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Crushed

In Britain earlier this fall, three solicitors lost their careers. The High Court of England & Wales, overturning a decision by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, ruled that the three lawyers, who had each committed acts of dishonesty, should be struck off (disbarred) in order to maintain public confidence in the justice system.

The SDT had previously found that although the solicitors had acted dishonestly, “exceptional circumstances” warranted replacing the usual order of disbarment with a suspended suspension with conditions of their practising certificates. These circumstances involved “unbearable pressure” placed on the lawyers by their firms and workplaces. Some examples from each case:

  • The work was complex and often on very tight deadlines” … “He had worked extremely long hours, often nights and weekends” … “His department was an unforgiving place with high standards”… “He was afraid to reveal his stress, lest the firm perceive this as weakness” … “One of his supervisors was like an abusive husband, always asking for forgiveness and saying it would be different.”
  • She felt frightened and under tremendous pressure not to say or do anything. She feared being the cause of considerable stress.” … “[Her supervisor] had used her illness and long-standing relationship to place enormous emotional pressure on the respondent.”
  • [The managing partner gave her] 19 days to record 137 hours. The letter said: ‘Please therefore by return of email let me know your plans on how you are going to resolve that deficit before the deadline. I am assuming that you will be working each and every weekend and long hours during the week to ensure that the required target is reached.”

The High Court rejected the tribunal’s lesser punishments. “Pressure of work or of working conditions cannot ever justify dishonesty by a solicitor,” wrote the Court. Revealingly, the judgment stated that a toxic legal workplace was not an “exceptional circumstance”:

Whilst in no sense belittling the stress and depression from which the respondents suffered, it was in no sense exceptional. It is sadly only too common for professionals to suffer such conditions because of pressure of work or the workplace or other, personal, circumstances. … The pressure on the respondent was caused in large part by a culture in the firm which was toxic and uncaring.

In Los Angeles earlier this fall, a lawyer lost his life by his own hand. In a widely read open letter, the widow of Sidley Austin partner Gabe MacConaill, who shot himself to death in a parking garage October 14, recounted the enormous stress her late husband experienced working on a massive bankruptcy case in a department in which many mentors and partners had left and no replacement personnel were provided to help him. Some excerpts:

  • “He was in distress and had been working himself to exhaustion. He told me his body was failing him. I picked him up and we decided he should go to the emergency room. He actually said to me on the way there, ‘You know, if we go, this is the end of my career.’”
  • “During this terrible spiral, I told him to quit. He said he couldn’t quit in the middle of a case. The irony is not lost on me that he found it easier to kill himself.”
  • “I came across a concept, maladaptive perfectionism, that combines unrealistic standards of achievement with hypercriticism of failing to meet them. Gabe displayed most if not all of the characteristics. Simply put, he would rather die than live with the consequences of people thinking he was a failure.”

I have three observations.

  1. I’m not interested in the rationalization that law is simply a high-pressure job. Generations of lawyers before us have felt great pressure to work hard and succeed. Yet it’s this generation of lawyers in which up to 36% are problem drinkers and between 19% and 28% are struggling with stress, anxiety or depression (and these are self-reported numbers that likely underestimate the full picture). The pressures from clients are the same as they’ve always been. What has ratcheted up beyond any previous measure is the pressure from law firms to always be available, always work harder, and always make money.
  2. Law firm leaders and managing partners: You have a choice. It should be clear by now that we’ve run up against the limits of lawyers’ endurance. They are working as hard as they can, driven by firms’ demands (spoken and unspoken) to bill more hours and win more clients, amplified by their own deep desire to succeed and please others and keep their reputations. Lawyers don’t have off switches. They don’t know when or how to stop. To work them harder is exploitation; to pile more pressure on them is abuse. You know that lawyers will push themselves beyond their limits if you ask them. Stop asking them.
  3. Lawyers, you have a choice, too: Say no. Refuse to play along. Walk away. No matter what your immersion in lawyer culture and law firm environments may have led you to believe, you have value beyond your billables and originations, beyond your expertise and hard work. You’re allowed to be wrong, to fall short of expectations, to let someone else pick up the slack. You don’t owe your clients your health or your life. You sure as hell don’t owe either to your firm and its partners. You could stop being a lawyer tomorrow; you’ll still be a person, a child or a parent or a sibling or a friend, for the rest of your life.

If being a lawyer is making you sick and miserable, that’s not your failure. It’s your profession failing you. Do not allow yourself to pay the price for the shortcomings and greed of a sick system and the miserable people who enable it.

The pressure will crush you if you let it. Don’t.

Comments

  1. This has been a mounting issue since I began working in and with law firms in the late 80’s. Too many firms have a culture where billing hours is more important than the well-being of the lawyers and staff who work at the institution. And too many firms only pay lip service to the notion that they want to help its people who are in distress. As just one minor example: The head of a Toronto law firm did not attend the funeral of a high-ranking staff member’s father because, he said, “It’d take six billable hours out of my day.” Really? Six thousand dollars is more important than showing respect for a person who helped you build your practice to where you could bill such a lofty amount? Puh-leeze.

