It is true that some amount of stress is endemic to being a lawyer. We’re conditioned for it from law school through the bar exam — this is part of your life now. However, after a series of high-profile Biglaw lawyer deaths that were attributed at least in part to stress, it seems reasonable to expect that firms are going to turn more of their attention to this problem. Last year, a candidate with whom I was working committed suicide. She had left her job because of stress before we ever connected and was trying to get back into Biglaw with a few-month gap on her résumé. Firms were largely balking. On a Friday, she emailed me to apply to a whole raft of firms, which I did. She took her life over the weekend. While suicide is obviously multifactorial, the strain from her previous job and the lack of success she was having reinvigorating her career surely played a part.
What can firms do?
I personally love the occasional work-from-home day. I am just as efficient from my home office as I am from the Major, Lindsey & Africa office in downtown San Francisco. On days when something is bothering me, I really appreciate that I can stay home in my sweats and not have too much interaction with the outside world. If an associate is getting his/her work done and is not brand new and acculturating to the team, he/she should be able to work from wherever suits at least a day a week.
I recently helped an associate move firms. For her first few weeks, on Fridays, she was telling her new partners what her weekend plans were. The partner eventually reached out to me and asked me why this was happening. I told him that this was 100 percent the expectation at her last job and that she honestly thought she had to give him the rundown before leaving (late on Friday night) for the “weekend.” Sure, there are occasional fire-drills in every practice, but you should not have to check in at work about the fact that you’re going to a movie on Saturday night. You don’t work 9-5, but equally it’s not reasonable to be on call 24/7.
Firms can provide invaluable, low-cost resources for their associates that can make a world of difference. An on-site gym is a massive value-add and doesn’t have to be fancy to be effective. I work out every afternoon just after lunch, and I find that the difference between my morning and afternoon stress levels is palpable. A firm that builds in an easy way for its associates to get some exercise during the workday will find that it pays dividends. Some other small resources that can go a long way are dry cleaning pick-up and delivery (offered at a few elite San Francisco firms) and healthy, plentiful snacks.
These people are so important to the emotional health of associates. Partners could in theory have full visibility into an associates’ usage, but in practice, they simply send new projects to the person they want to work with. Firms would be well-advised to uniformly adopt the model of staffing managers (ideally not partners in the office/on the same team) who can portion out work and make sure that Associate A is not getting absolutely slammed month after month. He/she may not be the one to wave the white flag, so it’s on the firm to track this — and act on it.
What can you as an individual do?
Our recent millennial survey showed that young associates on the whole prefer more informal mentoring programs to those written in stone, but all the same, having someone you can talk to in the partnership is incredibly important. To the extent you prefer and/or your firm primarily encourages informal mentorship, seek this person out early and often. They don’t need to be in your practice group, though ideally they are in your office. Take them out to tea and get to know them. Having an authority figure who can also serve as an outlet and a gladiator can mean everything. One of my candidates had to take a leave of absence due to stress and having a partner she could speak to about it made all of the difference.
Say it with me: it’s okay to say no. I know that it doesn’t feel okay, but it is. If you’re at full capacity and can’t take something else on, be clear and direct and say no. Point to objective metrics (hours billed/utilization) and say you look forward to working with the partner on the next case/transaction.
Take advantage of the resources offered
It’s really easy to just live in the routine you’ve created (get to work at 8, eat the same sad salad at your desk, work until 10), but if you’re beyond stressed out, now is the time to deviate. Take a walk. Use the office gym. Most Am Law 100 firms are offering you a chance here and there at stress reduction. Take it!
Most of all, if you’re suffering, please seek the help of a licensed mental health provider. I know, you think you don’t have time. Make time. Nothing is more important than being well.