As far as tired clichés go, “work hard, play hard” is among the most exhausted. Despite the mantra’s patently empty promise—that you can somehow have it all by just going full-throttle across every inch and moment of your life—its allure persists, especially among occupational maximalists like lawyers. Now, as law firms prepare to welcome their new classes of summer associates, outdated and uninspired thinking about the appeal of the “work hard, play hard” image is likely rearing its head once again.
Here’s the common line of thought: “We want them to like us and have fun, but also to see we take our work very seriously. I know, we have to show them we can work hard and play hard!”
In the practical terms of a law firm setting, that means a lot of drinking-based events, and non-drinking-based events with plenty of alcohol still available. If you work in a firm, you know this is true. If you are alert to emerging trends, however, you should probably also know it’s time to rethink your summer associate game.
The lawyers of tomorrow are increasingly aware of—and not OK with—the mental health and substance abuse risks that can come with life in the law. As recently as last fall, student leaders at 14 elite law schools around the country banded together to sign a pledge that they would seek to greatly improve the mental health and overall well-being of their student bodies, and to fight the stigma associated with seeking treatment. If that sounds revolutionary, that’s because it is. And as someone whose day-to-day work is a deep-dive into behavioral health and well-being in the legal profession, I can tell you it is not a passing phase or flavor of the week.
In the words of Chris O’Brien, one of the student leaders who initiated that pledge:
More and more has come out in the last few years to show that the prevalence of mental health issues in law school and the legal profession is much higher than people originally knew, especially at big law firms where people work 60 to 80 hours a week. Many of these patterns develop in law school and are continued into the legal profession. We get into a pattern: high pressure, high stakes, anxiety, depression. In law school, we drink a lot, because we enjoy each others’ company, and often we continue to drink in order to combat some of these issues, which is extremely unhealthy.
If that sounds like the thinking of a generation who will be drawn to firms who lavish them with the booziest events and best parties, you need to listen a little more closely.
Citing a “mental health crisis” and the fact that misery in the legal profession is “seemingly ubiquitous,” students at Harvard Law School recently pushed the school to conduct a mental health survey to measure the well-being of the student body. What they found demonstrated a “grisly reality” that included truly significant levels of mental health distress and self-identified risk of suicide. In response, the student government offered several recommendations they would like to see the school implement, including hiring more therapists, providing training on how to spot distress in a colleague, and fostering deeper connections between faculty and students. This could, they say, “include more candid discussions about mental health struggles in the legal profession, or even the struggles of the faculty themselves.” Again, revolutionary. Suffice it to say, I doubt the students are hoping for these candid discussions about mental health struggles to take place in the default social settings of the legal profession—happy hours and cocktail receptions.
If finding alignment with the mindset of the next generation of lawyers isn’t a compelling enough reason for firms to revamp their summer associate programs, then perhaps they should consider that forced cultural norms—such as regular alcohol consumption—also create a barrier to diversity and inclusion. For the roughly 30 percent of American adults who don’t drink due to a variety of reasons, including religious or cultural values, health reasons, or because they are in recovery from a substance use disorder, feeling at home in the social environment of the legal profession is an unduly burdensome task.
As we all know, change is sometimes a difficult and frightening thing, especially when you are talking about cultural change and the unwinding of longstanding traditions. Historical examples of why we must move past the fear and uncertainty to achieve societal progress are too numerous to cite, and in the context of the legal profession, the same fears and rationale for moving past them are abundant. As the American Bar Association and other leaders and stakeholders across the profession continue to push for an increased prioritization of lawyer and law student well-being, it is critical that law firms recognize their important and unique role in that process, and to examine their cultures in search of areas ripe for improvement. Getting your summer associates drunk is clearly one such area, but staying stuck in old patterns has proven to be overwhelmingly seductive.
In my work to help law firms think strategically about improving well-being and reducing behavioral health risk, one of the most common questions I hear is, “But where do we even start?” For many firms, a summer associate program is an example of low-hanging fruit that makes a good target for change. To firm leaders, I would say that the students coming your way are acutely aware of the mental health challenges and unhealthy behaviors common to the legal industry. These students are not looking for firms to pretend the problems don’t exist, they’re looking for firms who are committed to doing something about them.
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.