  2. Good, sobering article Jordan. And guilt-inducing for many of us older lawyers. “Family” comes first. When in our 20’s & 30’s is when we are most vulnerable to being victimized by pressure from senior lawyers in the firm, or having to endure overly aggressive and demanding clients, to advance in our careers. But that is also the time when our children need us the most—when they are very young and very dependent upon mommy and daddy for developing feelings of self-worth, and feeling that their lives are stable and secure. Their development may be seriously impaired because as small children they had to learn to live too much within themselves and emotionally alone. So, (1) think of your relationships with your children as being like a bank account—if you don’t pay into it when they are young, it won’t be there to draw on when you are older, when you need them for your self-evaluations of purpose and self-worth; (2) the most important rule of being a good parent is, set a good example in everything that you do; and, (3) sometime after the age of 65 you will find yourself almost compulsively looking back, evaluating your own conduct, and the worth of what you were striving for so hard. You will find that a lot of it really wasn’t worth the price you paid for whatever gains you got. The other lawyers you wanted to impress when you were younger and living a very combative life, won’t be there, and will have long ago ceased to be important to you. So very much you will wish you could go back and re-live those years and “do it right,” particularly so your family relationships. But you can’t. You have to live with those mistakes, and with yourself for the rest of your life. I know, I’ve been there, I’ve done that. We get too soon old and too late smart.

  3. Thank you.

  4. Entrepreneurs especially in tech startups are cut from the same cloth as the lawyers described above. Over achievers, gifted, will work harder, faster, longer than 99% of the population. Failure is not an option. Wow. This story resonated.

  5. For 21 years I have witnessed the speed with which solicitor work is expected to be completed, increase, exponentially. I have watched the client pressure reduce the per hour recoverable rate. I have watched the product quality expectation rise. When I began practice my friend told me the equation he lived by: service comprises quality, time and cost. You can have any 2 but you have to let go of the 3rd. That equation no longer applies as competition has driven us all to increase speed, increase quality, AND reduce cost. That is the very definition of explosive pressure. Little wonder we are being crushed.

  6. Thank you for writing this Jordan. The only point you do not mention (it may be implicit) but I want to raise is this: why is the work that lawyers do seen as so critically urgent and important (eg the bankruptcy story) that it drives lawyers to such limits of endurance and stress? I have always wondered why the profession (and especially the Bay Street part of the profession) have been complicit in the fiction that legal work is a life-or-death matter and that clients should expect service 24/7. It is not of course – as far as I know, the only people who work in a life-or-death context are people in the medical profession. Obviously some cases present more urgency than others, but legal clients generally do not need this extraordinary level of dedication any more than, say clients requiring plumbing or snow removal. It is a measure of the illusion we have created about the importance of legal work – and by refraction, the elitism of lawyers and law students – that we buy into this idea. The real reason for this of course is that it is more profitable for law firms if lawyers work longer and harder.

  7. Catherine Roberts

    Technology has a role to play here as well. When I began practicing law, correspondence was still delivered by snail mail or, if urgent, fax. Email was just starting to be adopted as a mode of communication for business, and was still regarded with distrust. At that point in time, there was breathing room to receive, digest and respond to correspondence (unless it was truly urgent). Now, every client has a smart phone, and every client expects an immediate response and a rapid turn-around, no matter how urgent their matter may or may not be. As the owner of my own law practice, I no longer have to meet the expectations of a large firm’s billing targets or deal with the corporate culture, but clients now have come to expect immediate response to everything. We have become a culture which seeks instant gratification in all things. This, in turn, creates pressure on lawyers to deliver an excellent work product in a short time-line.

  8. “It is a measure of the illusion we have created about the importance of legal work – and by refraction, the elitism of lawyers and law students – that we buy into this idea. The real reason for this of course is that it is more profitable for law firms if lawyers work longer and harder.”

    Julie Macfarlane, I thought this so nice that it should appear here twice.

  9. This is a pretty good piece although it loses credibility when you get to the penultimate sentence: “Do not allow yourself to pay the price for the shortcomings and greed of a sick system and the miserable people who enable it.” I have worked with many fine lawyers who are not miserable and they are caring and compassionate and very concerned about the people with whom they work. All lawyers going into their roles know the challenges they will face and the rewards they will get; in many respects going into the legal profession is no different from the pressures faced in other sectors. Don’t get me wrong I am not condoning the huge pressures that lawyers face, however they are created and I have coached a lot of lawyers who are facing seemingly insuperable pressures. Suggesting that you could stop being a lawyer is not necessarily helpful – sometimes you just can’t see the wood from the ‘stress’ to make any sensible and life changing decisions. One thing that you fail to mention, Jordan, is the role and power of executive coaching. It can be very powerful in helping an individual to see through the challenges they face. Nick Deeming, London.

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