All’s fair in love and law

I was reading Mirko Bagaric’s post on lawyers and depression with interest. It’s a topical issue right now. Bagaric’s argument is that lawyers are driven by status and desire for material things to work long hours. He says:

Still there is even scope for lawyers to crank up a smile. The key rests with working shorter hours, not personalising uncertainties brought about by the actions of their clients and working in areas of law which cohere with their intrinsic interests and provide them with a sense of civic fulfilment.

Why am I a lawyer? As I have described in a previous post, I do actually love the law. Let’s look at why:

  • I love figuring things out. Being a lawyer gives me the same kind of pleasure that doing a cryptic crossword brings. There’s a sense in which being a lawyer is like being a historian or an archaeologist – searching through the past to build a picture of what happened and why.
  • I love words. Law is all about words, nuance, what is said and what is written. I love telling stories.
  • I love debating. I like to think of both sides of the story, to look at things from different angles and then put it all into an argument.
  • I love fixing things for people and helping people. I like it when a case ends well, when justice is done, when an outcome is fair. I hate to see people bullied, and I really hate seeing people lose out because they have less legal resources than the other side.
  • I love knowledge. I like the fact that I have the skills to research the law and to understand it. I like the fact that I can use this to help others.

Unfortunately, working in a law firm only occasionally involved the things mentioned in the bullet points above. I liked the people I worked with, but I don’t miss the work.

I think Bagaric is right. Lawyers lack control over their own destiny. They are pushed and pulled this way and that – by the client, by changes in the law, by partners (if they are junior lawyers), by judges (if they are litigators) and by the demands of the market. One of the things which made me most miserable about being a solicitor was that I couldn’t work in the way I like to work (which is spurts of enthusiasm followed by a period of “thinking” before I send anything out). Because of the six minute billing regime, I had to fill every minute of the day.

Often, my plans for the day would be totally thrown out because some other person above me in the hierarchy had mismanaged their day – “You need to drop everything and do this, the client needs it now!” I would be punished for the failure of others to manage the workload properly. What could have been done properly would end up being a rushed job.

At one point in one of the firms at which I worked, morning teas were banned because they were cutting into billing time. This attitude is disastrous for morale, and does not help productivity. By pausing and smelling the roses, you can get everything in perspective. You can talk to your colleagues and see if they have any solutions or suggestions for a difficult file.

All too often, my job involved just mechanically going through the motions and doing jobs that required no brain power at all. My strength is not in the mechanical, but in research and in being creative. I felt my strengths were not being utilised to the full.

Bagaric suggests that shorter hours would help. Shorter and more reasonable working hours are an important part of the puzzle, but not the only piece. Part of the problem is that modern technology and expectations mean that a client thinks that a lawyer should be contactable any time, anywhere. A firm has to be strong and resist the psychos who stay at work for 15 hours a day because they have nothing else to do. Unfortunately, because of the way in which high billing levels lead to promotion, these are the kind of people who get promoted, and then expect others to work in the same way.

Part of the battle is to know how to react when conflict and stress come up, to know how to manage junior staff, administrative staff and senior staff, and to be honest about your own weaknesses. I know that I’m not so good on mechanical stuff, and so I tried to manage that by putting in place various tactics to stop me stuffing up through sheer boredom.

I don’t think, that the lawyer blues are all down to material greed and status. Certainly, some lawyers are like that, but others just get stuck in the treadmill and don’t know what else to do. So they keep going up the chain, miserably, as their enthusiasm for the law is squashed from them bit by bit.

I am not interested in material gain or status. Well, let’s not go overboard…I want to have enough to live and eat, and have the occasional treat. One day it would be nice to be able to afford a house, but I’d rather be happy and renting than unhappy with a house.

One thing I have found very fulfilling is volunteering at a community legal centre. I like being able to help people who can’t afford to pay for legal advice and don’t know what to do. For any lawyers out there who are wondering whether being a lawyer does any good for the world, I thoroughly recommend it. I also like teaching people about the law – both in my present job and by writing this blog. I think it’s really important to empower people by letting them know what the law is all about.

To those lawyers out there who are feeling blue – you are not alone – but hopefully, if enough of us get together and change the way things are, there will be a change in the profession.


Jim Belshaw has also written two good posts on the issue, with an emphasis on the way in which management can deal with depression in the workplace.



Filed under depression, jobs, law, law firms, management, morale

4 responses to “All’s fair in love and law

  1. Pingback: Club Troppo » Missing Link - 7 May

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  3. I used to do a lot of casework for work-related stress injuries, and some of the symptoms read like me and all of my friends who were working in the law, if not all the time, than at least some of the time.

    One of the things Dr Bargaric doesn’t mention, and which I think is highly relevant to lawyers and depression, is that lawyers, as a generalisation, are high achievers and perfectionists. What you mention about the aggravation of having to do a rush job because someone else mismanaged their time plays on the perfectionism and the high achievement character traits that make we lawyers just a wee bit more susceptible to depression. And if you’re a junior lawyer, there’s the low responsibilty but high demand imbalance too.

    And I found it was people who truly loved the law getting more and more depressed about the practise of it. Very few of them are still practitioners, and this is very sad (especially as I am only quite recently admitted).

  4. Oanh, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – as a group, lawyers tend to be perfectionists and high-need achievers (I know I am). If I get something wrong, I have a tendency to self-flagellate myself terribly. This definitely leads to a greater level of depression in the profession.

    But I still think the practice of law is worthwhile, and I still love the law. So I’ll hang in there (from an academic angle for the moment).

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