The Human Lawyer

Let me tell you a story. An ambitious and optimistic young man is thrilled to learn that he has been accepted to his top choice of law schools. The young man through the course of the first few weeks of law school learns that he has a lot to learn, yet he remains engaged and excited for the challenges that are ahead. As the year progresses, however, he notices something he had heard about prior to law school and yet had never experienced until this point. There is a distinct tension among the students in his class year. An undercurrent, if you will. The joy and camaraderie that had been sown during the course of most of the first year is becoming undone as this undercurrent of competitiveness tears at the corners of it. It makes the young man disheartened, yet not surprised. To further add to the sadness that the young man feels, a select few of the students boast about their superb grades, about their seemingly unlimited job prospects, and about how easy all of this was to achieve.

Fast forward a few years. The now young law graduate is excited to have passed the bar and about having received an offer for a corporate attorney for a well-known company. He begins his first role and works hard each and every day. The first few months are great. His internal sales clients are happy, his manager seems pleased, and he enjoys the work. Yet, this enjoyment of the work hides other feelings. As the months turn into a year, the daily smile on his face serves more and more as a façade, hiding the fact that he is being torn apart by stress, by the anxiety of never knowing if the work he is doing is meeting expectations since his manager is too busy to provide consistent and periodic feedback. When he does receive his first official review, after an entire year, he is disheartened to learn that his manager believes his skills to be sub-par and yet has no time to help him improve due to the demands being placed upon the department by the internal clients. The young man, however, is not completely shocked by the review given that this is his first permanent job out of law school and admittedly there has been a steep learning curve to move from being a law school graduate to being a lawyer. Yet, as the stress and anxiety the young man had been feeling for some time and ignored continues to simmer inside of him and the manager continues to criticize the young man’s work, the young man’s anxiety begins to boil inside and he becomes depressed and starts to consider if his choice to become a lawyer was an exercise in futility. Fear of outright failing then begins to dominate his thoughts, yet he is afraid to bother his very busy boss for help and afraid to admit to himself that he needs help.

As the second year pushes forward, the stress and anxiety having now become the most powerful force in his life. While the toll is still not evident to those he works with, when he goes home, the constant checking his phone, the constant worrying about what he could be doing instead of relaxing at home, and the restless nights trying to sleep is overwhelming evidence to his loved ones of the toll this job and this work is taking. His stress and anxiety continue to go unaddressed and unabated until it can no longer be ignored. Without going into further detail suffice it to say that the consequences of ignoring the stress and anxiety are abundantly clear in physical ways. The young man knows this and does something he would have never imagined needing to do. He voluntarily resigns from this job and puts himself and his health first. Fast forward again some months later having done a lot of intensive work on himself and his psyche, the young man re-emerges as a confident, ambitious, and driven individual ready to begin work anew, yet also not afraid to seek balance between work and play and to value himself and his worth above all else. This story is not a tale of fiction. It is a true story. The story is about me. I was that young man.

So, why tell this story? Simply put, the legal profession for too long has valued work and results above all else and certainly above the needs of the individual lawyers performing the work. The mental well-being of lawyers has been pushed aside for the sake of meeting deadlines, meeting billable hour quotas, meeting the expectations of managers and clients. As the story alluded to, even the educational system in place to train, though I use that term loosely, and educate lawyers is embedded with elements that are detrimental to the mental and even physical well-being of those desiring to join what once and should remain an admirable profession.  This cannot stand. This cannot continue. I, myself, will not let this continue to be reality, to the extent that I can do so.

Nearly all of my blog posts thus far have been focused on legal technology and/or legal innovation. This one, thus far, has been a bit different. Necessarily so since the topic of mental health is critical and one deserving of far more attention than it historically has been given. Yet, there is a way for legal technology to help address this need to let lawyers a) take care of themselves and b) work more productively. The two are not mutually exclusive. Far from it. 

For lawyers, the stress and anxiety of working long hours with tight inflexible deadlines can and is taxing not just on the brain of the individual working under such conditions, the physical well-being as well. The thing about stress and anxiety, though, is often the physical symptoms are masked by emotions. One may simply attribute being irritable or being tired to simply working for long periods of time. Yes, working long hours contributes to both of these issues. Yet, so does trying to ignore, push aside, or mentally block emotions, like fear or unhappiness. It takes work to manage both a heavy workload and the emotions that one feels. While everyone’s experience is different, often when one pushes emotions to the side, all one is doing is allowing those emotions to grow stronger and as they grow stronger, ignoring them gets harder and harder. It certainly did for me. As managing these feelings gets more difficult, so does being able to sleep, being able to relax, or being able to focus. Lawyers need to have the ability to focus and focus for extended periods of time. Therein lies the rub.

