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‘The overall culture in law is damaging many junior lawyers’, JLD chair warns

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Mental Health Awareness Week prompts renewed calls for change as wellbeing charity LawCare extends online support

The Law Society of England and Wales, the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) and leading wellbeing charity LawCare have made renewed calls for a change in culture across the legal profession to mark Mental Health Awareness Week.

The fresh appeal follows research published by LawCare that showed the number of lawyers reaching out to its helpline with issues relating to stress had increased by almost a quarter in 2021.

Other common problems cited were anxiety, depression, bullying and worries about career development, with almost two-thirds of all contacts coming from trainees, pupils or junior lawyers.

“Report after report has demonstrated that the overall culture in law is damaging to many junior lawyers, leading to mental health problems such as burnout, depression, anxiety and (in the worst cases) self-harm and suicidal thoughts”, Suzanna Eames, chair of the JLD, said.

The Farrer & Co solicitor noted “over the course of the pandemic that the culture of a firm has a very large impact on employees’ mental health, and that positive leadership can have a real impact and can ensure that the legal profession is both fulfilling and sustainable”.

“On the contrary”, Eames explained, “employers that have left junior lawyers without support or supervision have seen staff burnout and choose to leave the firm or legal profession in order to protect their health”.

She went on to stress that “it is vital that this conversation continues to develop, and does not lose traction now that firms settle into varying models of hybrid working”.

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Joining the renewed calls for change, Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive of LawCare, said:

“If we could encourage firms and workplaces to do one thing this Mental Health Awareness Week, it would be to work towards providing management training to all supervisors and managers, and free up some of their time so they can regularly catch up with their team members to check in on how they are doing.”

LawCare also announced today it had extended its online chat service from one to four days a week. The service — first introduced in the summer of 2019 — will now be available every week, Tuesday to Friday from 9am-5pm, and will be staffed by 10 new specially trained volunteers all of whom work in, or have worked in, the law as well as the LawCare staff team.

Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce added:

“Mental health and wellbeing are prominent themes in my presidential plan. During my term we have provided remote working guidance, launched our own mental health hub and published a range of careers resources. We must all take responsibility for our mental health and wellbeing and look to change our businesses so colleagues can have a rewarding career and a supportive workplace. The onus is on us all.”

Struggling with the stress of work? Contact LawCare via its helpline or live chat

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53 Comments

Home to roost

Well they want £100k plus NQ salaries, which has added 200-300 billable hours each year. Cake and eat it stuff.

MC ass

Indeed. For US and even MC salaries, it’s not really reasonable to expect a solid work life balance. But it is reasonable to expect that partners aren’t nasty bellends – which at many US firms especially, they are.

Personally the times I worked for horrendous partners during my TC were the times my mental health actually suffered. I don’t care about working late when my team is nice, which is why I qualified where I did.

anon

‘which at many US firms especially, they are’
I trained at an MC firm and have since worked at two US firms.
The partners at the US firms were far more pleasant and normal than the partners at the MC firm. In fact, the partners at the MC firm were, almost without exception, awful, insecure and spiteful.
This parroted notion that US firm culture is awful compared to the MC/SC is baffling when you’ve experienced both first hand. If there even is an overarching ‘US firm culture’ (which there’s not as there are so many in the city and they’re all different), I would still prefer it to ‘MC culture’.

Archibald Pomp O'City

“This parroted notion that US firm culture is awful compared to the MC/SC is baffling when you’ve experienced both first hand”

Your anecdote is worth mentioning but you are a sample of one. Your conclusion that “I would still prefer it…” is more along the right lines. You cannot profess to be baffled until you have worked across a representative sample of both types of firm, however large that might have to be.

US firm associate

There are psychos at MC firms and psychos at US firms. I’ve worked at both and I actually prefer my teammates at the US firm (far less stuffy and insecure). Others will have a different experience.

Please don’t peddle the MC Grad Rec myth that US firms are the fires of hell. If you’re in a transactional department, they’re very similar (except with more money at US firms).

