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It’s official: big law firm culture is f*cked. Here’s how to survive it

Sarah Mitchell used to be a lawyer at a major New Zealand law firm – she lasted two years – and went on to study how practical psychology can help young lawyers adjust to legal life. Here she shares what she learned.

In her independent review of Russell McVeagh, Dame Margaret Bazley noted that she was surprised to hear of poor management practices at the firm, resulting in junior lawyers having “no control of their lives; never seeing family and friends, of being constantly tired, becoming exhausted and ill, and even suffering mental health issues.” I was surprised at Bazley’s surprise. And I’m guessing almost every lawyer who has worked in a big law firm was surprised too.

Big law firms are hard places to work, especially for junior staff. I know this from research I’ve read, from stories lawyers have told me, and from personal experience.

My career at a big law firm was short-lived; after two years I hated my job and needed a change. But the experience stuck with me. I ended up researching how lawyers can survive big law firms, as part of a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology. I discovered that toxic law firm cultures could have severe consequences. Studies in the US and Australia have found that lawyers are more likely than others to suffer from depression and anxiety, and to abuse alcohol and drugs.

Some big law firms may try to address the problems identified in Bazley’s report. But cultural transformation takes a long time. And, in truth, some of the issues faced by junior lawyers arise from the inherent nature of legal work, and are not unique to big law firms.

What should you do if you’re contemplating a big firm career now? You could change your plans and apply for a job outside of law. But the challenging work, generous remuneration, and prestige that a big law firm offers may be too enticing. If this is you, there are practical steps you can take to protect your wellbeing in the big law firm environment. While most of the factors that impact our mental health are outside of our control, positive psychology researchers have identified some actions we can take to influence how good we feel. Here is a list of some of the issues you’ll confront as a junior lawyer, and the tools that may help you protect yourself against them.

You need to feel competent and autonomous

All people need to feel competent and autonomous in their lives, and many achieve this through their work. As a junior in a big law firm, you may find your work fails to meet these needs.

My feelings of competence and autonomy were drastically eroded as a junior lawyer. I went from being a high-performing, self-assured student to an unconfident, anxious lawyer. I had some great colleagues, who wanted me to succeed, but they were often drowning in work, with little time to provide the degree of guidance and support I needed.

Insufficient mentoring, high billing targets, a lack of communication and inadequate positive feedback may leave you feeling incompetent too. Given that big law firms tend to employ high-achieving students, this may come as a major shock to you. Hierarchical structures will probably mean that you lack autonomy: you’ll have no control over where the interesting work goes, a limited view of the work you do get (probably only small pieces of larger projects), little contact with clients and no authority. Also, work done by juniors in big law firms is typically extrinsically motivated: it is not particularly enjoyable or fulfilling, but is done to receive a side benefit, like a pay-rise or a promotion. Our needs for competence and autonomy are better met by work that is intrinsically motivated (done for its own sake and not for any other benefit).

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Try setting yourself some intrinsic goals

You can try to balance out the extrinsically motivated work you do and your lack of autonomy and competence by setting and pursuing some intrinsically motivated goals. Researchers have found a relationship between having intrinsic goals, increased wellbeing and decreased depression and anxiety. Your goals could either involve work (for example, you could ask to complete a project for a pro bono client that you believe in), or not (for example, goals relating to a hobby or cause you are passionate about).

You need to combat stress

Legal work involves high levels of stress (because of budgets, tight deadlines, long working hours and the inherent adversarial/ negative nature of legal work). Left unchecked, high levels of stress can affect both your physical and mental wellbeing.

Junior lawyers told Bazley that they were sometimes “…at their desk within an hour of waking and in bed again within an hour of leaving their desk.” At my firm the client’s needs were paramount, and you were expected to work as long as necessary to meet those needs. It was not uncommon for me to work blocks of 16-hour days, sometimes alone in the office at night. These long hours, combined with feeling incompetent, meant that I was very stressed.

Try being mindful and disputing your reactions to stress

Yes, “mindfulness” is a buzzword right now, and no, it’s not the panacea that some people say it is. However, researchers have found an association between mindfulness programmes and reduced stress, depression and anxiety. There are multiple ways to learn mindfulness and meditation, most of which cost very little money or time (there are books, apps, podcasts, YouTube tutorials, or classes). A meditation or mindfulness practice may help you avoid stress more often, and will arm you with ways to calm yourself when stress does arise.

