Mental Health and Work/Life Balance

The Path to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

Whenever someone makes a pop culture reference to the 80’s, 90’s or 2000’s which I don’t get, I always say, “I was busy working.”

I think that I was a good lawyer, but then again even the really bad lawyers who I met during my career thought that they were pretty good lawyers. 

I do know that I did one thing really well:  I almost always made my deadlines, and more importantly, when I was having trouble making a deadline, I always called and let the client know in advance and almost always gave them a choice: They could either extend the deadline or I would do whatever it took to complete my promise as scheduled – by working all night or over the weekend, or by delegating to someone else. Clients appreciated the communication and the choice and usually let me off the hook.  I also set every deadline with a view to beating it if possible. Eventually I earned the reputation of “under promising and over delivering”.

These “good” work habits were great for business, but not so great for my physical and mental health or for that of my associates or law clerks who I trained to work the same way. I sat at my computer for hours and developed chronic back issues, generally put client needs ahead of staying fit and lived with the chronic stress which affected me in many ways.

Now, all of that said, I retired from the active practice of law after 39 years in decent health but with some issues that I am certain resulted from how I chose to practice law. I doubt that I would have stayed healthy if I had continued to practice, as the issues were beginning to pile up. 

I have no doubt that I would have kept working a few years longer if I had ever learned how to achieve the perhaps illusory “balanced life”.

I have not practiced law in almost a year now, and both my physical and mental health have improved, but I certainly carry the scars of always putting clients before myself. I frequently dream that I am still working and under stress to meet client demands.  As if that is not bad enough, after working all night, I wake up exhausted and stressed only to find that there is no one to bill for my time.

In my professional career I always strived to be the type of lawyer who did not just identify the core problems, but who also found the best solutions. However, I never figured out how to meet all the demands of the legal profession, including providing great client service, developing business, mentoring others, contributing to firm management, etc., while commuting to work, balancing family life and taking care of my physical and mental health.

I always practiced in a medium sized firm where the billable hour expectations were somewhat more relaxed than in the larger firms. I can only imagine that I would have fared even worse in a “big law” setting.

If I never figured it out over all these years, either I was an exception and most lawyers can function just fine, or there is a structural problem in the legal profession.  I have concluded that firms impose unreasonable demands on lawyers and lawyers impose unreasonable demands on themselves, because there is no other way for lawyers to maintain their earnings at the “desired” level. At the same time, we all pretend that this way of life is normal for “successful professionals”.   I think that the Emperor has no clothes and by now someone should have been screaming from the roof tops that not all the illness, divorces and women leaving private practice or the profession after having families are a coincidence.  We are the victims of our own greed.

Post-Script by Maureen T. McKay, Barrister and Solicitor

Almost everything written above is true. I was there for the last 20 years of Murray’s career, first as an Articling Student, then as an Associate and eventually as his wife.  I witnessed first-hand as he sacrificed his health to serve his clients and his firm. I did the same with my own health and professional practice.

Where Murray gets it wrong is that some members of the profession have been “screaming from the rooftops” about work-life balance for at least as long as I have been at the Bar. (In fact, there was a session on exactly this topic during my Bar Admission Course.)

Murray’s flawed belief that there was silence on this matter during that 20 years (during which he was a senior partner actively involved in the management of his firm) rests on one key fact – he was too busy working to notice.

Unfortunately, for all the Law Society’s well-intentioned talk about work-life balance and the murmurings about it throughout the profession, these voices are falling mostly on deaf, but well-compensated, ears.

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