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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.