Comment

Law’s cut-throat ‘sink or swim’ culture has been laid bare in a string of recent disciplinary cases

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Is the profession beginning to show mercy to its stressed-out juniors?

Suits lawyer Harvey Specter once famously declared: “When you’re backed against the wall, break the goddamn thing down!” And while Specter is the work of fiction, his memorable motivational quote reflects a very real mentality among some junior lawyers. But what a swathe of recent cases before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has demonstrated is that there’s only so much wall-breaking a young solicitor can do before they reach their own breaking point.

The recent case of Sovani James was the first to shine an intense spotlight on mental health and the law. A junior solicitor who forged documents in a clinical negligence case, James was handed a lifeline by the tribunal after it heard her “toxic” firm had adopted a “sudden focus on financial return on employees” and an “aggressive implementation” of billing targets. James, who was just 27 at the time, claimed working in this “culture of fear” saw her in tears most days.

Next up, Peter Naylor. The associate — who sent several misleading emails to a client to “buy [himself] some time” — claimed he had been left “physically and emotionally drained” by his heavy workload. He had barely any time off work during the 2013 Christmas period. One family member, having seen him at lunch on Christmas Day, went as far as describing him as like a “zombie”.

It’s also worth mentioning Daniel Smith. He came to the attention of the regulator after he fabricated an email and subsequently misled a partner and senior associate at the firm when questioned about it. The SDT was shown evidence Smith was suffering from a medical condition “that impaired his judgment”. The nature of this medical condition, nor what caused it, was not disclosed, but we do know it was a mental health issue.

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So what do these cases tell us about the legal profession and mental health?

Well, it would appear many junior lawyers feel unable to open up about the pressures they’re under and the impact this is having on them both physically and mentally. As deadlines, billing targets and partner demands pile up, it seems some young lawyers are more willing to bend (or break) regulatory rules than speak out against the often ruthless culture they find themselves drowning in.

It’s a culture that’s drowning many. The recent influx in mental health-related disciplinary cases has prompted a number of readers to open up and share their stories in our comments section.

“I feel worn and broken,” one anonymous lawyer writes. “Sometimes I find myself speaking to myself and tend to just stare into empty space on occasion. I feel distant when I speak to people, even my close friends and other half.” Another solicitor reflects on a time they worked in a firm “that saw myself and many of my colleagues succumb to mental health issues due to unachievable targets and senior management’s willingness to sacrifice the livelihoods of junior staff in pursuit of self-preservation”. They stress: “No firm is worth your health.”

Other juniors lawyers have spoken to us directly about their experiences. Not wishing to be named, one tells us “there seems to be a culture of always being ‘yes’ men which inevitably results in people breaking their backs”. While another reveals he often “stands solemnly and silently in a toilet cubicle” reassuring himself “everything is going to be ok”.

What this recent spate of cases may also show, though, is the tribunal’s new adoption of a more merciful attitude to these ‘drowning’ lawyers. Perhaps the decision to neither strike off nor ban James, Naylor and Smith is implicit recognition by the SDT of the severity and breadth of this problem. (As an aside, it’s worth noting the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), despite criticism, is now appealing the James decision.)

Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of wellbeing charity LawCare, thinks the SDT’s recent approach to cases involving mental illness is a step in the right direction, but that more can and still needs to be done. She tells us:

“Nearly half of the callers to our helpline state stress, depression or anxiety as the reason for calling and 45% of those had been qualified five years or less. We will continue to work with the legal community to raise awareness about why mental health matters and would like to see employers do more to address the long hours and heavy workload that is often associated with working in law.”

The SDT’s decisions are a symbolic nod towards a more lenient approach to punishing the lawyers pushed to the brink by their heavy workloads. But the sad reality is unless the profession collectively stamps out its pervading ‘sink or swim’ culture, young lawyers will continue to find themselves before a tribunal defending actions they committed while suffering with mental health problems. What’s perhaps even sadder is that many will have been metaphorically drowned by a profession they once admired and worked hard to become a part of.

Struggling with stress? You can contact LawCare.

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37 Comments

Anonymous

Partners in law firms are too greedy.

Lawyers are white collar professionals and won’t unionise or stand up for each other.

Partners should take a hit on their PEP and employ more people, like the Big 4 accountancy firms.

Maximum wage limit and maximum working time now.

Vote Jeremy Corbyn and stop this madness.

(33)(55)

Anonymous

U arigt luv?

