No member of this board could read “Big Law Killed My Husband,” the op-ed written by Joanna Litt about her husband’s suicide, and not reflect on his or her personal experiences practicing law. Gabe MacConaill’s quest for perfection, struggle to fight feelings of inadequacy, and fear of career sabotage all hit close to home. We write in response to Litt’s op-ed and call on law firm leaders to honor the humanity of their lawyers, and to set a tone of respect for all lawyers, regardless of rank or book of business.
Like MacConaill, members of this board have dismissed requests from loved ones to leave the demands of private practice behind. We have lived without sleep, grappled with depression and sacrificed important moments with family and friends. Daily—and sometimes hourly—attorneys negotiate whether basic needs such as eating lunch, attending a doctor’s appointment or even taking a restroom break are worth the delay such “breaks” would cause in returning work product, emails or calls to a colleague or client. Attorneys routinely forfeit dinner with friends or communicating with family because of a deadline. Litt reminded us, however, that these trade-offs can result in too high of a price, especially if a lawyer already suffers from mental illness.
Some workplace phenomena specific to the practice of law make it difficult, if not impossible, for young lawyers to, as Litt wrote, “ask for help … be vulnerable … [and] not be perfect,” and, in our view, to be human. It is not necessary to buy into this culture as the only right way to work and be respected as a lawyer. Doing so would leave us all with an inadequate, and dangerous, sense of how to live and to work together. One of the most rewarding aspects of life as a lawyer is the relationships we have with our clients and colleagues. It is a privilege to confront legal issues from which we learn and use them to enrich our professional lives with our fellow lawyers. Lessening the humanity of any lawyer, whether through the intentional actions of bad actors or as a consequence of institutional traditions, results in the sacrifice of this privilege, and may also have life-threatening consequences.
Young Lawyers Do Belong
Litt wrote that her husband “felt like a phony who had everyone fooled about his abilities as a lawyer, and thought after this case was over, he was going to be fired—despite having won honors for his work.” Imposter syndrome is common, especially among millennials, and involves questioning one’s competence despite evidence to the contrary. Some law firm environments can reinforce the syndrome by not giving kudos in annual reviews, even when praise is due, and by failing to encourage or require supervising attorneys to provide feedback. Relationship partners may not remember to communicate a client’s appreciation for a job well done to an attorney who handled a critical matter for that client, and lawyers may associate silence with disapproval. Many law firms can also perpetuate a culture of fear and perfectionism, which does not encourage lawyers to learn from potential mistakes or admit weaknesses. In addition, attorneys may feel out of place for socioeconomic reasons. For instance, partners viewed as successful at a firm may be members of certain country clubs or reside in particular neighborhoods, while club membership and homeownership are not financially accessible to associates (many of whom leave law school with significant student debt).
It is essential that young lawyers fight the notion that they do not belong. If you are a young lawyer, you likely worked tremendously hard to be admitted to and excel at a top college, attend a highly ranked law school, and graduate among the top ranks of your law school class. In order to even be accepted at law school or college, young lawyers likely volunteered time to a meaningful cause and pursued a variety of passions to obtain the required well-rounded application. In short, we have no doubt that you, a young lawyer, are an exciting person who has probably led a meaningful life and who has excelled at both school and work. If you are a more senior associate or young partner, you have done all of those things and more: You have demonstrated continued excellence in your practice over the entire course of your career. Our advice: Own it. Your excellence and skill as a lawyer are not dependent on your job title or where you are placed within a law firm’s hierarchy. Trust that every positive habit you have cultivated to this point will continue to serve you. You are adequate and worthy of your law firm position.
Law Firm Culture
The culture at some law firms reinforces the type of unrelenting scrutiny in which Type A perfectionists engage. That is, an overachiever who is uncertain of his or her achievements in a law firm environment is most likely to continue to strive to overachieve, which will result in an even higher quality of work and higher number of billable hours, require a more rapid response rate to client and partner emails, and other actions likely to benefit the law firm’s business goals, including its profit margins. But the incessant and compulsive habits of a perfectionist and people-pleasing personality can be harmful to the individual lawyer, resulting in burnout, social isolation and even physical illness. A firm may unconsciously withhold affirmation of its young lawyers. This practice is likely the product of our hypercritical profession and training to be issue-spotters in law school. Consequently, the feedback model in a firm insufficiently supports young lawyers. Firm lawyers should not rely on law school training to manage those within their employ; instead, firm leaders should seek guidance from organizational management experts and deliberately engage in transparency.
We provide the following advice to young lawyers: Maintain perspective. For example, if you find yourself in an annual review and the partners who are conducting the review note nothing positive about your work product, even when you’ve exceeded communicated expectations in terms of billable hours and pro bono contributions, and the partners with whom you work continue to give you work, know that your personal self-worth is not dependent on praise from partners. Buying into any narrative that you are somehow inferior despite giving your best work reinforces the culture which led to MacConaill feeling “overworked, inferior and undervalued.” After a one-sided or unfair review, confide in those who can help you to review the evidence of your actual achievements in order to combat any feelings of inferiority. Further, take heart in the unspoken: Clients and partners who want to work with you have confidence in your legal skills and abilities.
Humanize Big Law
Litt wrote that her husband said “he felt like he was doing the work of three people.” Many Big Law associates feel this way. With the drive to increase profits per partner, associates and new income partners are frequently assigned a burden that more appropriately belongs to three or more attorneys. Even when an associate annualizes over 3,000 billable hours at any given time, partners may be reluctant to hire additional support because of the pressure to maximize profits. Senior associates may be reluctant to delegate to younger attorneys, even when the support exists, out of a fear of not meeting their own billable goals, which continues to serve as a threshold metric when an attorney is considered for a promotion or bonus. Continuing this cycle, however, only solidifies Big Law’s complacency with a culture of living as overworked—and sometimes depressed—lawyers.
