitors. Even for lawyers, doom is not inevitable. There are seven things that you can do to raise the functioning of your immune system and thus ward off the worst effects of any virus (even the flu – researchers say that we are still in the middle of the ‘Spanish’ flu which began in 1918).

·       Cultivate optimistic people. If you can’t talk to them in person, set up video calls. Talk about them, not yourself. Depression feeds on rumination and the more you talk about your own problems the worse your immune functioning.

·       If your life partner is also depressed or pessimistic (or, even worse for your health, a lawyer) you should work out how you can support each other. Many studies have shown that your wellness improves if you concentrate on tending to the needs of others (but not clients because your financial dependence on them warps the process).

·       Get out into natural surroundings. 20 minutes a day even walking in a park helps raise immune and cognitive functioning.

·       If you’re stuck in the house because of quarantine, get lots of potted flowering plants. Indoor gardening with flowering plants has been shown to reduce depression and bolster the immune system

·       Get a dog. Cats don’t really do it for the immune system. Dog owners have been shown to be healthier and live significantly longer than non-dog owners, largely because of the bond and mutually supporting relationship between Fido and their owner. This health and longevity effect has been found to be the case even when the owner remains depressed.

·       Have a better relationship with your spiritual side. Religious people and those who have a strong sense of spirituality have been shown to have stronger immune systems and greater longevity than others. Spirituality can involve not just religion but mindfulness, being with mutually supportive friends, listening to calming music, being in nature, yoga, tai chi and meditation.

·       Watch as many comedies as you can. The Marx Brothers films have been shown to be significant mood and immune system lifters. Avoid films with sad or downbeat endings – they actually reduce immune functioning and make you more prone to illness. Laughing in the company of others is the most beneficial of all.

These seven need not all be attempted. Two or three done consistently will probably help to save you from serious bout of whatever’s around. Above all, realize that as a profession you are at risk and it’s better to be aware than very ill.

Anyway, if you have been, thanks for reading.

Dr Bob Murray is a consultant to law firms around the world and is the author, with his partner Dr Alicia Fortinberry of many books, including the best-seller ‘Creating Optimism’ (McGraw-Hill). Most recently they are the authors of ‘Leading the Future; the Human Science of Law Firm Strategy and Leadership’, and ‘The Human Science of strategy: what works and what doesn’t’ (both Ark Group).