Why Are SO Many Lawyers Unhappy?

unhappy lawyers

The reasons behind those negative work surveys

There’s no doubt that many find a career in the law to be exciting, stimulating, challenging, and ultimately fulfilling.

But in survey after survey (such as those commissioned by The Law Society Junior Lawyers Division and the Health & Safety Executive) lawyers keep ranking near the top in reported rates of work-related stress and burnout, depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

It’s clear that a significant percentage of the legal profession are unhappy in their career.

LawCare, the independent charity offering a free emotional-support service to all UK legal professionals, has recently reported a sharp increase in contact from lawyers seeking help.

Stress, anxiety and bullying were the most common problems cited.

It seems that things haven’t really changed.

When I was a junior lawyer (several moons ago…), my peers and I used to talk about the “Sunday Fear” – the feeling of dread and often real anxiety as you realised the weekend was nearing a close and Monday morning was about to come around again.

It often ruined weekends and any chance of being able to fully unwind and relax.

Role of Law Firms in Welfare

Thanks to organisations like LawCare and The Law Society, many law firms have introduced policies around mental health and wellbeing.

Some have even trained staff in spotting issues early, or have provided in-house counselling or other therapeutic services.

While these initiatives must of course be lauded, in many ways they are simply treating the symptoms and not the underlying causes.

In the high-intensity world of a law firm, the client’s needs will still often trump those of the staff doing the work, no matter how junior or senior.

The reality is that many bosses still put too many demands on lawyers – overwork and its related fallout is still the biggest issue for many in the profession.

Many people find themselves stuck in a cycle of working hard because that’s the way to earn your ticket to the next level promotion – that’s the culture and that’s what expected of lawyers at each level.

The fact that some refer to former lawyers like me as “recovering lawyers” tells its own story about the state of the sector.

Why Things are This Way

There are a whole host of factors that contribute to lawyers feeling unhappy.

Some are due to the very nature of the industry and the work that’s done, and some are down to choices lawyers make during their careers.

Let’s look at a few of the factors that contribute to people contemplating leaving the law.

The Choice to work in The Law

In my experience, quite a lot of people choose to study a law degree and the LPC/BPTC without knowing a great deal about the actual day-to-day work of the different types of lawyer.

The choice is often driven instead by the perceived prestige and financial rewards from the career, or due to family expectations and pressures.

Sometimes people go into law because they want to help people, to make a difference, and assume that’s something that all lawyers can do.

And sometimes people choose law because they don’t really have an idea about what to do, but they’ve got good grades and there are no subject-specific entry requirements for a law degree.

Many schools seek to channel their high-achievers towards a law degree (I hear this story a lot from my career coaching clients).

Whatever the reason, there’s often a disconnect between expectations and reality.

The Demands of the Job

In many firms, there’s a culture of “the client is the most important thing” – even if that means accepting unreasonable demands.

Lawyers can be caught in the tidal wave of work that’s required to meet these client expectations and deadlines (which are often arbitrary).

This means that many lawyers have a lack of control over their work time, and it increasingly impinges on their personal time.

It can be difficult to make plans because the goalposts are always shifting.

Cancelling pre-booked holidays begins to be seen as “part of life”.

The hours spent either in the office or working at home, creep ever higher.

Many lawyers who find themselves in positions of management are there not because of their innate people management skills, but because they’ve been promoted thanks to their legal acumen, business development skills and client management capabilities.

This means lots of law firms have poor management, and junior lawyers regularly report issues with bullying, inadequate supervision, excessive volumes of work, and little effective support.

All this in a workplace environment where you’re often competing with colleagues for promotion.

It’s a poor mix for most people’s mental health.

Feeling Stuck on a Ride that You Can’t Get Off

Many lawyers who enter their career with high hopes and optimism reach a point where they realise that practising the law just isn’t for them.

The career they chose (or “fell into” – ouch!) isn’t going to fulfil them or make them happy.

While recognising that dissatisfaction can be the catalyst to wanting to make a change for the better, many lawyers in this situation feel they are trapped in their career and there’s no way out.

Often, it’s related to finances.

Many people start their careers with student debts that need servicing.

Then as they progress they start to accumulate some of the trappings of a “good job” – the nice car, the nice flat/house.

Perhaps you start a family.

Then you get another promotion, and the car gets bigger, the flat turns into a house.

You live to your means, and you live well, but you become increasingly trapped in that cycle.

When you add into the mix that many lawyers are risk-averse, this feeling of being stuck in a career you dislike leads to further stress and anxiety.

Not a fun ride at all.

The Damage Unhappiness Can Do

As a former lawyer and experienced career coach, I’ve experienced all this myself and worked with clients for whom a law career has seriously damaged their health.

Some of my clients have suffered from mental breakdowns.

Others have been hit by burnout.

Separation and divorce, as a direct result of excessive working hours, is not uncommon.

These are extremes, of course.

As you’d expect, I speak to many lawyers and their level of dissatisfaction with their career ranges from “not feeling fulfilled” through to actively dreading every moment they spend in the office.

My own story was not one of desperate unhappiness by any means, but I resented not having control over my own time and the hours I’d have to spend poring over lengthy contracts to meet false deadlines.

All this with the ever-present pressure of not getting anything ‘wrong’ and not missing anything.

I enjoyed being at the sharp end of big deals, being fully immersed in the sports sector (a passion of mine), and being relied upon as a trusted advisor.

But ultimately that wasn’t enough to outweigh the sheer volume of work and the hours wasted arguing with pedantic, aggressive or intellectually arrogant lawyers on the other side.

Like many of my colleagues, I drank too much and sought out distractions in my spare time.

Some of my colleagues were well on the way to becoming dependent on alcohol.

Some former colleagues suffered horrendous bullying from an awful boss.

Sexual harassment was hushed up, paid off, and swept under the carpet on several occasions at one firm I knew.

All-too-common experiences like this made me realise that the law was not going to give me what I wanted from a career and from life.

What You Can Do

If any of this sounds familiar, then the one thing I’d like you to take away is this:

You don’t need to be unhappy. It does not need to be part of your job description.

The stories of other lawyer career changers show you that it doesn’t have to be this way.

None of them has any special gifts or unique talents, they are just like you.

If your first reaction is to think “yes, but it was easy for them because…” or “they don’t have my particular situation to deal with…” then it’s most likely your mindset driving those perceptions more than your circumstances.

The lawyers in those career change stories felt like that at first, too – I know I did!.

It’s time to take some actions that will let you look at things with different eyes. It’s time to drop the lawyer’s analytic, over-thinking and risk-averse tendencies.

Why not follow your curiosity about what else is out there and what you could be doing to make sure you don’t have to settle for unhappiness in your work.

Matt Oliver

Matt is the founder of Law Career Plus and a former in-house lawyer (Sky Sports, London & Foxtel, Sydney). With over 12 years of experience as a career consultant & executive coach, he supports lawyers with their career development & career transitions. He does this through this website, a regular email newsletter and his one to one lawyer career coaching.

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