Being a lawyer is very challenging. The law is not black and white. Applying it is not a straightforward endeavor. One has to think through various potential scenarios. One has to analyze possible risks and balance those risks with the demands of the client. Decisions need to be made quickly and yet strategically. Add to this the fact that today’s environment lawyers are now being asked to perform more work with even less time and less resources. It should come as no surprise, then, that stress and anxiety plague the profession.  For far too long the profession has ignored the mental strain of working as a lawyer. As a result, one sees the periodic story of a lawyer suffering, sometimes dramatically, from dealing with both being a lawyer and being mentally pushed to the max. Some of these stories, sadly, involve the lawyer taking his or her own life. One of my friends from law school did just that.

So, the question is, what do we do about this growing problem? I have a few thoughts. First, let’s start with addressing self-care head-on during those formative years in law school. Let’s have taking care of oneself be a required subject addressed during the first and second years of law school. During the first year have students learn about healthy coping skills and what mental health means. During the second year, address it in context using scenarios drawn from reality. Let’s have folks who work as counselors, as therapists speak directly to the students. The world is not always a friendly, fun place. Individuals need to understand the reality of working as a lawyer and accept what they are signing up for.

Second, let technology help you manage your work. Teach students how to use technology in law school starting with the basic tools of the trade – Word, Excel, etc. in law school. Then, once in reality, encourage yourself and your colleagues to use more advanced technologies to automate tasks, especially those that are time-consuming, but repeatable, routine, and relatively low-risk. Let technology help you with responding to common requests, drafting agreements, creating templates, responding to routine red lines. Use the freed-up time sometimes on more strategic higher-risk work and, more importantly, sometimes on yourself. Give yourself breaks. Get up from your desk. Get some fresh air. Go for a brief walk. Take time off and by time off I mean time not working at all. We, as human beings, are not automatons. We need to give ourselves time to refresh and to recharge. We do not have unlimited energy, unlimited time, or unlimited lifespans. Life is far too short and far too precious to let it be consumed entirely by work at the expense of ourselves.  

Third, the billable hour model is not healthy. The billable hour model is clearly financially lucrative, but at what cost? There is certainly a cost paid by clients both in terms of high cost and responsiveness. Yet, that is not the price I am talking about here. The price I am alluding to is a much higher one. The price is often our own lives. This is not right. This is not safe. This simply cannot continue as is unabated and indefinitely. I have seen some firms either reduce their billable hour requirements or allow for some of the hours to be spent on things other than client work. This is a very small step in the right direction. However, truly the model needs to be reimagined for a new world, a world driven by data and by technology. A world which puts our own humanity first and our work second and not the other way around. 

The legal profession is an odd one. Odd in the sense that it operates seemingly in an alternative universe where human emotion is of little consequence, where human consciousness is given little consideration, where the work to be done is all that matters. This goes against how we function as human beings. We are emotional and complex beings. We know what we are. We know who we are. We know what we value and what we do not. The law doesn’t care about any of these things. However, just because the law doesn’t care, doesn’t mean that we, lawyers, who interpret and apply the law to varying scenarios, should not care. We absolutely should. We should care because our clients are human beings and act as human beings. We as lawyers are human beings and act as human beings. We need to bring our own humanity back into the fold. We, presumably, serve as lawyers, because we enjoy being lawyers. Enjoyment is an emotion. We need to listen to our emotions and to ourselves. To do otherwise is, in essence, a failing attempt to deny our own humanity.

Focusing on one’s own well-being has been a stigmatized topic for a long time. It has been considered something that is known by a few and talked about by none. Yet, problems related to mental health are both pervasive and pernicious. Countless lawyers suffer from such problems. Push fear of talking about it or shame derived from talking about it aside. You, me, anyone suffering from such problems have nothing to be afraid of and nothing to be ashamed of. If you or someone you know appears to be feeling unhappy, sad, or not appearing to be their normal selves, do not ignore them. Check in with them. Talk to them. Support them. Likewise, if you are feeling sad, lonely, depressed, or anxious, seek out help without delay. Be honest with yourself and your feelings. No job, no project, no client, no company is worth the cost of you losing yourself.