CC Insider

I can only base my opinion on the amount of people who joined US firms from CC and then regretted it due to Partners and quality of work. We have taken several back (and this isn’t a case of didn’t cut it at US, they’re very strong lawyers who realised the grass wasn’t greener in those instances). You’re absolutely right though, they’ll be a mix of personalities in all and it’s not all roses anywhere.

MC ass

Yep, same experience. The usual US firm fresher stans are out to play though I see.

I can count the bellends I’ve met at my firm on one hand. When I’m opposite a US firm on a deal, about 30% of them are both incompetent and rude, 30% just rude, and the rest are great. It’s usually a worse experience than being opposite another MC firm, with limited exceptions.

Loads of people have left to K&E / STB / Cleary / Skadden etc and come back or moved to another firm within two years because of how bad the environment is. Latham and MoFo seem to be the only ones where people who moved there are happy.

US firm associate

‘Quality of work’ – Jesus, you really drank all the kool-aid 🙈 whatever makes you happy

Unwashed High Street Solicitor

Couldn’t imagine working those hours and for a giant prat, much happier dealing with little high street law, easy peasy and not bad money for the hours I do

Anonymous

This is LITERALLY modern slavery!

Who forced these people into being lawyers?

Oh wait…

Yah

If slavery was a voluntary contractual relationship that could be terminated on relatively short notice by either party. Otherwise you are talking gibberish.

Peter Pedant

You missed the sarcasm in the original post, signposted by the “Oh wait…”

Rule number 1- always read your papers!

Yah

You are correct. I had not noticed the “Oh wait”.

As penance, I will pay it forward by spending 15 minutes on the Daily Mail website correcting the grocer’s apostrophes of Brexit supporters. I am sure they will be appreciative of my efforts.

Anna

It’s not the hours that are the problem. It’s the managers.

happy ex-lawyer

City Law job applicants, you should really, really consider if you want to do this. It is a terrible profession. From a former MC and US associate.

The billable hour: your value is reduced to time spent working. It doesn’t matter if you come up with creative solutions or produce an excellent draft. If anything, the firm ideally wants slow lawyers (but not egregiously slow so the client won’t dispute the bill). There is also a pendulum effect as the partners see all the associates’ busyness levels – even if you’ve been working really hard all year, if you suddenly have just a week or two of being quiet (heaven forbid!), guess who’s going to get staffed on multiple deals to make up for it and going over 100% busyness again?

The psychos: Certain jobs attract psychopaths. It may not be as bad as banking but corporate law definitely has a high percentage. If anything, it’s worse than banking as not only does it attract ‘master of the universe’ types, they’re also ridiculously pedantic about a comma and formatting. This may seem like a joke or not a big deal but even the easiest job can be turned into torture if you have psychopath seniors.

The work: The work is DUUUULLL. The overwhelming majority of people in corporate law agree. The tiny percentage that don’t had their personality removed at birth and aren’t invited to dinner parties. Who grows up thinking ‘yes, I want to be the lackey producing all the paperwork for a boring share for share exchange that the client wants done in two days time and yes I am riveted by the prospect of looking at deemed distribution issues’.

There are many other reasons (chiefly not being able to spend time with your friends and family and having your downtime ruined by still processing the s*** show you had to deal with at work) but CBA to write more.

Ultimately, just have a look at the associates and partners in these big law firms. When they haven’t been asked to smile before walking into a Grad Rec event, do any of them look happy? You’d think earning £100k+ (let alone what the partners make) would mean they’re having the time of their lives, champagne most weekends and trips to South of France all the time. No, they’re miserable, husks of human beings worn out by reading one too many a share purchase agreement. There’s so much more to life than this – don’t be fooled.

Anon

But what else can people do to earn good money? Any high paying job in the city comes with enormous pressure, stress, long hours (just ask any IB/top tier consultancy folks). Probably the only job with high pay and good work life balance is software engineering at big tech but most lawyers are very far away from the skill set required for that. Otherwise you’re restricted at looking at 30k jobs where every day becomes a struggle as to how you will meet your rent/bills – especially in London.

