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Are Happy Associates the Unicorns of Big Law?

Kathleen Brady, PCC

Preferred Transition Resources

Depression, anxiety and substance abuse continue to plague the legal industry. Pre-COVID-19 research reported that nearly one-third (28%) of licensed, employed lawyers suffer with depression, 19% have symptoms of anxiety and 21% are problem drinkers; those statistics are likely even higher a year into the worldwide pandemic.

The silver lining to these alarming numbers is that the legal industry has begun to shine a spotlight on wellness issues and implement mitigating remedies. On the flip side, the spotlight has blinded us to the reality that the same research underscores that more than two-thirds of licensed employed lawyers do not suffer from depression, anxiety or alcoholism. The unintended consequence of calling attention to the problem in an attempt to provide help to those who need it is that we have established the expectation that if you work in big law and aren’t depressed, you must not be working hard enough.

It is important to understand the mindset that attracts people to Big Law in the first place. Legal work is complex, time-sensitive and high stakes. It attracts people who are smart, ambitious and competitive. Type A personalities drawn to the legal industry are prone to glorify overwork; it is seen as a way to measure one’s value and importance to an organization. Because Big Law culture celebrates and rewards those who prioritize overwork (as evidenced by the ongoing bonus wars), it inadvertently fosters the notion that stress is a required element for success.

Internal motivators for success that lead to overwork can be negative (fear, greed, guilt) and result in depression, anxiety and burnout. But they can also be positive (ambition, pride, enjoyment). How can the industry foster the positive internal motivators without feeding the negative motivators and stigmatizing those who may be struggling?

The delivery of exceptional client service should be driven by a sense of ambition, pride and enjoyment, fostered by leaders who empower associates to be the best version of themselves each and every day. It is those who use fear, guilt and humiliation as motivational tools to compel associates to overwork that are the source of the problem. Ever since the iconic movie, The Paper Chase, the narrative about how awful law school and legal practice are has been perpetuated in subtle and not so subtle ways. In all fairness, these types of partners are likely the exception and not the rule in 2021, yet the misperception continues.

It is time to dispel the belief that Big Law practice automatically leads to unhappiness and substance abuse. Happy associates are not unicorns in Big Law, nor should they be defined by the minority. They ought not be made to feel less successful or like they aren’t working hard enough because they aren’t completely stressed out all the time. They should be celebrated for figuring how to be available 24-7 without working 24-7 in a way that works with their personal circumstances. Establishing routines and boundaries that foster personal well-being without sacrificing client service is the key to a happy, successful career. Without routines and boundaries, burnout (or worse!) is inevitable.

Like most things in life, Big Law is not for everyone. Yet, rather than shame those who choose another path by suggesting they “aren’t cut out for” Big Law, let’s celebrate the diversity of career options available to lawyers. Let’s also not demonize Big Law, recognizing that lots of people actually enjoy and thrive in that environment.

Kathleen Brady is the Managing Director and Head of Coaching at Preferred Transition Resources and the author of Succession Planning and Retirement Strategies for Law Firms and Lawyers, available from PLI Press. She is also a speaker at PLI’s Succession Planning and Retirement Strategies for Law Firms and Lawyers, available from PLI Programs On Demand.

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Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Practising Law Institute.

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