The Origins of Toxic Law Culture

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I’ll just say it: The level of toxicity and dysfunction in law is horrifying. Suicides, substance abuse, and depression in the legal profession occur at rates well above average.

The solutions tend to run along the lines of “get help, lawyers.” I’m not going to say that is bad advice. Therapy, rehab, or any other tool that helps walk people off a proverbial ledge are a godsend.

But it’s an incomplete solution. A bandage on a spurting artery. Even if every lawyer who needed it got therapy, therapy by itself will not singlehandedly bring down lawyers’ rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicides.

shayna-take scorpion uv unsplash
Photo by Shayna Take on Unsplash

Many therapists say that depression is anger turned inward. With lawyers, I have little doubt that anger drives the excess depression rates in the profession.

Lawyers are reacting to their environment. So we should be looking at why that environment is provoking this kind of distressing response, rather than perennially searching for bandages.

Is Anyone Accountable Here?

Remember all those calls for the legal industry to hold itself accountable for creating those alarming rates of the depression/substance abuse/suicide triad? Yeah, me neither.

Lawyers love to argue, after all, and can’t seem to agree on what is obvious to more clear-eyed observers: It’s not simply the stressful nature of the attorney’s job that drives up depression and its kin.

two people pointing at different parts of black model of a campus or city
Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

Teaching kindergarten is stressful, with many demanding children, parents, and administrators. But teaching has one of the lowest suicide rates of any profession. Maybe that’s because the students are often a joy, and you know you can have a life-long, positive impact on people.

In contrast, lawyering is a stressful job done while surrounded by many dysfunctional, unpleasant people who actively try to thwart you—colleagues and opposing counsel alike. Plus, helping people trade money around lacks the inherent joy of seeing those epiphany moments of teaching.

Let’s not forget that lawyers as a group are not typically fans of structural overhauls, nor do they like, let alone embrace, accountability for acting poorly.

Law School Is Glorified Boot Camp

I recently had a conversation with another recovering lawyer about the toxicity of law firms. Her fantastic insight was that law school jumpstarts the toxic culture. It’s a 3-year boot camp that conditions lawyers to:

  • work unreasonable hours regularly
  • under high-stress conditions that
  • they have little control over.

Because that is super-healthy!

3 soldiers in fatigues with vegetation on heads and blacked out faces
(I have many things to say about how useless and actively awful the current law school model is. But I’ll save that for another time.)

And then, boom! You level up to law firms, which are even worse in terms of work demands and stress levels. So by the time you’re a 2nd-year associate, you’ve already experienced 5 years of chronic, mostly unrelieved stress, and there is no end in sight. Oh, and now you have hefty student loans, too.

There’s Stress, and Then There’s Lawyer Stress

I’m not saying that all stress is bad. A dash of stress in an otherwise reasonable situation can give people an edge. But law school and law practice stress are not remotely reasonable.

To use just one example, consider the huge lack of feedback during school or in practice. You have little idea what you’re doing well, poorly, or even competently. Unsurprisingly, this makes people uncertain and insecure in a high-stakes situation for a really long time.

There is no solid ground to stand on, mentally and emotionally. Even the most self-assured among us have a hard time believing in themselves after months and years of radio silence from their bosses.

Plus, when you do get feedback, it’s typically negative and often vague. Mentoring long ago took a back seat to billable hours, so senior lawyers have little immediate monetary incentive to tell associates when they’re doing well, let alone give detailed feedback on that. It takes years, literally, for most lawyers to feel like they have some kind of basic grasp of how to do their job.

Doctors are better at feedback and training.

Engineers are better at feedback and training.

Architects are better at feedback and training.

These are jobs where lives are regularly on the line.

Yet lawyers, who mostly help people trade money around, can’t figure this feedback and training thing out? That is inexcusable.

Caucasian man with handlebar mustache at computer showing younger Latina woman something on his computer
Image by rawpixel from Pixabay

Despite that, lawyers have mostly accepted this madness as inevitable. Or worse, they ardently believe that it produces the best attorneys. Neither is true.

Next time, I’ll delve more into the stubborn persistence of our dysfunctional legal work environment.

Jennifer Alvey will always be a recovering lawyer. Since leaving law, though, she has discovered a lot of other engaging, fun things to do and get paid for. Drop her a line at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com if you want to set up a discounted sample session to talk about your post-lawyering plan.

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