I’m a young associate (class of ’15) who wanted to be a lawyer since childhood. I went to “top” schools, earned “top” grades, and now work around the clock at a “top” law firm. The problem is I feel like it’s changing me, and not in a good way. I think it has less to do with the work than it does with the lawyers. A lot of lawyers I encounter in my firm and elsewhere seem to be in some stage of psychological agony and regular self-medication, and I’m afraid it’s all starting to rub off. So my question is: Is this just part of being a lawyer in 2017 or do you see areas of the law with healthier, happier people who aren’t slowly falling apart? I’m not at all ready to give up on this dream, but don’t like where I’m headed.
A once-healthy person in N.Y.
First things first, you’re not alone. The feelings you describe—that something unhealthy is “rubbing off on you”—are all too common for young attorneys in 2017. Many lawyers in the first 10 years of practice find themselves where you are, as evidenced by significant levels of problem drinking, depression and anxiety in your peer group. I’m always encouraged by self-aware people like you, however, and applaud your desire to get ahead of the problem before it wears you down, or worse, flattens you with the unapologetic force of an angry rolling pin. (Note, not everyone has the relative luxury of “slowly falling apart”).
Second, in the words of Billy Joel, “Don’t go changing.” If Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush are more your speed, “Don’t give up.” Being that you’re a millennial, both of those references may be lost on you, so I’ll encourage you to find your own source of lyrical inspiration. The bottom line is that I want you to hang in there, and realize that you shouldn’t and don’t need to lower your standards to accommodate your choice of profession. Being a lawyer was your dream, and we all know how much hard work goes into it. Don’t let a couple years of toxic exposure make you back down from your ambitions, especially when lot of options are available for improving the situation.
Without knowing more about your specific firm or practice area, I can say that many “top” firms have a brutal and demanding pace—in return for which they offer significant compensation—and we also know that private firms have among the highest rates of problem drinking. So, there is a reasonable chance that you could trade the frying pan for the flame by simply moving on to another similar work environment with hopes of finding less “psychological agony” and “self-medication.”
That said, more firms are beginning to wake up to these issues, and taking proactive steps toward improvement. With enough due diligence, you could most likely find a healthier environment that would offer challenging work while also keeping you on the same financial trajectory. I would also encourage you to spend some time reflecting on whether a “top” firm salary is critical to your long-term happiness (there is compelling research that it is not), and ask yourself whether feeling better about your health might be worth a pay cut.
Beyond the external, however, I would also encourage you to focus on the internal. After all, I know many incredible lawyers who manage to maintain physical and psychological well-being while immersed in less than supportive environments. It will take extra effort on your part, but it’s doable. Having a healthy support network (and making the time to see them) will be key to offsetting the emotional carcinogens filling your workday. You should also consider booking some time with a therapist, and having any self-medication you might be doing assessed by a professional if it’s starting to concern you, or those around you.
Despite what many people seem to think, there is nothing wrong with talking to a mental health professional, and it doesn’t reflect poorly on your abilities or qualifications as a lawyer. In fact, I would say the opposite, and that proactively availing yourself of resources for good mental and chemical health is actually a performance-enhancing behavior. After all, who doesn’t want an edge, especially in a competitive law firm environment?
Finally, I’ll urge you to get serious about the frequently touted but rarely pursued fundamentals of self-care: exercise, sleep, diet, more centering activities (I’m a big believer in yoga; others like mindfulness meditation), and more of whatever other nonintoxicating things fuel your joy. The profession needs good, healthy lawyers. You didn’t go to law school to become emotionally dysfunctional, chemically dependent, or both. Pump the brakes on that train now and we’ll all be glad you did.
Have a question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll see you back here in two weeks.
Patrick R. Krill is the founder of Krill Strategies, a behavioral health consulting firm focused exclusively on the legal industry. Go to www.prkrill.com for more information.