Lawyers and Heart Disease

Taking steps to not be a statistic


♫ Oh but workin' too hard can give you a heart attack
You oughta know by now...

- Music, Lyrics and recorded by: Bill Joel

In December 2014, Edward Greenspan, one of Canada’s most famous criminal defence lawyers, died at age 70 from heart failure, ironically while on holiday. He is not alone. Many lawyers will be diagnosed this year with heart disease, heart attacks, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, pulmonary embolisms and strokes and some will die. Globally, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death and claims more lives than all forms of cancer, combined.

Lawyers are particularly susceptible to stress-related illnesses, including heart disease, “because of the unique interplay of the legal profession and lawyer personality” (per the American Bar Association Journal). It is no secret that the legal profession has to deal with stress, depression and a degree of hostility. This, unfortunately, is a particularly lethal combination.

Lawyers have the highest rate of depression among 100 professions (Sells, The Sole of Law: Understanding Lawyers and the Law (1994) at 94.)

Edward C. Suarez, Ph.D., of Duke University, says a recent study, “... suggests the possibility that men who are... hostile and exhibit depressive symptoms, even in the mild to moderate range, are at heightened risk for cardiac events.”

Dan Lukasik, a personal injury lawyers asks, given the “clear connection between lawyer hostility, depression and the heightened risk for a cardiac event, what can lawyers do about it?”

One of the first things we can do as a profession is to curtail uncivil behaviour and over-aggressiveness. While we live in an adversarial system, neither our clients, the legal system, or the public are well-served by this approach and it causes undue stress and toil for all concerned.

Another thing that we can do is curtail long work hours. The cure for overwork is not time management, or less holidays or not taking vacations or even weekends off; it is improving our work conditions such that our minds and our bodies have an adequate time to rest and rebound from the stresses of the day.

Take time to exercise, maintain good nutrition, good weight control and not smoking are four things that all of us can do, right now. An added incidental benefit will be a lower exposure to substance abuse triggers.

In Stress Management for Lawyers – How to Increase Personal and Professional Satisfaction in the Law,” 3rd ed, by Amriam Elwork, Ph. D, the author puts forth many concrete suggestions to reduce stress. One suggestion is by shifting our point of view of a stressful situation we can control our emotional response and look to generate solutions rather than generating anxiety and depression.

A very interesting aspect of Dr. Elwork’s book is his suggestion to be true to your values. He lists seven areas of people’s lives where values are important: finance, work, character, growth, relationships, society and religious faith. He then asks if you are living true to your values in these seven areas.

Do we recognize the signs of overwork and stress in ourselves that can lead to a heart attack? We ought to know by now…

Related Articles