Lawyer Wellness: The Elephant In The Room

I recently got together for lunch with a long-time friend. He is a senior partner at a very respected, mid-size firm in Dallas-about sixty lawyers. In the course of catching up, we discussed my work/advocacy with regard to wellness in the legal profession.  I asked him if he or his firm had taken notice of the push for more awareness.  Here is what he had to say:

1.     He cares that his collogues and friends are doing well as individuals. If they are struggling with substance use or problem drinking issues, he hopes they would come to him.  He, however, does not care about lawyer wellness as a profession-wide initiative.

  1. To the best of his knowledge, his firm as a whole, does not care. He is not aware of anyone at any level, ever broaching the topic.
  2. He had not heard of the ABA/Hazelden Betty Ford study on the subject.
  3. He had no idea what the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP) does.
  4. He cares intensely about the following: a) His family b) Servicing firm clients 3) Maintaining his lifestyle
  5. If a client project requires a ninety-hour week, so be it. This is the nature of the profession we chose.

As he ticked through his viewpoints, I could feel the tips of my fingers begin to tingle. The temperature at our tiny table, in a small, crowded restaurant, seemed to rise ten degrees. Sweat formed behind my ear lobes. I was angry.

I had no reason to be angry.  He was being honest. Did I expect him to lie about the realities of the profession beyond my bubble of confirmation bias? The echo chamber of fellow warriors of wellness?  He articulated the elephant in the room when we talk about such things. Other real-life priorities of diverse individuals. Mary Meditation, Millie Mindfulness, and Joe Yoga are great, but they don’t bill.

Whether this seems short-sited in the face of the mental-health crisis the study lays out, many don’t know or don’t care regardless. This seems to be especially the case outside of Biglaw.  Work, family and other priorities don’t leave much time for Mary, Millie, or Joe. Time is a prime asset that cannot be recovered. Within the billable and client-responsive realm of our profession, it must be rationed to maintain the prime directives of day to day life. Friends, family, clients, and lifestyle. Mortgage, rent, car payments, massive school debt, a sliver of social life; all can be threatened by any hint of not being a team player

It becomes more complicated when we drop below Biglaw. A lawyer may not have an EAP.  He/she/they/them may know about their lawyer’s assistance program but assume it’s only for “alcoholics and addicts”. I know many who don’t trust their LAP despite messaging that it is confidential.

The lawyer may not have health insurance or have such a high deductible that for anything major, they are defacto uninsured. All of this can add up to the fear, insecurity and drive to put money in the bank that makes the high hour work-week an acceptable reality.  We get the resulting vacuum in which the practice of law is pretty much what it was ten years ago in terms of priorities and views on wellness. I asked my friend to expand on our irritating lunch discussion He graciously agreed.

When I first started practicing law in 1985, no lawyer I knew had a computer.  

I worked for a large downtown law firm, which had a Word Processing division — but secretaries were obligated to type any document shorter than eight pages long (which meant re-typing for any significant changes that could not be corrected with Whiteout).

Longer documents were put in your secretary’s outbox to be picked up by the intra-office mail person, who would take it to the Word Processing room.  A document that went in intraoffice mail at, say, 4:00 pm in the afternoon would be delivered back to your secretary’s inbox at around 10:00 am the next morning.  You would hand mark your changes — and then put it back in intraoffice mail.

As a result, trading documents with attorneys for the other side in litigation or a corporate transaction was slow, and delays were expected.  In other words, the turnaround cycle for legal work matched the rhythms of life, and you could leave the office for dinner and socialization at a decent hour.  A large corporate transaction might take five or six months.

Now, with ubiquitous computers and tablets, with editable Word documents that can quickly be duped and revised, cut and pasted by the attorneys themselves, documents have doubled and tripled in length, and the complexity has increased correspondingly.  With e-mail and texts, documents can be zipped around the world in different time zones with the click of a Send key, so the turnaround time for large corporate deals has shrunken to sometimes 60 days or fewer.

And now with ubiquitous WIFI and cellular hotspots, you can work anywhere, on a plane, in your car, on a dock by the bay — so clients, with compressed deal times, expect you to.  

Frequently, you’ll see a client’s name pop up on your office phone.  When you don’t answer, your cell phone will ring.  When you don’t answer that, they text you.  The expectation is that you’re always available.  If you’re on vacation, great — but that just means that they expect you to get the document out before your wife and kids get up for breakfast.  And if you’re not willing to be always accessible, you’ll lose the client to another lawyer who will.  We’re all in a race to the bottom to ruin our lives.

And by the way, partners expect associates to be always on, too, so if a client needs something at 10:00 pm on a Sunday night, the partner expects the associate to hop right on it.  We don’t care where the associate is.  We’re feeling heat from the client, so we need always-on responsiveness from the junior attorney.

So, we drink to calm down at the end of the day.  For some of us, every day.  For senior attorneys who are in the later stages of our careers and are making a bunch of money, we can look at our brokerage statements and gut it out for the five or six years to retirement — as we grind the junior attorneys who work for us.

For the junior attorneys who work for us, life is miserable — and they’re looking at a long career of misery in front of them, so I can understand why they are likely depressed or have substance abuse problems.

But we don’t give much thought to that (and, at mid-sized or smaller firms, are not trained to look out for or give any thought to it).  As noted above, clients are bombarding me with demands 24/7/365.  I need my associates to be responsive in the same timeframe.  If they are slow in responding or are slow in turning workaround, or turn in inadequate work, I don’t have time to counsel them.  I move on to another associate.  Too much emphasis on billing and collecting to add counseling services to the mix.  It’s very Darwinian.  

There you have it. It’s anecdotal, but don’t kid yourself. It’s not an outlier. Those who advocate are doing great in getting the message those in the rarified air of Biglaw. We have a lot of work to do below that, where the majority of the profession resides.

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