Dream A Little Bigger, Darling

The solution? Actual entrepreneurship.

The wealthiest people today founded and run their own businesses.

Then, you could hire city lawyers and pay them to paint your toenails if you really wanted to.

Anon

Given over 90 percent of startups fail, this is definitely a case of easier said than done.

And out of those, ones that went on to become multimillionaires and were entirely self made the percentages become truly minuscule.

Anonymous

You could go to the Bar. Twice the money, twice the holidays.

leaving

it’s a fascinating social study that privately educated people would rather be miserable than be judged by their peers as living in a bad area or not working a prestigious job.

it comes from deep deep insecurity, and parents who loved social status a bit too much

No idea

Perhaps part of the issue here is the nature of the work? Transactional work = quite boring. Litigation/arbitration = bit more stimulating.

Twitter Is For Narcissists

So many lawyers hashtagging #bekind and #mentalhealth, but try admitting to a mental health problem and see how quickly you’ll be labelled as ‘too sensitive’ when treated badly and told ‘we need to think of the clients’ when let go.

Within some professions, I really do feel it’s better to stay silent.

Alan

This isn’t a profession for snowflakes. You can be as left and barmy as you want, but not a snowflake.

Concerned

He writes, offended by the principle of the article.

You can call him Al

Exactly. The difference makers earn their money at the key stress points of a transaction or a dispute. If trigger warnings and safe spaces are your thing, other professions are available.

boomer

ok fresher

Experienced PP lawyer

mental health stuff is complete nonsense, it ceases to matter once client demands step in. The way that most law firms present it is as a “resilience” issue in terms of how lawyers can “cope” with the demands placed on them, often accompanied by insufficient support and resources, not a question of whether firms need to review their resourcing models and start saying no to clients’ demands.

and then they wonder why people leave….

Blunt realist

I can’t put into words what a positive difference going in-house has made to my life against how it was at a silver circle firm.

Instead of constantly being monitored and made to feel like nothing I do is ever good enough, I am trusted to get on with my work like an adult and work in a much happier and supportive environment. Sure it isn’t perfect but making the jump has massively improved my quality of life and general outlook/mental health.

I think the sweet spot really is to get to 3-5PQE in a private practice firm having got yourself settled and up and running in terms of being on property ladder/decent pension built up, then move either in-house or out of law if you fancy doing something different. Beyond that you are making an elective decision to build your entire life and existence around money and a very niche world with a completely screwed up culture. If you make that choice, don’t be surprised that there is a cost!

LEGAL CHEEK COP

Name the firm…

G

It’s obvious it’ll be K&E and one of the MC firms…

G's SE Teacher

Well you’re a bit slow aren’t you G. The OP said ‘silver circle firm’

Highstreetlawyer

Mental health is a big issue in law. How many solicitors and barristers do you know who self-medicate? Ticking time bomb.

Thoughts

I get it, but it just seems we are constantly talking about the same thing and nothing improves. It could be argued the flexible working has slightly helped things but it seems the general consensus:

If you’re in a top firm in corporate/finance = your work life balance is likely to be shit which may affect your mental health.

On the other hand (since we always seem to focus on the negatives in this site) few roles earn 100k + so early in one’s career so if your smart, save, have fun with the dough when you can and go in-house with a cushty 9-5 gig where you could still be earning from 70k – 100k from having such a “glowing” CV.

Also, we’ve had lawyers working for these types of firms for years. It’s still crazily competitive and popular to get into these firms despite these alarming issues. So it makes you think, is it that bad or are there more subjective factors at play? 🤔

Students surely aren’t so naive to think money trumps all?

5PQE associate

To counter some of the comments, I’ve worked at 2 large international city firms and experience has been great, work interesting, support good and people great to work for. Yes there are times when you are under the cosh and need to be resilient but it’s not all doom and gloom in city law. Then again I’m in Projects and dont have to deal with the corporate / banking side thankfully. I am probably working all hours of the day and night maybe 4-5 months a year. Carefully selected practice areas can make the world of difference to experience

sceptical Projects lawyer

If you’re in Projects how do you get away with not dealing with banking team?? Finance is a core part of any project.

