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The burnout profession? Why City law culture needs to change

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Ex-corporate lawyer Charlene Gisele reflects on her own mental health struggles while offering her top tips to prevent work-related exhaustion before it starts

Charlene Gisele is a former litigation lawyer turned corporate wellness and burnout advisor for law firms. In this article, she explains why what she describes as “stick it out or burnout” culture within law firms must change.

Law: The burnout profession?

The health issues that lawyers face are neither new nor unique to them, but what is unique is the frequency and susceptibility.

Work ‘hard’ culture — via any means necessary — is deeply embedded in the industry. Lawyers, from trainees to partners, see their peers pulling all-nighters and working around the clock, which allows this unhealthy working culture to breed. Looking after physical and mental health is put on the back burner, until something really bad happens — most of my clients only come to me after what I call a ‘significant event’ or ‘health scare’ catalyst — be it their own or their colleagues, for example, signing off for stress, burnout, a type two diabetes diagnosis.

Law is intrinsically competitive, and often, adversarial. In litigation and transaction proceedings, lawyers have to ‘fight’ each other, not only for their clients, but to safeguard their own professional prestige. There is always one winner, and every lawyer wants to be that one. As a result, this culture is reaffirmed.

Another reason lawyers can be particularly susceptible to burnout is vicarious trauma: this is an indirect experience of trauma and distress. I remember how emotionally invested I became in some of my clients’ cases. What affected them affected me. It’s impossible to be 100% detached from all cases, lawyers aren’t robots. Over time, this emotional investment can start to take its toll and really wear lawyers down.

The profession’s ‘fix-it’ attitude and obsession with self-sufficiency also means that unfortunately, most are less inclined to seek help, so many end up in disastrous consequences later on. There are also well-grounded fears of being considered ‘unfit for practice’ that prevents lawyers from seeking much-needed help. This needs to change urgently.

How I burned out

My burnout didn’t happen overnight. It was the cumulative effects of many years of sleep deprivation, high stress combined with an ambition that was admittedly excessive. Being a lawyer was what I wanted to do for as long as I can remember, so I was willing to work as hard as I had to.

Being part of a prestigious law firm was thrilling and there was a lot of reward that came with it. There was a strong sense of needing to race to the top of the ladder and I got a high from it, I just didn’t realise the cost it was having on my mental health and physical wellbeing i.e. I experienced insomnia, very anxious states, panic attacks, chronic lower back pain, and exhaustion, and it was having a huge impact on whatever was left of my social and personal life (not very much).

How you can avoid burning out

Setting and communicating boundaries with team leaders as a burnout prevention measure is daunting. On one hand, you have likely worked very hard to get your foot in the door and you want to keep progressing. However, the pursuit of excellence and the need to impress with a ‘yes’ at every turn, particularly among trainees and junior lawyers, can be a double-edge sword.

Taking on this extra responsibility in the short term can seem manageable, but working extra hours can become habitual due to cultural inertia; it becomes normal to skip lunch, function on minimal sleep and frequently cancel social plans due to work demands.

In the long run, this becomes a pattern of behaviour that can lead to burnout, because demands you put on yourself, and that are put on you by your work, start to outpace your ability to recover. This is a slippery slope that can begin to erode the joy out of your career.

So, set your boundaries — it is, after all, a vital part of business and negotiation, and it’s what makes a successful lawyer. Make a case for an outcome that is as close to your desired outcome (boundaries) as possible. It is amazing how many lawyers are exceptional at fighting for the cases of their clients, but poor at fighting for their own cases.

Learning how to set boundaries at work might take some practice but establishing them early in your career will really help you avoid burnout and more uncomfortable situations down the road. Below are some of the techniques I help to implement among lawyers that should serve you well too.

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1. Food and exercise can have a significant impact on thriving or burning out. Do take advantage of the lunch break you are entitled to and go on a walk. Recruit a fellow colleague if you can instead of sitting at the cafeteria or desk. If you prefer, make it a silent walk (no podcasts or music) as a way to “get out of your head’ and release any accumulated tension and stress that has been building up.

