Why are lawyers unhappy?

This post takes its title from the excellent 2001 essay by Martin Seligman, Paul Verkuil and Terry Kang. That article is available here. We’ll summarise its key points, why it matters and how it adversely impacts legal careers.

Are lawyers unhappy?

Yes. Repeated industry surveys confirm that lawyers, particularly young lawyers, are increasingly unhappy.

More concerning are growing numbers of lawyers suffering from severe anxiety, depression, stress and substance abuse problems. Don’t believe it?

Statistics published by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive on work-related stress, depression or anxiety place “legal professionals” third in the top four most stressful jobs in the UK.

According to the stats:

3,010 of every 10,000 legal professionals has reported stress, depression or anxiety in the past three years.

The cause? Workload, in particular:

  1. the relentless need to meet insanely tight deadlines;
  2. unsustainable volumes of work, inconsistent and gruelling hours; and
  3. huge responsibility for even the most minor failure.

That number jumps among junior lawyers; defined as trainee solicitors and solicitors with up to five years post-qualification experience.

A Law Society (the representative body for solicitors in England & Wales) report from 2017 identified that:

  1. more than 90% of junior lawyers” are impacted by anxiety, stress and depression;
  2. more than a quarter describing stress levels as ‘severe’ or ‘extreme’”; and
  3. more than half” said “they regularly or occasionally feel unable to cope at work because of pressure”.

Pretty dire.

As an update since this article was originally drafted in 2018, a 2019 report by the Law Society’s Junior Lawyer Division recorded similar results, including:

  • “77% of respondents said that their firm could do more to support stress at work”;
  • “one in 15 junior lawyers (6.4%) experienced suicidal thoughts”;
  • 47% had experienced mental ill-health from work-related stress; and
  • only 20% of those individuals experiencing mental health issues had made their employer aware.
The above infographic can be downloaded here, and the full report here.

The same sad story prevails in the USA. Indeed the USA legal market was the focus of Why Lawyers Are Unhappy.

According to Why Lawyers Are Unhappy, lawyers, particularly junior lawyers, are unhappy because:

  1. Lawyers are selected for their pessimism (or “prudence”) and this generalizes to the rest of their lives”;
  2. Young associates hold jobs that are characterized by high pressure and low decision latitude, exactly the conditions that promote poor health and poor morale”; and
  3. law is to some extent a zero-sum game, and negative emotions flow from zero-sum games”.

Written in 2001, Why Lawyers Are Unhappy remains just as relevant today.

Let’s take these themes in turn.

1. Pessimism

Lawyers tend to have, or cultivate through their training and work experience, a “pessimistic explanatory” style. In this way, events are viewed as persistent, uncontrollable and pervasive. Optimists see troubles as local, temporary and changeable. As Why Lawyers Are Unhappy highlights, pessimists fare less well in business, sports and politics but excel in law. But why is this?

Lawyers are paid to manage other people’s risk. Perceiving troubles as pervasive and permanent ingrains prudence. It helps lawyers spot all possible perils and pitfalls that may befall a client. In turn this enables lawyers to protect their client in any given scenario, whether likely or entirely remote.

As Why Lawyers Are Unhappy notes, pessimism:

  1. makes a good lawyer;
  2. is a well documented “major risk factor for unhappiness and depression”; and
  3. is a character trait “lawyers cannot easily turn off”.

The article further flags that “Lawyers who can see acutely how bad things might be for clients are also burdened with the tendency to see how bad things might for themselves”.

Lawyers will find it easy to identify with the above. After years learning and applying this style of thinking day in day out, it’s hard to detach and not apply lawyer thinking to daily life, whether that’s relationships, holiday planning or career decisions.

Moving from law to non-practising roles, whether at a law firm, in-house or into something entirely different, can help. But for many, that is too drastic a change. Law and lawyering is often an identity, not just a job.

Ironically, a drastic move like the above can be very well suited. In many ways, lawyer thinking in such roles serves well, albeit re-purposed to spot commercial issues and dependencies, actual or potential and help colleagues plan for them.

2. Pressure

Why Lawyers Are Unhappy highlights a study correlating depression and coronary disease with job demands and decision latitude. The quadrant most affected by disease were those with high job demands and low decision latitude. Lawyers have buckets of both.

Lawyers, particularly junior lawyers, face high pressured and unpredictable hours and demands. 100+ hour 7 day weeks for months on end is not uncommon in transactional practices at large law firms. Low decision latitude regarding what work, or with which colleagues to work, is also commonplace.

