Send in another victim of industrial disease
The legal profession is drowning in psychological and emotional distress. One change, right now, could help save the next generation of lawyers from the flood.
There’s only one interesting thing about the instantly infamous Paul Hastings Powerpoint slide that made the online rounds last week. Certainly it’s not the advice it contains, which is almost entirely bad — clients are in fact frequently wrong, asking questions is a great idea, and “I don’t know” is a perfectly valid answer, as long as it’s followed by, “but I’ll go find out.”
No, what’s really noteworthy is that the slide is an almost perfect illustration of intergenerational trauma in the legal profession. The slide, boiling over with hostility and contempt, is the work of an upper-year associate who, as a novice lawyer years ago, must have absorbed a lacerating outburst from an angry junior partner, who in turn once endured intense verbal abuse from a senior associate, and on and on, back through generations of young lawyers.
But I think the real trauma here doesn’t arise from being yelled at, so much as from being held mercilessly to an impossible standard. You can’t deliver perfect work yesterday — nobody can. You can’t be available 24/7 — nobody can. But whereas many people would ignore or laugh off such ridiculous instructions, high-achieving young lawyers — already suffering from impostor syndrome, anxious about the pressures of their new job, heartbreakingly eager to do well — try their utmost to follow them.
And when they fail, as inevitably they do, these lawyers direct their rage and embarrassment inwards, consuming it until it consumes them in self-loathing and generates a perverse veneration of the impossible standard with which to scourge and flay the next cohort. That’s where the hostility and contempt comes from — “This broke me, because I wasn’t good enough; and it’ll break you, because you’re not good enough, either.”
But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a problem just at Paul Hastings or in the AmLaw 100. It’s everywhere. Mental distress and emotional anguish are endemic throughout the legal profession, driven by pathologies inextricably intertwined with our malignant cultural impulses and exploitative business models. And it’s getting much worse, very fast.
Take a deep breath, and then work your way through this list of findings from seven separate reports into the legal profession’s state of mental and emotional sickness:
Massachusetts: 77% of lawyers reported burnout from their work; almost half thought about leaving their job. 40% considered leaving the profession entirely due to stress. 7% experienced suicide ideation in the weeks before the survey.
California and DC: Lawyers were twice as likely as the general population to experience thoughts of suicide, and those with high stress were 22 times more likely to have such thoughts.
Midsized law firms: Nearly 3/4 of lawyers, paralegals and administrative professionals at midsized law firms report feeling stress, burnout, or being overwhelmed in the past year.
Canada: 59% of legal professionals report psychological distress. 56% report burnout. 24% say they’ve experienced suicidal thoughts at least once since starting practice.
UK: 62% of lawyers have experienced burnout as a result of their work in the last year. 57% put “an unmanageable caseload” at the top of their list of stressors at work, followed by a lack of work/life balance (42%).
In-house counsel: Legal department lawyers face burnout and attrition internally, and supply chain issues and high inflation externally. “The environment legal departments are operating in now is an extremely challenging one.”
Law students: Over 75% reported increased anxiety because of law school-related issues; over 50% reported experiencing depression. A majority reported experiencing anxiety (77%), disrupted sleep (71%), and depression (51%).
Every one of the percentages laid out above is higher for new lawyers, higher for women, higher for visible minorities, and higher for members of the LGBTQ+ community. And all but one of these reports were released just in the first two months of 2023.
What’s causing this? Well, there’s [gestures at everything] the constant anxiety generated by churning upheaval all around us. Everyone is dealing with that. But lawyers can give the lion’s share of blame to a professional values regime that relegates our own well-being to the lowest rank of priorities — below our clients, below the courts, below our billings, below the firm, and certainly, below the firm’s profits. Consider this quote — not from an abusive corner office partner, but from a law firm’s wellness manager:
[Y]our money is tied to the amount of hours that you work. That can be really difficult for people, because if they choose to go take care of themselves and do something for themselves, they’re choosing to not get paid for that time, and so it's such a difficult thing. [emphasis added]
The italicized parts are doing the heavy lifting here, expressing our core professional dogma: You can make money as a lawyer, or you can have a healthy life, but you are not entitled to both. “Some of you may die,” says the dogma, “but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”
How can we respond to this disaster unfolding around us? Obviously, we have an obligation to try rescuing as many victims as we can, those stranded on their islands or drowning in the flood. Lawyer wellness efforts and addiction recovery programs are our immensely praiseworthy front-line rescuers here. But we also need to keep people away from the surging waters in the first place — and that’s where legal educators and regulators need to act, right now.
Law school curricula and bar admission programs in every jurisdiction should be upgraded, starting today, to include significant instruction to aspiring lawyers about the deadly serious threats to their lives and health posed by choosing a legal career.
As part of their professional identity development, we should warn aspiring lawyers about the poisonous culture of the profession they’re entering. We should give them the skills to stand up to the bullying and toxicity of people and business models that will exploit them, and help them develop the courage to deploy those skills.
But most importantly, we should give law students and licensure candidates an entirely new narrative about life in the law. We should tell them that their well-being is a core, non-negotiable, professional and personal asset; that the most effective and successful lawyers protect their own wellness and preserve their own dignity; and that anyone who says they don’t deserve a healthy life is a liar. We should entrench the value and validity of this narrative with new lawyers before they set one foot in the profession.
Here are five steps that legal educators and regulators, working in tandem, can take right now:
Inform: Tell every new and prospective law student about the mental and emotional health crisis burning through the profession they’re planning to enter — full disclosure of what they’re getting themselves into, so they can make an informed decision about whether to continue.
Prepare: Give law students the knowledge of how legal professionals experience stress, the physical and mental habits to strengthen their bodies and minds, the means to manage external and internal pressure, and a mandate to always be kind to themselves.
Empower: Help aspiring lawyers develop their solid and unique professional identity, upon which they can build the confidence to stand by their values, chart their own course, exercise their own judgment, and make career choices for their own benefit, not anyone else’s.
Integrate: Make “sustenance and growth of one’s well-being” a core competence for licensure candidates, as necessary and valued as knowledge of the law, the skill to serve clients, the character to be a professional — and above all, integral to a long and happy life.
Support: Mandate guided instruction and mentoring opportunities for every new lawyer in each of their first two years in the profession, those pivotal transition years between learning and practice, to strengthen their resolve and steady their steps.
The great tragedy of the legal profession is the legions of lawyers who are wearing down, burning out, sinking into addictions, desperate for escape. But the even greater tragedy is that we keep sending in more new lawyers to join them. We keep turning the crank, moving the conveyor belt forward, defying the definition of insanity by doing the same terrible things and expecting the same terrible results.
Enough. No more victims of our professional disease. Let’s begin a new story today.
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