2. Set boundaries at home too. Your home is your sanctuary, and while it can be difficult to leave work at work, given we now work a lot from home, it’s essential to build habits that separate work and life. This can be done by simply tidying up your desk and stowing all work-related items out of sight and making sure all alerts are silenced — this will mentally allow you to shut away work and effectively decompress so you can enjoy your evening.

3. During stressful times, it’s so important to reach out for help. If asking for assistance feels difficult, consider developing a self-care check-in with close friends and family members so that you can take care of each other during trying times. If family members and friends show signs of concern — do listen and take notice of the red flags they see, as it’s easier to see when looking from the outside than when being in it.

4. Plan and rehearse boundary setting. You must first define what your boundaries are, the line you won’t cross or allow others to infringe. Write them own and review periodically. It’s a powerful method to help you internalise them, so when faced with a trying situation, you know what to say or how to respond.

5. Making cultural changes is not impossible, and just because the industry places a lot of pressure on you, and expects you to perform, is not an excuse for burnout culture. There are many high pressure, high performing industries that are starting to implement “work smarter not harder” cultures. Ray Dalio is one man who has been pioneering this with his principles of radical truth and transparency. It helped him to create a respectful culture that allows the best ideas to win, and win they did with these principles in place. Ray Dalio grew his company to be the largest hedge fund in the world.

Charlene Gisele is a former corporate lawyer at Jones Day and White & Case. She is a corporate wellness and burnout prevention consultant.

Feeling stressed? Contact LawCare.

39 Comments

The Earl of Billing

I’ve come to the conclusion that unless have a very particular type of personality that is suited to the obscene demands of city law, sooner or later it will start to take its toll.

I have become increasingly aware of the impact it has had on me now that I’ve been out of the office due to Covid. Before starting work in city law I never had any issues with anxiety, 7 years later and I have quite significant issues with anxiety. I know it’s 90% work related. If you’d asked me as a trainee what I thought of people like I am now, I’d have said they were weak snowflakes and that I’d never be like that. Wonderfully naive.

The conclusion I’ve ultimately come to is I have the wrong personality type for this kind of job and there’s no way to change who I am. I also struggle to be happy if I don’t have reliable down time which it’s very difficult to guarantee. I will therefore be moving on for the sake of my health and well-being, grateful I’ve realised I need to do that before it’s too late for me.

(220)(4)

UCLad

Thanks for sharing

(62)(0)

Barrister

Thank you. It’s really interesting to read your perspective. Good luck in the future!

(16)(0)

TC2023

What sort of personality type do you reckon is suited to City law?

(5)(1)

FBD lawyer

sociopaths

(11)(1)

FlourPour

And you see this when looking around at your colleagues as a junior. How many of the tired, stressed and anxious people in that office are actually happy with the sacrifice they’re making? I remember people with those daylight simulator panel things trying to trick their brains into giving them some happiness while working at midnight.

You won’t regret the change.

(25)(1)

Former City law chaser

The burnout and mental health impacts is one of the reasons I stopped pursuing City law and law generally in the end. Like you, I know I don’t have the personality to stick it out. The years it can take to get a City TC and fact I’d already had 3 unsuccessful cycles (not got beyond VI stage) didn’t bother me – was willing to spend at least 7-8 more trying. But when I really realised the mental health and burnout burdens that come with those bumper salary induced long hours and how likely it would hit me (already have extensive mental health issues with anxiety) – I just knew I had to give up the chase. Feel a lot happier that I have.

(19)(0)

Introvert

Good article. I would add re item 1, if you are an introvert and your job involves lots of interaction with colleagues, you may need to use your break to have your own down time. Your colleagues may want to go for a walking lunch, but if you need to get away from them to recharge then do it. Just find an empty room, eat lunch on your own, and read the newspaper. Do not let extroverted colleagues dictate to you how to use your downtime. They can make it worse and leave you more stressed.

