Big Law Stress Is Forcing Associates Out: What Can Firms Do?

Over the past year, the profits of major law firms have soared, largely on the backs of associates who were suffering. The personality type that becomes a lawyer—self-motivated, detail-oriented, eager to please—needs boundaries, not a further push. 

Big Law partners and firm management need to pivot in order to protect and retain their associates. Doing so will not only benefit the well-being of the associates in the firm but also the bottom lines of the firms will benefit from reduced attrition, more productive associates and increased morale.

Julian’s Story

It’s 8 p.m. on a Thursday and I’m at the gym in Palo Alto lifting weights. My phone vibrates as I receive an email from my senior associate: “Can you run with this?”

The request is from an investor to fix signature pages on the deal we are aiming to close the next morning. Instantly, several thoughts flash through my mind: I can handle this later tonight. The fix is easy enough, and I’ll respond to my senior now and let him know. A minute later, I fire off a confirmatory “no problem” and get back to my workout. What exercise was I doing again? Time is, quite simply, not my own. It almost never is.

As clients become increasingly demanding and aggressive with their timelines on deals (and for good reason given the excruciatingly high legal fees they pay), there is no room for flexibility, error, or delays in our profession. And as the service provider who must do anything in their power to bring a smile to their clients’ faces, the result is predictable: Attorneys working around the clock, responding to emails at all hours of the day, night or morning, always ready, willing and able to drop what they are doing at a moment’s notice should a client need them.

My resumé tells the story of quintessential success in law: After graduating University of California, Berkeley in three years, I attended Harvard Law School and then landed my top job choice at a Bay Area firm. (For the record, that firm was a great firm and my views in this article should not be construed as blaming them for issues that are prevalent across our industry). I grinded and was a stellar associate, responding to emails quickly, handling tasks discreetly, and taking ownership of my deal work.

It was only during December 2020, during the height of the pandemic, that my burnout and stress levels forced me to seek help from professionals. I was then diagnosed with severe anxiety and mild depression. After a lot of thinking, I made the choice to step back from my legal career and focus on my mental health for the time being so that I could learn to manage this anxiety that had previously strangled my perspective on life. 

How Can Law Firms ‘Lessen the Load’?

This level of control that the profession takes over attorneys—and by extension, the lack of control individual attorneys feels over their own life in this system—can be a breeding ground for anxiety, stress and, in the worst cases, mental illness.

Of course, when this workload and inherent pressures join forces with a global pandemic, economic and political instability, and nonstop work from our homes for over a year, the already high levels of anxiety among attorneys became only more exacerbated.

So, what concrete things can firms do to lessen the load?

Set Boundaries

A boutique law firm in San Francisco shuts off lawyer emails in the evening with auto-replies, and they turn them back on early in the morning. If there are emergencies, text messages are sent or phone calls are made. Partners need to be firm in their own assignments and with clients that associates are not actually available around the clock. 

Tap Into Services that Promote Mental Health

Several firms offer their associates free access to services like Ginger and the Calm app and encourage their regular use, which normalizes the use of these resources. 

Respect Vacations

The only way associates will feel empowered to take vacation is if they see partners doing the same. A faux-cation—where you are somewhere beautiful but sitting in your room working—is almost worse than not going at all. The time off has to be honored. 

Show Gratitude

A significant part of the churn associates experience is because all of their hustle feels unseen. Very often associates will finish a massive project and simply be shuffled off to the next one with no thank you, no coda, nothing. This leaves them feeling beyond commodified. 

Understand Associates Can Be Victims of Success 

Because they are good at their jobs, the work faucet never turns off. Some firms have introduced utilization managers who make sure assignments are balanced and not all flowing to the same few associates. Many Type A associates will not turn anything down and will end up working themselves sick if the firm does not intervene. 

Include a Wellness Element in Performance Reviews

Associate should both be asked about their mental well-being and also be invited to provide feedback on ways in which the firm could improve the wellness of its workforce. Associates have ideas but often do not see a time to communicate them and/or feel vulnerable doing so without the right context.

More Articles by Kate Reder Sheikh 

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