We Cannot Address Attorney (Un)Wellness Without Dismantling the System that Poisons Us

It's a normal workday. A partner or senior attorney sends a draft to an associate. They've had it for a week. They want it by tomorrow morning. The associate will work into the night to get it done, abandoning all family obligations and cutting into sleep.

Familiar scene? Sure.

Is this normal? No. Or at least, it shouldn't be.

It is unthinkable for the associate to push back, for example, by stating, "It's 5 pm. I don't have any work hours left today. I will work on it tomorrow and have it to you in the afternoon." That associate would face at the least reprimanding, at worst firing, and the norm would be reinforced that work hours, the concept of a workday, and boundaries are for the "weak" and "maladapted." The practice of law is an exercise in martyrdom; no wonder we are overwhelmingly sick.

The practice of law is unhealthy. It is disorganized. It is stressful.

And this is not just anecdotal.

Stress Drives Women Out of the Profession

According to an ABA study, 41% of men and 55% of women agreed that experienced women attorneys leave law firms, in part, due to the stress levels. When asked to determine how much of factor stress was in women leaving the profession, 17% said it was a very important reason, and 37% of women stated that stress was a somewhat important reason for them leaving the profession.

Anna Marra, Director of the Legal Project Management Program at IE Law School in Madrid, in 2019, wrote about the way Legal Project Management can balance work life, "“If we manage to work fewer hours on the same project, we are saving time for our personal lives. Likewise, if we work with control over the cases we manage, we can lower stress levels and improve emotional tranquility."

Mental Health in the Profession is More than a Tag Line

While the above numbers focus on the impact of stress on women, this is not something that only affected women. The difference is that women protest with their feet, leaving the profession while men exhibit the damage caused by this stress, and often engage in unhealthy behavior like drinking.

In a 2004 study by Colorado Lawyers Helping Lawyers, for instance, "of more than 100 occupations, lawyers had the highest rate of depression. In fact, lawyers are almost four times more likely to experience depression than the general population. Aside from depression, one in four lawyers also experience feelings of inadequacy and inferiority in personal relationships, as well as anxiety or social alienation, at much higher rates than the population at large."

In 2016, an attorney and two mental health professionals conducted a study of over 12,000 attorneys and found staggering rates of hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking, with higher rates among men, "Substantial rates of behavioral health problems were found, with 20.6% screening positive for hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking. Men had a higher proportion of positive screens, and also younger participants and those working in the field for a shorter duration (P < 0.001)." The difference between men and women was significant, with 25% of men engaging in problematic alcohol-related behavior versus 15% for women.

A 2017 ABA task force was created as a result of two devastating surveys regarding attorney well-being. The results from that task force came out in 2019 and were dark. "More than 13,000 working lawyers responded to the survey, and reported that:

  • 28 percent lawyers suffered from depression

  • 19 percent of lawyers had severe anxiety

  • 11.4 percent of lawyers had suicidal thoughts in the previous year

This is alarming. And little is being done.

Legal Project Management as a Stress-Reduction Tool Requires a Shift in "Workaholic Culture."

One explanation for how little has been done to tackle stress is that it would require dismantling certain frameworks that currently benefit firm owners and stakeholders. For instance, the billable hour, "managing" attorneys attempting to manage matters and people without training to do either and the assumption that they are the same thing, and the unacceptable notion that lawyer employees' job requirements include 24/7 availability.

Implementing Legal Project Management is not only about techniques and tools. LPM is also about culture. It is dismantling the notion that lawyers are widgets, available for use 24/7 and we are, instead, people. Implementing LPM also requires re-educating partners and senior attorneys regarding what a work week looks like and the fact that late nights and weekends are off limits. Read that again: late nights and weekends are off limits. If work is needed beyond those hours, then the firm needs to hire. If work is being done inefficiently, and not fitting within a work day, then the firm needs better management.

Most importantly, and controversial, when associates work into their evenings or over weekends, they are suffering at the hands of incompetent managers. A managing attorney who cannot recognize boundaries, or respect them, needs to undergo management training themselves.

And all of the above have to take place within the backdrop that law firm culture needs to change. It is easy to talk about work-life balance and attorney mental health, but articles and "initiatives" continue to pay mere lip service if they are not backed by concrete measures. LPM is where to start.

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