5PQE

PF doesnt sit within our project development practice. Sure I have to deal with banking lawyers and elements on a project and do dd on refinancings but I am not sitting in their department, living their nightmare in terms of hours and people

US firm 3PQE

I can vouch from my years in law that anyone who talks about needing to be resilient is (a) a nutjob and (b) partnership material

5PQE

Oh no. I AM the bad guy.

Oh well. You either resign a hero or live in the office long enough to see yourself become the villain.

In-house lawyer

I couldn’t agree more.

I moved in-house from a silver circle firm at 3PQE, for ~20% less pay. Once tax and student loan repayments are taken into account, the net result doesn’t even feel that different at the end of the month.

I now work a fairly consistent 9-6 and have time to exercise, sleep well, eat healthily and be emotionally/physically present for family and friends during the week. Previously I had little to no “non-working” time during the week and was normally too exhausted to make more than a couple of low key plans for the weekend.

I realise I’ve given up the potential for exponential salary growth in the future and part of me misses being a “City Lawyer” in a fancy office, but my health and relationships are more important to me in the mid/long term than money and prestige.

I have no regrets for the great training, experience and contacts I gained through five years in private practice. Wannabe lawyers should go in with their eyes open though, and burnt out associates should know that other options are out there.

In-houser obvs

An additional angle to this – if you plan to go in-house at a certain point, it can make your PP years more bearable e.g. you’re more free to push back/say no to capacity requests if you’re not playing the partnership game. Just make sure you pull the rip cord at the right time and don’t accidentally stay in PP longer than you meant to!

Realist

(Apologies for long comment: in true Blue Peter style, it was prepared earlier, and is merely copied and pasted here in the hope of offering an alternative view. I respect that many will disagree – and I look forward to seeing how many downvotes I can accumulate!)

3 PQE US litigator here. I absolutely support people who decide that private practice isn’t for them, and decide to go in house, or leave law altogether. Several people with whom I qualified went in-house almost immediately, and I wish them luck. Many more senior colleagues made a similar move once they had children and their priorities changed: again, good luck to them. In this comment however, I focus on what I consider to be an unrealistic attitude by many trainees and junior lawyers who complain that the profession is too stressful for them, and/or are vexed by the need to be constantly available.

We do people a disservice by suggesting that anyone can and should succeed in high-pressure careers such as law or consulting. Just as we might suggest that a ‘compassionate but not academic’ sixth former should perhaps look towards a ‘people-focused’ job rather than a Maths or Physics PhD, we do people a disservice if we pretend that anyone can handle stressful jobs.

Chris Hargreaves, an experienced lawyer who produces a podcast for junior lawyers starting their careers (https://tipsforlawyers.com), makes the point bluntly that legal careers aren’t for everyone:

“Law is Hard: Deal with It. If you’re not up for some of the realities of legal practice, then perhaps a career in law isn’t necessarily the way to go? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGn6qp2GfY8 and https://tipsforlawyers.com/legal-careers-are-awesome”

At the high end (high value corporate and Commercial Court/Chancery Division disputes), the profession is also characterised by the demand for ‘996’ availability (9am to 9pm, 6 days/week. This isn’t driven by partners’ perverse fetishes for burning out associates (which isn’t in their commercial self-interest), rather this is what clients pay for, as David Maister warned almost 30 years ago:

“There is an old saw in the medical profession that the three most important keys to success are availability, affability, and ability-in that order. The same profound insight can be equally well applied to other professions. In all professions, clients gripe that “they do great work, but you can never get hold of them. They don’t return my phone calls!” Another common complaint is “I wish they would keep me informed of progress. This may be just another engagement to them, but to me it’s critical. I want to know what’s going on.”” – Maister, David H.. Managing The Professional Service Firm. Russia: Simon & Schuster UK, 2012 (first edition: 1993).

