In my first four years of practicing law, I learned how to be a lawyer through the “sink or swim” approach. I did this by working 12 hours a day and 6 ½ days a week, without supervision, mentoring or training. I was also worrying 24 days a day, 7 days a week, and waking up screaming at night. I do not recommend this approach to learning the practice of law.
At some point I must have appeared to one of the senior lawyers in the firm to be somewhat stressed, because he tried to help me. His (real) name was Fred, and Fred carried on a low-stress practice between the hours of about 10 am and 3 pm, with time off for a 2 ½ hour gourmet lunch, with wine. Clearly Fred had figured something out which I had not.
Well, one day, I must have appeared to be particularly frantic, because Fred asked me a question which I still remember 40 years later, and which I must admit I used to try to calm myself down more times than I would like to remember.
Fred’s question was: “Murray, do you have $5,000?” At the time I had no idea why Fred was asking me that question. I replied, quite truthfully that I did not have $5,000 and I wondered why Fred would think that I might have $5,000, since he was only paying me $28,000 a year.
Fred looked surprised, but he persisted. He asked “Well, could you get $5,000 if you needed it?”, and I replied, “Yes, I am sure that I could put my hands on $5,000 in an emergency.”
Pleased with this response, Fred said “So, you have nothing to worry about.” I did not get it, and when I asked Fred to explain he told me that $5,000 was the amount of my professional liability insurance deductible. In Fred’s view, there was no reason to worry about anything as long as I could afford the deductible.
Unfortunately, Fred’s sage advice did not have the desired effect, and I continued to worry.
Fred was not the only lawyer who I ever came across who had figured out how not to worry about making a mistake. I also met Louis (not his real name) who never worried about anything. Louis’ method was to delegate all worry to his clerks, students, assistants, and associates.
On one occasion Louis sent an articling student to close a real estate transaction at the registry office, acting for the purchaser. When the student called in a panic to say that the closing funds were insufficient, Louis offered no help whatsoever, and simply asked the student: “Are you going to pass articling today?” The enterprising student left the registry office, found a bank, and withdrew funds from her own account to complete the purchase. She passed articling that day. Louis carried on sending students to the registry office with improperly prepared files without any stress whatsoever.
Which leads me to my point. Stress is a given in the profession. Every lawyer has to learn to deal with it. Although it is now fashionable to talk about mental health and about how to deal with stress, there are some important aspects of the topic which do not appear to receive enough attention. For example, why has it been accepted in the profession that working in a high stress environment is such a normal part of the professional life of most lawyers? Is all of this stress simply inherent in the nature of what we do, or is it an avoidable consequence of high-income aspirations fuelling high billable hour requirements? Do we have a law firm culture that encourages and even celebrates stress?
I recently spoke to a lawyer who recounted how his supervisor at a large Toronto firm offered him the constructive criticism on his performance review that he did not seem to take sufficient ownership of his files. The way that the supervisor put it was that “I want to see you staying up at night worrying about the files.”
I myself used to be uncomfortable when I saw a lawyer who I supervised make a mistake and just shrug it off. I expected them to experience at least one or two sleepless nights over it to prove to me that they cared enough.
When I think about the root cause of the stress and worry that plagued me (and those whom I supervised) during my career, I keep coming back to the standard of practice that I expected of myself and others. For much of my career I expected the work to be perfect (whatever that means). I took typographical errors in documents as a personal affront and mistakes of any degree of seriousness as a calamity.
Eventually I relaxed my standards a bit, partially because the economics of the profession did not allow for an unlimited number of reviews of every piece of work to ensure “perfection”; partially because I became more adept at measuring the risk inherent in different aspects of each assignment and understood that the client could not be expected to pay for excessive time spent on low risk matters; partially because my confidence increased to the point that I no longer cared if I was judged by a client or an opposing counsel as being less than perfect; and mostly because I wanted to hang on to whatever small degree of mental health that I had left.
I am sure that I developed much of the crazy long before law school, but whatever crazy I had going into law school was certainly not dissipated by my legal education or by my experience working in law firms. I expect that much of the world does not constantly worry, as many lawyers do, about being sued if their work is alleged to fall short of the mark. They say that ignorance is bliss. Hypervigilance certainly is not.
To the many lawyers who continue to work at high levels of stress, I encourage you to ask more questions than I did about whether all of the stress is necessary and about how to cope with the stress that cannot be avoided. One interesting question may be whether you are simply on the receiving end of stress being delegated by more senior lawyers so that they can have a life? Is your plan simply to suffer until you get to the point that you can delegate your stress as well?
I often tell people that when I started practicing, the standard that I set for my own work was perfection, and eventually I decreased the standard to “good enough”, which was hopefully somewhat akin to the “reasonably competent solicitor” standard that we all know and love.
When “good enough” began to look like too high a standard, I retired.
Now that I am retired, I occasionally take on household projects. When I do, I apply my new standard, which is that whatever I do should result in the situation being at least slightly better than before I started. Sometimes that standard seems too high, and I then hire someone to do the work. Ironically, I can only afford to do that because of all that work that I did for so many years under high stress.
And finally, I should mention that despite the much lower standards that I now set for myself during my waking hours, the many years of stress still surface at night when I dream about being involved in stressful transactions.