(68)(0)

Jax

Personally I feel women are at a higher risk of burnout, with child bearing duties and various commitments. I also think the alcohol needs to be cut back, people just take red wine involuntarily.

I also feel like eating more when I’m stressed. Exercise tends to help a lot, even yoga and deep breaths.

(22)(33)

Vladimir

Yes, fully agree. You absolutely have to try to fit in sleep, exercise and good diet. For example, if I don’t sleep properly, I can’t exercise well and I also can’t exercise good restraint on my diet, so I end up having a 4 pack of Wispa Golds for breakfast.

Don’t try to burn the candle at both ends. If you’re going to live this lifestyle, you have to sacrifice relationships, family and hobbies / interests. But do not sacrifice sleep, diet and exercise or you will not last very long.

(31)(0)

Happily CF

It’s not a “duty” of a woman to have a child. That’s the kind of attitude that needs to stop.

(14)(7)

ANON

But, equally, we shouldn’t vilify professional women who want to have children as if they are partaking in and entrenching the ‘patriarchy’.

It is such a sorry reflection of a society that guilts women into not having kids.

(14)(1)

5PQE US lawyer

This is a really important article – thank you for sharing.

The demands of BigLaw take a big toll not only on lawyers but also on their loved ones. The industry seems to be operating on the assumption that throwing more cash at their associates is the only means of retaining them, which is more driven by structural problems in the industry – not enough “good” qualified lawyers to do the more complex areas of corporate, finance and insolvency law; perceived prestige that attaches to having the highest salaries – than a genuine reflection of what associates want.

The question is: are firms able to address these problems before there is further permanent attrition from private practice? I rarely come across a peer who is not seriously considering his/her options. Covid/Lockdown has had its effect on the priorities of young lawyers too. And for those of us still here, there is a fear of being the last one left holding up the workload as others depart.

(85)(1)

Kirks Deal-Flow Virtuoso, Esq., KCSI 👑

What’s all this nonsense about ‘change’?

None of this applies to us real kings of the City who routinely dominate the markets & churn out closings on a daily ✍️

The hours are relentless. The pressure is addictive. Only the strongest survive.

But the rewards are untouchable for you mere mortals. Don’t forget it: we own the City 💸💸💸

Anyone interested in becoming a fellow market-destroyer should arrange an appointment to visit me in my corner-office where I cut billion-dollar deals for breakfast. Again, don’t buy into the woke rubbish presented here.

– K&E Master of the Universe, Esq., KCSI

(18)(140)

S.W

I generally find your comments entertaining fresher but unfortunately this is not one of them, as it is an important article with genuine comments above.

(90)(3)

Anon

This is a desperate attempt to be funny, when there is genuine conversation occurring. It’s like that cringe moment when you see someone with no social IQ try be “smart” or “funny” as the most inappropriate times

(39)(5)

RT

Calm down buddy, no need to throw a tantrum over what obviously appears a satirical comment. Embarrassing.

Nevertheless though, thanks for demonstrating you also couldn’t handle City law.

(7)(18)

Lynn Benfield

For what does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?

(20)(2)

Anonymous

That which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.

(5)(0)

Anonymousse

Interested to see how you can have a corner office in the famously round Gherkin.

(10)(2)

Anonymous

I believe nepotism also needs to stop within the legal profession. Time and time again, you come across trainee solicitors at top firms who have gone to bottom ranked universities, which makes it obvious that they got the job via a connection at the firm.

(3)(77)

Anon

What on earth does this have to do with burnout?

(72)(1)

Anon

that’s a weird point and unrelated to the story. Also don’t make the assumption that being intelligent necessarily makes a good lawyer. It doesn’t hurt but other character traits such as hard work, commitment (ie sticking to deadlines), being organised, being personable (within reason), being pragmatic and a good communicator and negotiator are just as, if not more, important than intelligence.