Low decision latitude day-to-day, and in general with regard to career direction and development, is limiting in terms of job satisfaction. Added to that, sparse contact with superiors and virtually no client contact (beyond emails and phonecalls) compounds the issue, leaving junior lawyers isolated from the action and opportunities to learn from others. Like pessimism, low decision latitude can bleed into non-law life. For instance, low decision latitude causes an individual to underestimate the choices available to them.

Lawyers who consider leaving the profession often feel trapped. They perceive few choices beyond:

  1. move firms;
  2. go in-house; or
  3. stick at it.

None offer much improvement on the issues highlighted here regarding lawyer unhappiness.

Further, the pessimistic explanatory style makes this worse: most lawyers believe that they will struggle to sell themselves into other roles because of the stereotypes lawyers face, e.g.

  • not tech-savvy;
  • not entrepreneurial; or
  • too risk-averse etc.

Whilst these stereotypes pervade, like most stereotypes these can be overcome with the right connections (inherited or self-made) and demonstrable counter qualities.

All said, the fact remains, however, that the low decision latitude ingrained in law often bleeds into any consideration of changing careers, further reducing happiness if a lawyer has wanderlust.

3. Perfectionism

Unmentioned in Why Lawyers Are Unhappy is perfectionism. If the pessimistic explanatory style is the means by which lawyers become great at identifying and analysing risk, perfectionism is the panacea.

Paid to manage risk, doing things “about right” is unacceptable as a lawyer. Even the slightest mistake can end a long and illustrious career when the same mistake in any other profession (except perhaps medicine) wouldn’t feature as a footnote. As a result, lawyers are taught and rewarded for “attention to detail”.

Perfectionism in everyday life is unhealthy. Psychologists call it the “maximising mindset”. In other words, someone seeking the optimal result in any (and often every) situation. That’s not always possible and often isn’t. The result is constant regret and dissatisfaction.

Likewise, perfectionism can create analysis paralysis. By this we mean it’s easy to spend hours and hours agonising about every variable in a decision (feeling busy and productive in the process), without being able to decide one way or another. Even deciding one way or another, the decider is left feeling regret or ruminating about whether the choice not chosen was the better one after all.

As with pessimism, it’s a trait that easily bleeds from practice into private life. When it does, it’s limiting and fuel for unhappiness.

4. Insecure Overachievers

Law firms (and many similar City professions) are partly, but not exclusively, to blame.

Outwardly professional services firms hire based on problem-solving, creativity, intellectual curiosity, energy and “passion”. As a 2017 FT article nailed, “notably absent from any such list: insecurity”.

Inwardly, as the FT explains, “mention to professionals that ‘insecure overachievement’ is characteristic of their tribe and they will give a knowing, if nervous, chuckle”. It goes on to highlight a HR director at a major accounting firm who was “like a drug dealer, deliberately seeking out vulnerable people and getting them hooked on the high-status identity” of the firm.

In reply a few days later, Howard Hymanson (partner at law firm Harbottle & Lewis) candidly surmised:

“the observation that professional services firms have little incentive to overhaul a deeply ingrained culture of allowing their eager-to-please staff to work themselves into the ground should strike a chilling chord among readers who work in the legal profession”.

We couldn’t agree more. Likewise, we agree with Hymanson’s later statements that:

  • stress-induced depression, anxiety disorders and chronic fatigue syndrome are commonplace” with many lawyers suffering in silence and, “in this way promising careers are cut short and individuals are left with chronic illnesses, sometimes for the rest of their lives”;
  • for many firms “‘burnout’ of staff is an unwritten part of their business model — as one lawyer leaves a firm… another insecure overachiever can easily be found to replace them”; and
  • the above is an “open secret” within the profession.

Hiring and hot-housing insecure overachievers within a low decision latitude profession that rewards pessimism, perfection and pressure is suboptimal for employee and employer. The result is unsurprisingly unhappiness for a disproportionate number of lawyers. That’s fine if your business model can afford a high turnover of talent. But even if it can, surely there’s a better way that’s less wasteful of resource and talent?

The legal profession attracts great talent, so why trash it when better alternatives exist?

Conclusion

Lawyers self-select and are selected for, various traits, which become magnified via the necessities of their training and today’s legal work. Unfortunately whilst these traits make for good lawyers under the status quo, they don’t bode well for happiness.

The sad thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way.

In later posts, we’ll explore how legaltech could help improve lawyer happiness and productivity. It’s no magic bullet, but applied well could go some way to improving legal work and lawyer happiness.

Originally published at https://lawtomated.com on February 9, 2018.

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