(10)(4)

Anonymous

Jeremy Corbyn would ban lawyers if he had the chance.

And probably impose Shariah law on Britain.

Yes, I left NI out because it would be handed over under his watch.

(36)(25)

Corbyn. Symphathiser

He’s twice the man you are, loser.

(9)(29)

Anonymous

A kinder, gentler politics

(25)(0)

Anonymous

I’m sorry, are you assuming my gender?

(12)(2)

Anonymous

I was at a commercial/chancery London set, was advised by doctors to leave it as its toxic environment was bad for my health. Took their advice and left and then found out that members were continuing a smear campaign against me. Anyway much happier out of it.

(24)(0)

Anonymous

That’s just the bar for you, gossipy, vicious and reptilian. It’s ten times worse than law firms. Barristers just aren’t properly socialised.

(28)(1)

Anonymous

They are still talking behind one member’s back at my set about her b.o. problem when she was a pupil, that was 25 years ago!!!

(17)(1)

Anonymous

At my set, it’s the head of Chambers wife’s plastic surgery and alleged philandering which keep the tenants and clerks talking.

(17)(1)

Anonymous

It’s not easy being a cuckold …

(8)(0)

Anonymous

Now that there is freer movement between sets that type of environment will no longer be tolerated as more and more decent members will just leave and go elsewhere. No one wants to be associated with a nest of vipers and nowadays it’s easier to move to decent Chambers with decent people.

(13)(0)

Anonymous

Junior barristers will do just about anything for 200,000 a year …

(2)(0)

Anonymous

There’s only one reason why members would do that, you know too much about what has gone on inside the chambers and they are trying to neutralize you.

(0)(1)

Anonymous

As I came towards the end of my working life and as a consultant and suffering from PTSD, stress and anxiety I was advised by my psych never to go back into the office. I didn’t. However, it wasn’t until I came off the roll and therefore beyond the clutches of regulators that I felt a sense of freedom and I being a practitioner who had only once had a run in with the regulator and even then only over a very, very minor matter. The day I received confirmation of my freedom was marked by my wife and I celebrating with an exceptional meal. I can only hope that one day a sufficient number of lawyers will rebel and say enough is enough and we are no longer going to be cowed and no longer going into the office each day dreading what awaits.

(9)(0)

Anonymous

Absolutely. Limit the amount junior paper shufflers at commercial firms to the £23,000 a junior F1 A & E Doctor is paid for doing actual long hours in a job with actual responsibilities. You know, like people dying if you fuck up, rather than a bank losing some money. It isn’t hard working in commercial law. You are not the poor and oppressed.

(6)(21)

Old lag

Vote Jeremy Corbyn and there won’t be any corporate work (once the offshoring process has been completed) so no all-nighters.

(12)(1)

Anonymous

Can we please get a chance to also comment on some of these insightful and interesting LC Careers articles? I am sure Hogan Lovells, RPC, BPP/ULaw and all these other firms posting sponsored content here – would be just delighted to see how LC readers respond to their “Trainee Solicitor thought leadership” articles.

(36)(3)

Anonymous

I sincerely doubt anyone had ever heard of RPC before Legal Cheek accepted that first check.

(11)(1)

Anonymous

I strongly suspect Alex is too afraid of losing those sponsors to let the commenters here loose on them.

(13)(1)

Anonymous

Disagree, certainly in terms of RPC. RPC are very good at what they do.

(4)(6)

Anonymous

Thanks for that Alex.

(1)(1)

Anonymous

RPC is a great insurance firm.

The issue is people most people don’t really deal with insurance.

The loss is theirs.

(8)(4)

Anonymous

I’m a career changer, starting out in the solicitor life during my early 30s. My experiences to date have been with larger City firms. Whilst there’s always been the pressure to meet court deadlines and the like, I have had the experience of managing expectations of clients and managers in my old job for a solid 5+ years before the career swap. I was very open about my capacity for work with my solicitor supervisors from day 1, and when asked if I was able to do something extra, I said not without sacrificing quality of work on all my files (if I was already working a 10+ hour day, I wasn’t trying to get out of the office by 6). This is NOT a skill being taught to trainees and junior associates at the firms I have experience with.

I can see why some firms are prejudiced towards older candidates like myself, as they would rather just have young grads as Trainees/Junior assoicates that are afraid of their own shadow, and willing to take the stick and no carrot until they either pump out work efficiently or burn out in spectacular fashion. I don’t think we should be happy that it’s the SDT that’s starting to appreciate this abusive practice. It should be the partners, and it should take place before the spectacular burn out lands a potentially great lawyer at the SDT’s mercy.

