Work/Life Balance

Slow Death by Normal Crazy

There is currently a great deal of talk about mental health issues in the legal profession. It remains to be seen whether the profession will finally take mental health seriously, or whether the topic is simply the ‘flavour of the month’ and useful material for recruiting and marketing. 

Much of the talk is about burn-out, anxiety, depression, addiction, and suicide. Of course it is important that we speak about these horrific outcomes and how to prevent them.  But frankly, it seems to me that this is the wrong focus. People experience a lot of ‘normal crazy’ in the legal profession before they are diagnosed with a mental illness.  We need to be talking about that.

It is kind of like reading in the newspaper about a bridge collapsing. It is a dramatic event. Cars fall into the water. Some people get out. Some do not.  We all want to know the details. But prior to the collapse, who wants to discuss whether bridges are being inspected, maintained, and repaired diligently? Who wants to spend extra money doing that type of stuff if they can get away with it?

In my case, I never developed an addiction (other than to caffeine so that I could make my way through late afternoon meetings and keep working into the evening.) I never became clinically depressed. I never attempted suicide (although there were a few times that those thoughts crept into my mind.)  I burned out a few times but kept on slogging and did some questionable legal work in the meanwhile. But I did become anxious early in my career and continued to suffer from anxiety until I retired (and beyond.) And I did develop some physical health issues which I am pretty sure are rooted in that anxiety.

Now, in fairness, I cannot say that all of my anxiety came from practicing law. I had, as everyone does, issues in my personal life which caused me stress as well. But the pressure of my legal practice certainly did not help me deal with those in the best possible way. Practicing law in a traditional firm setting just does not provide for an excess of emotional bandwidth to deal with life’s normal ups and downs. 

To put it in tech terms, it is as if you require all of your monthly data allowance to handle your career and ‘normal life,’ but the moment you need extra capacity you can only borrow it from your health.

Even that might be okay if the ‘normal life’ data allowance had some room for things that are, well, ‘normal,’ like exercising regularly, taking uninterrupted vacations, spending time with friends, and maintaining your relationship with your family. But often it does not. And, it goes without saying (although I am going to say it anyway) that the ‘normal life’ data allowance does not seem to provide for things such as matrimonial strife, giving birth, having a child with special needs, or any type of chronic illness.

No, the legal profession often requires people to run flat out all of the time. It is hardly surprising that when adversity rears its head, lawyers start falling like flies.

We need to be talking about normal crazy in the legal profession. Here are just a few suggested topics:

  1. Partners setting profitability targets which can only be obtained by requiring Associates to hit unreasonable billable hour targets.
  2. Partners setting billable hour targets that they know will not be achieved, hoping that by doing so Associates will try harder to come close to them.
  3. Law firms tolerating bullies as long as they have a large client base.
  4. Partners without any human resource skills or management talent ‘supervising’ junior lawyers.
  5. Inconsistent and non-existent mentoring for junior lawyers.
  6. Cultures which celebrate over-work.
  7. Policies which discourage lawyers from taking uninterrupted vacations.
  8. Inconsistent and uncertain partnership policies intended to keep everyone competing for opportunities for advancement. (Or, as we used to say at my firm, “it is our club and at the end of the day we decide who gets to join it.”)
  9. Lawyers being required to be available 24/7.
  10. Management of firms by lawyers without business or management expertise.
  11. Management of firms by qualified business professionals who are then over-ruled by lawyers without business or management expertise.
  12. Bias against internationally trained lawyers.
  13. Income competition between Partners, each of whom only wants to recognize the importance of what they are good at themselves.
  14. Powerplays and back-stabbing at the partnership level as Partners scramble for the glory of being in control and the opportunity to put their mark on the firm culture.
  15. The absence of loyalty to firm members experiencing unusual stress or personal and health demands (at all levels from staff to senior Partners), or simply wanting to slow down as they approach retirement.

I am sure that there are many more topics that can be added to this list. I truly believe that normal crazy in the legal profession is the wide-ranging gold standard.

So here is the thing:  until we tackle normal crazy, I just don’t see how we will ever deal with the serious mental illness that develops from it.

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