I was speaking to a magic circle departmental head several years ago, who made similar points. He complained that he had two trainees solicitors on long-term mental health leave, neither of whom in his view ought ever to have been considered for a training contract at the outset: they were very well-qualified (Oxford), but self-evidently not robust, and they both failed within months of starting work. There are many jobs in the world, and lawyer is one of the more stressful. If you have mental health issues (as both fashionable and over-diagnosed as that term is now), you should consider a different career. As a profession we have an obsession on solely selecting on academic performance, to the detriment of anything else. We are doing a disservice both to clients, and to prospective junior lawyers, some of whom we break. We wouldn’t advise people with claustrophobia to consider careers as submariners – this is the same.

Expanding on that military analogy: the Royal Navy, British Army, and Royal Air Force operate the Admiralty Interview Board, Army Officer Selection Board, and Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre, respectively, to select their officer candidates. All three selection centres deliberately put candidates under physical and mental pressure, to see how they cope. The weak are weeded out. This isn’t for some brutal, sadistic whim – it is simply because some people will not handle the pressure. No one is helped if those people are allowed in. This is common sense. Just as we cannot have ugly models, asthmatic athletes, blind lollipop ladies, or deaf air traffic controllers, we can’t have military personnel who, under pressure, ‘go wibble’. Ability to handle stress is a bona fide occupational requirement. The original Army Officer Selection Board, the so-called Regular Commissions Board, was created because of this very problem: lot of bright upper-class young men were drafted into the Army in the First World War, then went ‘wibble’ and broke under the pressure. It transpired that merely an Oxbridge education and “good breeding” wasn’t enough to lead soldiers and engage the enemy in dismounted close combat. There are parallels with highly-paid, highly-stressful legal jobs which we ignore at our peril. Perhaps we are doomed to suffer from polite, politically correct fantasies in the West. After all, they are cathartic, and we do feel morally virtuous asserting them. But, as Orwell warned:

“…we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

Fortunately, no one is stupid enough to suggest that the armed forces must ignore people’s resilience, or lack thereof, when selecting candidates. Perhaps that is because, ultimately, we know that such delusions will bump up against Orwell’s solid battlefield reality. Should we, perhaps, be a little more honest when selecting future lawyers and consultants, and put applicants under a lot more pressure, to see how they cope. Then weed out the weak.

Also, remember the commercial imperative (“commercial awareness” – remember that?): partner profits rely on a constant turnover of hard working, high billing ‘grinders’, fewer senior associate ‘minders’, and a select few partner ‘finders’. Consequently, the firm doesn’t care if you burn out: it’s a pyramid anyway, so they need to eliminate you as you approach 5-6 PQE and start to get very expensive to both the firm (your salary) and clients (your charge out rate). It’s a little like the Hunger Games, but with nicer offices.

I’m not being rude when I advise: If you don’t like it, don’t become a lawyer – no one will miss you. As long as law firms have (a) enough associates; of (b) adequate calibre to staff their clients’ needs, the system works fine. That will forever be the case, as many of us are happy to make the sacrifices necessary for the £££ (and we’re resilient). That’s simply the blunt reality.

I look forward to being crucified in the replies 🙂

Um

mum said it’s my turn to copy paste this next week

bored

Jeez do you not have any cases to work on / passive-aggressive letters to other lawyers acknowledging their letter acknowledging your letter of 3 weeks ago, that was SO LONG!

the first half is quite sensible in saying the focus on academics in the legal profession is misguided – it doesn’t take a first class brain to do a lot of the work City lawyers do, rather a good focus on detail, tolerance for boredom and ability to get on with people.

you lost me when you started going on about the SAS and the Hunger Games, it all got a bit Gordon Gekko then.

TL;

DR

Dave

You killed it (as in, nobody is going to read all of that sh*te)

US firm 3PQE

Fellow US firm 3PQE here.

I feel very embarrassed and sorry for you. The Stockholm Syndrome is real. Note again your use of ‘resilient’ in the last para. Such a red flag for nutters!