(7)(1)

This website goddamn

LOL nepotism has nothing to do with people at low ranked unis getting into top unis you complete fool

(6)(2)

Disgruntled

Have you seen some of the Alma maters of top city partners? University is an indicator but not the be all and end all of the ability to work in the city, and to do a good job.

(6)(1)

Cuki

The pyramid structure is well adapted to deal with those that can’t hack it dropping out.

(2)(2)

5PQE

I feel like I’m 50. I think lack of proper holidays abroad has contributed to the toll.

(8)(1)

Anon

I think this unfortunately ignores two structural problems to which there is no obvious solution.

1. The hours you bill later in the day on are more valuable to partners. At the start of each year, partners will agree financial targets for their team, their department and the entire firm. Those budgets will be based on the assumption that every associate bills say 5 chargeable hours, at an average rate of £450 with an 84% recovery rate. All of the firm’s costs (fee earner salaries, office costs, support staff costs, canteen etc etc) are covered by that. Say that leaves around a 20% margin if every associate hits the target exactly.

Beyond that, every additional hour charged is pure profit for the equity. So if every associate in a team bills six hours rather than the assumed five, the top line might increase by 20% but the partner will do 200% of their bottom line target. That partner will be seen as a star, get more equity points etc etc.

2. Legal work, particularly in transactional and contentious teams, is most profitable if the vast majority is done by sub 10 PQEs with a relatively small number of work winning managers above them in the partnership. That means to operate at maximum profitability, firms need to recruit lots of 23-25 year olds but get rid of 80-90% of them by their mid to late 30s. Putting people under relentless intense pressure is pretty much the surest way to achieve that with the added benefit of increasing profitability as per 1.

Whilst those two structural factors remain true, law firms will continue to work associate classes into the ground until a small group of unusually resilient sociopaths emerges to claim partnership and start the cycle again.

(56)(1)

FlourPour

It’s ultimately bad for the profession too because clients aren’t getting the best person for the job, they’re getting the best person who’s willing to do the job at 3am. That’s a smaller pool and it’s not limited by capability. Of my trainee cohort, all the ones with real star quality have dropped down a gear at either a smaller firm or a different career entirely; it’s mostly the anxious, insecure and mediocre left.

(26)(2)

Anon

As a student starting my TC next year, why is “burnout” still such a big part of City law? What is this “innovation” and “work life balance” that law firms always talk about? Seems like most transactional lawyers work intensely in the evenings and overnight while they do little in the day except drink coffee and respond to the odd email. This makes no sense and I believe archaic, bitter Partners are to blame.

(8)(22)

Thankful I Left Law

We need to stop tying people’s worth and respect to their job. This and the peer pressure is what makes it so hard to leave, as your identity feels tied to ‘lawyer’ and nothing else.

Twenty years after not getting pupillage or a TC, the only person who will really care in the end is you. Not your partner, kids or dog.

How many other countries could you live in if you weren’t tied to a pupillage or TC in the UK? What people could you meet or incredible experiences could you have in those places?

Dream bigger – the world really is wonderful out there.

(25)(1)

Genuine Query

For those who are considering leaving law altogether, but still want to earn let’s say 80k+, what are you thinking of doing?

(13)(1)

Anon

Retrain in STEM, learn programming skills and run a business/go into tech consultancy. You can work anywhere.

10000% better than rain on a train platform earning £50 for a Mags hearing in Dumpsterfireville.

(3)(4)

QAnon

yes, very workable for those with any responsibilities to just drop out of earning, retrain in STEM and then start again at entry level.

(9)(0)

C

Start your own business? Take up a trade and work for yourself. Join the public/civil service? There are a lot of people making good money.

(1)(0)

C

Newsflash:

It’s not just “city” law firms lawyers that this article and its contents are relevant to.

(7)(0)

Chris

Same thing, if not worse, in country or provincial practices.

(1)(1)

C

Start your own business? Take up a trade and work for yourself. Join the public/civil service? There are a lot of people making good money.

(1)(0)

Chris

Same thing, if not worse, in country or provincial practices.

(1)(1)

Comments are closed.

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