Lawyers and burnout

“If death meant just leaving the stage long enough to change costume and come back as a new character…Would you slow down? Or speed up?” Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters

This is painful. Not just because I know it relates to me (as I was) but I knew it was happening — I slowly and painfully lost my soul — but I felt powerless to stop myself.

What a jerk!

In any event, for all those lawyers in the trenches, I salute you. I don’t just do so out of a time-honoured obligation to acknowledge your sacrifice but, rather, in the certain hope that your experience might, in time, provide the genesis for a new generation of I-did-it-my-way lawyers.

Even if you’re resilient though, you’re soul is still at risk by dint of a welter of regulation, outlandish financial targets (which bear no relation to excellence in client service) and the petty politics of legal practice. And, as we all know, this has lead to huge, dare I say, unprecedented levels of stress that many lawyers seem unable to escape. (At this stage I could go into cheerleader mode and hit you with a few pithy, blinding-flash-of-the-obvious words but I’ll resist the temptation.)

Of course, I’m painting the bleakest of bleak pictures, and I know it’s probably not like that for everyone, but the profession has this habit of turning regular people into dysfunctional, neurotic robots who, despite being able to dish out advice to their clients, seem unable to take a spoonful of their own wellbeing medicine.

One of the main culprits is the hyper-competitive landscape, and not in a good way. I think this is what did it for me: if I hadn’t this win at all costs streak, then perhaps I could have settled into the routine of 6 minute units, but in my case I wanted to smash it. Not just that but put a league table in front of me, and daft old boy Summerhayes, wanted to make sure he came out top. (I won’t regale you with the numbers, but I made the partners a lot of money — more than I care to admit.)

…[A]nd in the process I was wrecked. Not just on the sleepless, I can make do with the 4 hours regime, but I lost connection with anything resembling my true self. In fact, I remember saying to a few of my colleagues that legal practice had become like recruitment, the profession I thought I had left behind; namely, as long as you hit the numbers everything was fine but woe betide you if you let things slip.

What about you?

Do you feel jaded, stressed out and out of whack with normality? Not always, but at least some of the time? Pressure isn’t a bad thing but it is when your capacity to cope, made worse by the overriding need never to fail, can easily overwhelm the bravest soul.

Of course, as you’d expect me to say, there is another way.

For a start, the partnership model is a cruel beast when it comes to the people it’s meant (I assume) to serve. Sure, pyramids might be attractive if you want to earn a six or seven figure sum of money, but just like the CEO vs rest-of-us debate, what would the position look like if there was equanimity in pay? If you need an example check out Dan Price of Gravity Payments. Even if this sort of relationship doesn’t work, I’m damn sure if you measure the status of said partners who have risen to the top it wouldn’t in most cases bear any resemblance to the amount of value they bring to the table.

Of course, for the super-billers you could try offering them the eat what you kill model but for the rest of the partners, there would be many who would earn a lot less than is currently the case.

To be fair, I’m sure all that faux management is worth its weight in gold, but just like the NHS there’s way too many people who seem to think their role is to put as many hurdles in the way of those beneath them as otherwise they might just be knocked off their shiny little perch.

In addition, you might treat the idea of wellbeing with the degree of seriousness that it deserves. In case you haven’t worked it out, even for those firms who have a great strategy, there’s a direct correlation between how happy and contented people are and what they deliver. In other words, the more you invest in your people the more ‘productive’ they are.

In my experience, training, personal development and making sure you’ve an amazing line up of first-line managers makes such a huge difference but with profit always being such a priority, there’s nowhere near the level of investment necessary to make any real difference. And throw into the mix the latest SRA training wheeze, and what you’re going to see is a plethora of firms who look to cut back on training to improve their PEP. Cynical but true.

At this stage, I accept that I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know but my biggest concern is that right now, particularly bearing in mind the skills shortage in certain areas, we’re sitting on a time bomb of epic proportion. It’s not just that we’re likely to see an increasing number of unhappy lawyers, but worse still we’ll see many more leave the profession on the basis that the emotional effort and hiatus in their lives is not worth the financial or psychological effect.

Does the profession care?

I hope so, but something tells me that this won’t be the last word on the subject.