I find it hilarious when people like you draw comparisons between corporate law and the armed forces. Relax, you’re an email monkey, not a marine. I’ve noticed there’s such an overlap between the people who revel in working long hours (and making military analogies about their jobs) and those who punish their bodies with ridiculously gruelling fitness regimes. Both are a sign of deep self-hatred and feeling the need to punish yourself – something Grad Rec departments feed on. I’d recommend seeing a therapist. You talk about ‘weeding out the weak’ but really your own emotional and mental state must be extremely fragile and screwed up for you to love and defend killing yourself for paperwork.

Yes, law firms can and will survive with the status quo. But some of us are able to not just look at the way things are #precedent but how they should be. The legal industry is missing out on a load of talent by being so ridiculously demanding. I’m not even making a diversity point here – I’ve seen plenty of (clever) white guys burn out from the ridiculous demands. That’s to no-one’s benefit.

And we both know that the demanding nature is often for no reason. Clients set false deadlines for deals needing to be done. Partners ask for drafts by a certain time and don’t review for days. I myself set many false deadlines for associates in the specialist teams for their comments or DD findings. So much stress for no reason.

It’s such an inefficient and imperfect system. And instead of your response being ‘how can we make it better?’, it’s ‘yeah, this is the way it is. deal with it and weed out the weak’. You really do belong in law with that level of imagination and creativity. Have a good life

Wales Ruined My Leather Loakes

But of course some people aren’t cut out for hard things.

I would really, REALLY like to see a group of commercial barristers do the ‘Fan Dance’ ruck-march to prove just how ‘resilient’ and ‘mentally-tough’ they are compared to other mere mortals.

Anon

I completely disagree with nearly all of this. My key reason for disagreeing is that I think the starting point is wrong – I.e. a private practice career has to be this way. For brevity, I’ll just say that this is all a human construct – it is being a ‘slave to the system’, with humans working for the law, when the law can be made to work for humans. Answer is obvious – get rid of billable hour, hire more staff and be prepared to share out the work. In return, accept it means lower profits. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Anonymous

It’s not ‘resilient’ to enjoy harming your physical and mental health and your relationship with your family and friends for some money and a pat on the head from a partner.

It’s a sign of DEEP issues

Realist

Super boring thread.

If you want to earn £160k at 25, that’s going to come with some pretty significant sacrifices.

If they’re worth it for you, wonderful. If they’re not, also wonderful, just do something else rather than staying and moaning about it because you’re addicted to the pay cheque.

If your team is full of dicks and you hate it, move team / firm. There is no necessary correlation between working really hard or working in particular practice areas and people being unpleasant.

You leaving isn’t going to bring down the law firm model. Clients pay for a set of expertise that relatively few people have (that’s why K&E can bill it’s partners out at £1,000 – £1,500 an hour). If the rewards that come with gaining that expertise don’t justify the downsides in your personal circumstances, then make a different choice.

The mental health thing is also badly overplayed. If you have a mental health issue that can be solved with a break, more support etc then you should get that. If your mental constitution is such that you can’t work 60 hours per week under high pressure without breaking down, then you’re just not suited for the job. That’s not a moral failing, it’s a fact about your physical / mental limits.

You wouldn’t tell somebody that can’t avoid fainting at the sight of blood to be a doctor, so why would tell somebody that struggles with stress / long hours to be a City lawyer?

XMC

My favourite bit was after months of known mental health issues, being put on a deal in a new area, in 20 jurisdictions, with US counsel leading who were more interested in tedious arguments than getting things done efficiently, all with very little senior support and the general view that my part of the deal was easy. Cue very little sleep for days in a row, literally being quite concerned that I might die and being out of action for quite a long time.

Grow Up

So you had to do a bit of local counsel work? Boo boo.

I See Snowflakes

“Literally being quite concerned that I might die and being out of action for quite a long time.” All about 4 days of local counsel work. Snowflake alert. Did you take you support animal with you to work?

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