Having procrastinated over the title of this article for a fair amount of time I can tell you that life in the brain of a lawyer ain’t an easy one. It’s teeming with all sorts of stuff: a ton of perfectionism, a heap of compulsive overthinking and a pretty hefty dash of pedantry for good measure.
We lawyers tend to be those people at school who win (after secretly revising for) the spelling bees. We’re Monica from Friends in that episode in a class raising her arm in the air in response to the teacher’s question shouting “I know, I know, I know…”. We’re the overachievers who want to excel at everything we do.
Once we get that first initial ‘hit’ of approval from our caregivers, our teachers, it becomes addictive. We want more of it, more praise and more recognition. From an early age we tie our self-esteem to the externals in life – what does this person think of me, is this grade good enough etc.
Thus begins a life lived on a hamster wheel; forever seeking the next ‘success’ and the next challenge.
Naturally, we seek out a profession that provides those external markers of success we seek and which satisfies our need for intellectual stimulation. And law is the perfect vehicle into which to pour a strong work ethic and intense drive to achieve.
And the truth is that the legal profession rewards us for these traits. The pursuit of accuracy to the point of OCD is applauded, we’re rewarded with bonuses for meeting or exceeding our targets and we’re taught that every minute of our days can be monetised.
But we can’t switch the compulsive thinking off.
The Stakes are High
The message is that accuracy, nay perfection, is the gold standard. And when we stray from that standard (as inevitably we do as humans), our bodies and minds get invaded by a shedload of fear. We feel under attack, as if there’s someone ready to pounce on our mistake, whether it’s the client, your boss or a solicitor at another firm.
The truth is that that is often the case.
Expectations are high of lawyers and there are consequences to getting things wrong. The bottom-clenchingly awful moment in the Supreme Court prorogation case a few weeks ago when it was discovered that the court bundle was incorrectly numbered gave many of us a shiver down the spine and flashbacks to errors that that have kept us awake at night.
And while we can all talk the talk about the importance of boundaries, we all really know that there are still many offices out there where chronic overworking at the expense of your health is worn as a badge of honour and seen as a demonstration of ‘commitment’ to the clients.
This reality doesn’t sit easily alongside the current focus on wellness in the profession.
Indeed, you could argue that a profession with precision and meticulousness at its heart as law does is inherently bad for your emotional balance and wellbeing.
We need to be honest about these tensions, not deny that they exist.
To make real progress with these wellness initiatives we need leadership from the top.
We need our leaders in law to do what they say and say what they do.
Because as humans we all learn by imitation. If we have a boss who thinks wellness is a ‘great idea for young lawyers’ but who works all hours him/herself, people will be likely to follow what the boss does not what he/she says, in an effort to progress up the ranks.
It’s not easy to detach a lawyer’s self-esteem from their job even slightly. Helping lawyers to dislodge their own internal Critical Parent voice is a tough old task. This voice is the natural bedfellow of impostor syndrome; telling you you’re not good enough and making you feel like a scared child. The problem for lawyers is that that voice is often amplified and supplemented by criticisms at work, be it from a scathing judge, an angry client or a stressed out boss taking his/her ire out on you. We file these criticisms away in our brains and bring them out now and again as evidence of our lack of worth and ability. This creates a skewed perspective which can be incredibly damaging over time.
Our urgent task is to help lawyers to develop their own individual internal barometers that tell them when ‘good enough’ is enough. We have to help each other to try to shut off or at least temper that instinct to strive for excellence at all costs (the cost usually being our physical and mental health).
It may be that the culture of workaholism in law firms will never really change until promotions stop being linked inextricably to billable hours.We can talk about wellness all we want but if those external markers of success are achieved by working yourself to the bone then the need to look after yourself will not really hit home.
I spoke with a coach recently who works with law firms on improving culture. The first thing she does when she goes into a firm is to ask the senior management team whether it would be willing to let go of one of the top billing partners if it emerged that he/she and his/her working practices were having a detrimental effect on the wellbeing of their juniors. If the management team say they would not then she will not work with them. I admire her resolve that if a firm was not willing to place staff wellness ahead of profits then they were not a firm she could work with.
We’ve got a long way to go to redress unhealthy work practices and to better protect our lawyers from excessive working, excessive productivity and excessive availability. I believe that this generation coming up is the one to restore balance to the practice of law. But if we are going to do it then we have to be unafraid to be honest about the current state of affairs.