My legal career drove me crazy. Granted, it was not a very long drive, but I suspect that with a bit of knowledge and a great deal of counselling, perhaps I could have taken an off-ramp before I got there.
In a better world, people contemplating a career in law would be told that: (i) it is stressful; and (ii) they should take steps to become their best psychological self before they start down that road.
In the real world, we all come to the law with different levels of maturity, life experience and confidence. In my case, I was a babe in the woods. I started practicing law at age 26 without an undergraduate degree, any experience in the work force beyond the usual summer jobs, or any knowledge about business and how the world works. Oh, I also had the self-confidence of a gnat.
I was a quick learner, and I did pretty well despite my lack of life experience. I practiced for forty years, developed a decent client base, billed lots of money and held onto a fair bit of it, and helped some folks along the way.
From time-to-time people would ask me whether I liked being a lawyer. I always said the same thing, being that I liked what I did but I hated the pressure that I did it under. I understood that the stress came with the job and I never stopped to think that maybe I could do something about it.
Although the stress impacted my mental health throughout my career, it was only when it threatened to affect my physical health as well that I started looking for that off ramp.
My career was relatively low tech when I started in 1981, although I did adapt fairly quickly as things changed. I went through typewriters, dictaphones, fax machines, word processing, computer networks, cell phones, smart phones, email, document automation software, and videoconferencing. Each new development promised to make my life easier. None of them did because they just accelerated client demands and expectations, and I, being the picture of mental health that I am (the “before” picture), went along with them and continued to work just as hard as ever.
Which brings me to the present day. We have a constant flow of new technology being developed for use in the legal profession, as well as a new awareness that mental health is an issue in the workplace in general and in the legal profession in particular. The legal tech providers say that new technology is the solution which will help us maintain our sanity. That was never the case for me.
What is the truth?
My view is that although technology never made the office into my happy place, had I not adapted to the technology as it evolved, I probably would have crashed and burned. There would have been no way to keep up with client demands if my competitors were becoming more efficient through the use of technology and I was not. The legal tech did not make me happy, but it did keep me working.
Once I figured out that I had a problem and I had to do something about it, technology did help me slow down and become healthier. It allowed me to work from Cape Cod for three months in the summer of 2014 before remote work was even a thing, and to do the same thing from a cottage in Ontario in the summer of 2015. By 2017, I was working from home most of the time, saving me a long commute and allowing me to use those extra hours to go to the gym several days a week.
Meanwhile, back in the office, my law clerk made great use of document automation software and was able to process documentation for large corporate reorganizations in a fraction of the time and with much better consistency than she would have been able to manage manually.
Which brings us back to whether technology is at least part of the answer to the mental health crisis in the legal profession. My perspective is that technology is absolutely essential to remaining competitive. Since avoiding business failure is much less stressful than going bankrupt, the software vendors are telling the truth when they say that legal tech is good for your mental health.
Beyond that, the answer is (as is the case with most things in the legal world), “it all depends.” Legal tech is a tool. If you choose to take on a reasonable case load, charge reasonable fees, use the technology to get the work done faster and take care of your wellbeing with the time that you save, the tech will help with your mental health.
On the other hand, you may choose to do what I probably would have done if the legal tech now available had been around when I was in mid-career. I would have used it to take on an ever-increasing workload, while being dumb enough to keep charging clients on an hourly basis, resulting in no reduction in my workload or increase in profitability. That would not have helped my mental state one iota.
Since it does all depend on you, my advice is that before you get involved with the legal profession, you should make a real effort to become your best psychological self and use technology to help you maintain your health. Alternatively, you can just stumble around like I did for forty years and figure it out as you go. Or never.
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