(27)(3)

Anonymous

As a former partner in a City firm, I can say with some confidence that the same pressures apply throughout the legal practice hierarchy. Indeed, the prevailing dismissive attitude from both fellow partners and staff is frequently that partners deserve to be stressed as they are paid accordingly. The extra money I may have got (and in all honesty, it was never as good as I thought it would be – particularly viewed now from an in-house job with pension, benefits etc) in no way compensated for the grinding stress and consequent depression I experienced. I could easily have fallen in to the same trap as some of those before the SDT recently. Thankfully I didn’t and realised I needed to be in a different job. It saddens me to read that my experience wasn’t as unique as it seemed at the time and my perception that law was filled with ruthless and uncaring individuals ever ready to exploit others for their own advancement wasn’t just my own depressed ideation.

(25)(1)

Anonymous

The law’s just a shitshow, thanks to the Internet, sites like Legal Cheek and social media, people’s eyes are being opened by stories from the inside being shared openly. No wonder the public have always had a very low opinion of lawyers, Shakespeare, Pope, Swift, Dickens all write about it.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

That is a very good and fair comment. Katie King will turn it into an article, just so you know… a talent-less journo that she is.

(4)(4)

Anonymous

I’d agree that it’s not just junior level lawyers who are under pressure, nor just those in private practice or the Bar.
In house lawyers can be placed under phenomenal pressure – in my case, 70/80 hour weeks and 6/7 day working is not unusual – and that’s before I factor in international travel and commuting.
I am apparently very well paid but, when you consider the hours I do and the fact that I have no life outside work, the picture is very different.
I am about to resign before my job kills me.

(7)(0)

Cayman Lawyer

Stop whinging and move to the Cayman Islands. Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy. 160K (tax free) for a 3PQE City lawyer.

(7)(1)

Anonymous

Come across much sniffiness at you being an offshore lawyer? I see a lot of posts on LC are pretty disparaging about offshore law and lawyers.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

I’m a paralegal who is hoping to nail an interview next week and leave the legal profession that I’ve worked hard for, for 10 years. The pressure to hit targets at a city based law firm is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Passive aggressive emails from managers sent to all staff publicly embarrassing a person by name, for any small mistake has led to staff having panic attacks, limitation missed because people are too scared to ask for help. One lady suffered a minor heart attack and a bloke a stroke. Managers attitude is that they’re terrible, weak and not cut out for job. The boss in a meeting with all staff said there is no such thing as stress at work and everyone needs to grow up and get in the real world. This is a solicitor! Staff come to me regularly crying, one a qualified solicitor of 9 years with the fear they’re about yo be sacked or they can’t cope. My advice is always your health comes first. Since working here I’ve developed a number of health issues – my doctor urging me to quit and listen to my body but here I am. Nearly 8pm and still in the office from 7am this morning dealing with a spreadsheet that was sent at 4pm and we were told to complete it before we leave the office, updating the column with an update on every case…. something that could be pulled from pro claim, or dony complete it and face disciplinary action.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

Sorry for typos… Long day!

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Sorry to hear about your experience. Get out. Law just isn’t worth that sort of crap.

What bothers me most about so many firms’ cultures is not that they expect a lot but that they would be so shit at what they do without relying on so many low paid and abused staff. There really is nothing admirable or ‘proper’ about factory law.

Wishing you well.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

Mischons?

(0)(1)

Anonymous

Problem is there’s always some asshole willing and waiting to do the job and be treated like a gimp. Solicitors and barristers are some of the most spineless people I know.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

I was sorry to hear of your experience. I think many of us mourn what has become of our profession. I think the rot set in when President of the Law Society started referring to us as an industry. The problem is that our junior lawyers are under incredible pressure to make profit yet, when anything goes wrong, firms simply wash their hands of the situation. This is all for a salary that could be matched working in retail! The universities are telling their students they are going to be earning a reasonable salary. This is not the reality for many NQs. My friends who do earn reasonable salaries (mainly in London practices) do so simply because of house prices and for that have to work incredibly long hours. A good friend who ended up working an intense period of 17 hour days and got Crohn’s by age 30. I really think we need to ask whether what we have created is worth it?

(4)(0)

Anonymous

It’s the sheer relentlessness of it – at least the junior doctors go home when their shift ends!

(0)(0)

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