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I am ready to quit. After I billed 300 hours in one month, I got sick. I was home throwing up my guts and I get this message on my answering machine: “I hear you are working on my brief.” Actually, I was trying to write three briefs while I was sick at home, all due about the same time. “Well,” he says, “I need it sooner. Tomorrow would be the latest.” That partner gave me the brief at the last minute and he expected me to turn it around in a few days. Forget it. I’m ready to quit right now. I can’t keep going like this! Dana worked at a Wall Street firm. She was admittedly a Type A personality. She thought fast, talked fast, and loved a fast pace, but this was ridiculous. She made “an obscene amount of money,” but her high-stress life was overwhelming her. After getting over a virus, she was left with disorienting dizzy spells that made her feel nauseous. These spells came and went without warning. The condition persisted for weeks. During this time, she continued to work full time, but got a complete medical work-up to try to find the cause of her dizziness. She learned she did not have a brain tumor, multiple sclerosis, or any other definable disease. “So my doctor prescribed bed rest and less work,” she laughed. Despite her dizziness, Dana was expected to keep up her hours just like everyone else. Other people at her firm were experiencing the same pressures and many of them were also sick. Over the six months I coached Dana on her career, she reported on the plight of her colleagues who had fallen on the workplace battlefield, victims of fatigue and stress. At least four hard-driving partners and as many associates in her practice group were mown down by an inability to moderate their work schedules, either because they were personally driven to overwork or because their workloads were simply too heavy. Three had heart attacks or strokes. One had triple bypass heart surgery. One died. Others were constantly sick with one ailment after another. “And they all look like hell,” Dana told me in disgust. “Why are we letting this happen to ourselves? Why do we take it?” The atmosphere Dana described sounded like the D-Day invasion. Anyone left standing in her practice group was summoned to the front lines to fight the battle that never ended. Extraordinary work hours had become the norm. People were living at the firm day and night. “I’m not going to live my life this way,” Dana vowed. “I’m getting out before I become a statistic.” Her first act of liberation was to take a much-needed sick leave. She planned to take a well-deserved rest, but she felt so guilty about being at home that she requested projects to do there. Dana worked from her bed because when she got up the room would spin so badly she would often vomit. After about two months of “vacation,” she actually allowed herself to relax a little and her dizziness abated. She took up meditation, went to a board meeting for a youth group she had been asked to join, got involved in the women’s bar association, and started reading for pleasure. She also conducted a job search using strategies we practiced over the phone. She engaged in a quest for a different kind of job that would use her skills as a lawyer but was not strictly for someone with a law degree. During her leave, the most difficult adjustment Dana faced was the reduction of mental stimulation and stress. After years of high anxiety and overwork, she suddenly felt understimulated and underutilized. Deadlines, panic, and a sense of dread had been her daily companions at the law firm, and even though she hated these demons they invigorated her and gave her life a sense of purpose. The sudden calm and quiet of her life was frightening at first. But she eventually grew to enjoy it. In early July, Dana called me to report that she was worried. She felt so much better that she felt obligated to go back to work. Her biggest fear was that she would be sucked back into the high-stress vortex she had worked so hard to escape and lose her newly found sense of purpose and peace. Fortunately, Dana’s job search soon hit pay dirt, thanks to her networking efforts. She uncovered three interesting job prospects that were all “quasi-legal.” These jobs were ones that did not require a legal degree but would not penalize her for having one. In addition, she wanted to talk about an uncomfortable revelation. As the result of doing our self-assessment work and having the time to think about her life, Dana had decided to have a family. For her, this was a difficult confession. After all, she had been the definition of a career-driven Wall Street lawyer in the eyes of her friends, her peers at the firm, her family, and herself. She would need to come to terms with a new self-image and forgive herself for not fulfilling her original career goal of making partner at a Wall Street law firm. By the end of July, Dana had accepted an offer for one of the positions she had learned about in her search. She was delighted with her choice. “Now that I am away from my old firm, I can see that I was caught in an abusive relationship. I was like a battered wife, hating my life but coming back for more abuse. I’m just glad I got out.” In today’s overheated legal world, many partners and associates are working too hard to maintain their health and live reasonably balanced lives. In some cases, lawyers on a partnership track are working around 700 more billable hours annually than was the norm in the 1970s. It used to be possible to bill 1,600 to 1,700 hours a year and make partner. These days, many are expected to bill 2,300 to 2,500 to be considered for partner. Leaving a dysfunctional work environment seems as if it should be easy, but it can be very difficult to do. If you are part of an abusive work world, you may not be aware of how battered you are. Everyone you work with is equally stressed out but trying to put a good spin on it. Many lawyers also are immobilized by golden handcuffs. Lawyers may be some of the highest- paid workers in the labor force, but today’s high-pressure law firm culture can be physically and psychically abusive for associates and partners alike. Sheila Nielsen is a nationally recognized career counselor specializing in attorneys. A lawyer and a social worker by training, she counsels lawyers on a wide variety of issues, as well as those changing jobs or careers. Her business, Nielsen Consulting Service, is located in Chicago. She can be reached at (312) 616-4416. Clients discussed in this column are composites and all names have been changed.

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