The ABCDE Disputation Method is a tool that may help you reframe difficult situations and reduce the stress you feel. When you’re facing a stressful Adversity, you identify the negative Beliefs you’re having about it, what the Consequences of those beliefs are in terms of your feelings and behaviours, and then you Dispute the negative beliefs by thinking of more optimistic explanations for the adversity. Finally, you savour the Energy generated by these optimistic explanations.

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You need social support

Law firm culture encourages competition between lawyers. My colleagues and I knew we were competing with each other for bonuses, pay-rises and promotions via the budget system, which jeopardised our friendships. Working long hours can mean that lawyers struggle to look after their personal relationships too. This can lead to chronic loneliness, which can be very harmful to a person’s mental and physical wellbeing.

That much is probably self-evident. However, you may not know that the bad feelings induced by competition and loneliness may inhibit your ability to think clearly and creatively at work. Conversely, having positive feelings has been linked to improved coping, creative, judgement and conflict resolution skills (all vital to legal work). Enjoying quality relationships is one of the most common ways people experience these feelings.

As you start your legal career, you need to understand that relationships are important and should be prioritised, and that competing with your colleagues, to the extent that it inhibits your friendships, may ultimately harm your work.

Try metta meditation and becoming a better listener

As a junior lawyer, you won’t be able to avoid the budget system or working long hours. However, you can try to generate warmer feelings towards your colleagues and to ensure that any time spent with friends and family is truly quality time.

Loving kindness meditation (or metta) has been associated with improved relationships and levels of social support, and may help you feel more caring towards you colleagues and others. You can learn metta through books, websites, apps, podcasts, YouTube tutorials, or classes.

Active-constructive responding (where you listen and respond in an engaged, positive way) has been associated with improved relationship quality and intimacy. Becoming an adept listener may also improve your interactions with clients. A quick Google search followed by plenty of practice will help you implement active-constructive responding.

You need to be understand when to use pessimism and when to use optimism

It’s common for lawyers to have pessimistic tendencies, and pessimism is useful in legal work (unlike most other jobs). Whether you are naturally pessimistic, or law school taught you to take a negative view when considering legal issues, working as a lawyer will probably develop your pessimistic outlook further. However, pessimism has been associated with self-criticism and depression, so it’s important that you don’t let it dominate your thinking. In contrast, researchers have found a relationship between increased optimism and improved physical health, better marriages, more resilience, increased satisfaction with life, and broader social networks.

Try increasing your levels of optimism

To be a good lawyer you will often need to assume the worst. However, you can try to stop pessimism becoming your overriding way of thinking by learning to be optimistic when appropriate (like in your personal life). Completing the ‘Best Possible Self’ exercise on a periodic basis may increase your optimism. In this exercise you write down a vision of your best possible future. Studies have found a relationship between this exercise and more optimism, positive emotions and higher satisfaction with life. Practising the ABCDE Disputation Method may also increase your optimism.

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You need stop ‘thinking like a lawyer’ all the time

Lawyers need to use critical, logic-based analysis to make decisions in their work (sometimes called ‘thinking like a lawyer’). However, if you use this all the time you may seem overly critical or unfeeling to your friends and family (which may exacerbate your loneliness). Some researchers believe this mode of thought can cause lawyers to lose touch with their values and authentic selves, jeopardising their mental health.

Try getting to know yourself

Instead of ‘thinking like a lawyer’ all the time, you can learn to use values-based decision making in your personal life (and at work, when appropriate). You need to know what your values are in to do this. One way to identify your values is to ascertain your character strengths, since character strengths are habitual expressions of your values. You can use an online tool like the Values in Action (VIA) inventory to identify your character strengths.

You can express your character strengths more often by undertaking the ‘using signature strengths in a new way’ exercise. Use one of your top five strengths in a new and different way every day for a week. This will help you isolate the values that underpin your strengths, so you can think about how to reflect them in your decision-making. Your general wellbeing may also be improved by using your strengths: frequent use of top strengths has been correlated with higher satisfaction with life, fewer depressive symptoms, lower stress, greater job satisfaction and more meaningful work experiences.

I’m confident that big law firms with motivated partners will be able transform their firms into good places to work. Who knows? Perhaps one day big law firms will be held up as examples of businesses with excellent workplace cultures and management practices. Until that day arrives, my hope is that all young lawyers will enter their careers forearmed with the tools they need to look after themselves.

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