Partners and senior attorneys owe a responsibility to the client if something goes wrong on a case. They should similarly take responsibility for the attorneys working under them to make sure they are not doing more work than they can reasonably handle. Corporate clients should also ask more questions about how matters are staffed and examine the total number of hands on deck, and keep in mind the likelihood that lawyers are staffed on multiple matters. Clients want well-rested and clear-thinking associates, too; overworked attorneys produce inferior work product.
Lawyers must further show interest and empathy in relation to the personal lives of the lawyers they supervise. If a client were to email a partner to say that she was unavailable to attend a deposition due to a death in the family, the partner would likely respond and provide condolences. Similarly, if an associate who supports the partner’s case writes to say she is unavailable to work the next day due to a death in her family, the partner should respond similarly, acknowledging that the associate is a human being with a life beyond the office. The same should be true of other extracurricular commitments, ranging from weddings of close friends to children’s dance recitals and parent-teacher conferences.
Striking in Litt’s piece was her comment that her husband “was impeccable with his word, and actually cared so immensely about the job he did and how people viewed him. He wasn’t focused on the bottom line or lining his pockets with more money.” In our view, this description accurately describes most young lawyers who strive to do excellent work, and yet, some who control their workloads forget to take the time to treat these striving young perfectionists as three-dimensional people with competing priorities, work assignments, personal lives and needs. Lawyers are not machines. They are human beings. Treating young lawyers as solely a means to a profitable end threatens the careers of those very lawyers, and also their lives, as demonstrated by Litt.
Self-Advocacy Is Necessary
Litt wrote that maladaptive perfectionists such as her husband lack self-compassion. Self-compassion is an extravagance for most attorneys when research must be completed, a client needs a quick answer, and a partner may be disappointed if an email isn’t sent fast enough. But paying attention to our well-being in the day-to-day is essential to taking back control of our careers and our lives and advocating for a more bearable, more fulfilling (yes, it is possible), and more human profession.
If you are hungry at 6 p.m., leave the office and sit down to a meal. If you want to tuck your children into bed at night, put the work to the side and avoid missing out on that critical moment of time with your loved ones. Set realistic expectations by practicing waiting several hours before answering a nonurgent email. If you need to get out of town for a few days, feel free to do so; delegate appropriately and make sure your team knows who is covering while you are away. Say no to new cases when you already have a full plate. If you regularly bill on Saturdays, consider adjusting your in-office time accordingly during the workweek. Do not assume that just because the lawyers who sit in your hallway stay at the office until 10 p.m., you must do so, too. Of course, when a deal is about to close, a case is going to trial or a client has an emergency, lawyers will need to work more extended hours. It is nonetheless imperative that we honor our self-care and make our well-being a priority.
If you are questioned about time spent away from the office, advocate for your priorities. Inform your supervisor that it is important for you to spend time with your family, to exercise, to mourn when a family member passes, or to attend your house of worship. Remind your law firm of your humanity. If you are more productive when working from home—perhaps the stress around the office overwhelms you or allows for too many interruptions—consider adjusting your schedule to work from home as needed. Let your supervising attorneys know how they can reach you.
You provide value to your firm. If you are ever uncertain of this fact, multiply your hourly rate by the total number of hours billed last year. Now compare that to your salary. You made a lot of money for your firm! Next, think about how you make your workplace better for your colleagues who are enduring similar pressures. Your colleagues respect and admire you as a professional. Third, consider how your expertise may have made the job of an in-house counsel easier, or saved a pension plan from incredible losses impacting thousands, or prevented your client from facing an investigation that would have distracted from its efforts to create a cure for an acute disease. Try speaking with your firm’s leaders, whether they are the chair of an associates committee or practice chair, in order to gauge whether your needs will be heard and addressed, or if the needs of another lawyer are being adequately considered. Sometimes a lack of communication creates uncertainties which need not exist. Savvy firm leaders realize that a lawyer’s self-care and well-being contribute to organizational success, client service and the bottom line. Finally, consider opening up to your peers at the office. A colleague may also be experiencing stress, uncertainty and mental health challenges and may be relieved to have a confidant. By opening up to others, work relationships may become friendlier.
Step back and consider what it is you need to live an enriching, healthy life as a lawyer. It may mean seeking out a mentor who will treat you as a competent or valued professional, being more forthcoming with your supervisors about your expectations and needs, or joining a different team or practice area. It may even mean that you leave your current law firm or join another law firm. Many lawyers on this board have conducted precisely these types of exercises. We can assure you that the process is worth it, and in many cases, we’ve found successful positions in Big Law and elsewhere that permit us to lead more balanced and happy lives.
The views expressed here are personal to the authors and do not represent the opinions of their employers.
Board Members: Aaron Swerdlow, Alex Tarnow, Andrea Guzman, Andrew Warner, Aydin Bonabi, Bess Hinson, Blair Kaminsky, Brianna Howard, Brooke Anthony, Emily Stedman, Emma Walsh, Garrett Ordower, Geoffrey Young, Heather Souder Choi, Holly Dolejsi, Jennifer Yashar, Jessica Tuchinsky, Ji Hye You, Josh Sussberg, Kevin Morse, Kyle Sheahen, Lauren Doyle, Martina Tyreus Hufnal, Mauricio Espana, Nicole Gutierrez, Peter Buckley, Quynh Vu, Rakesh Kilaru, Reggie Schafer, Sakina Rasheed Foster, Sara Harris, Shishene Jing, Tamara Bruno, Tim Fitzmaurice, Timothy Perla, Todd Koretzky, Travis Lenkner, Trisha Rich and Wyley Proctor.