The Origins of Toxic Law Culture

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.

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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 if you want to set up a discounted sample session to talk about your post-lawyering plan.

Law’s Toxic Tendrils

I’ve been out of practicing law now for twice as long as I was in it. Thankfully. But I call myself a recovering lawyer for a reason: There are things that happened during law school and practice that left indelible marks on my psyche.

I’m not alone.

vines on dark backgroundIf we lawyers could see our psyches in physical form, I’m confident we would see many ugly scars, spirits broken from verbal lashings, and disfigurement from scathing attacks on our eyes, ears, and voices.

If It Doesn’t Kill You, It Probably Maims You

I have long rejected Friedrich Nietzsche’s belief, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Yet a large part of our society believes in some version of this philosophy.

It’s as if we’ve forgotten that in-between place, maiming and permanent damage that truly limits you.

Does losing an arm really make you stronger? Does surviving a poisoning really make your liver and kidneys healthier than they were? No, of course not. As one psychologist puts it, if you are stronger after hardship, it is probably despite, not because of the hardship.

And so it is with law firm culture. No, not every single law firm environment is toxic. Yet a shockingly high percentage are. Otherwise, I wouldn’t get emails from all over the country—even the world—that say, “It’s like you read my mind, that’s exactly how I’ve felt!”

Blindsided by Ancient Wounds

I recently got a vivid, personal reminder of just how deep the psychic and emotional wounds from law firm culture can run.

I was working on an editing project for a new client. Unlike most of my writing and editing clients, this one was not a law-related business. Instead, it was firm that works with local governments on safety issues.

My task: edit an RFP response. The grammar editing was no problem, but the other parts of the project were giving me major fits. I had no background in the industry jargon, customs, or even the format for these kinds of documents. All the client had given me were a few examples of previous responses for other RFPs, a draft to edit, and a chipper “Have at it!”

Y’all, it was bad. I had no idea what I needed to fix, structurally. No clue what the terms of art were, what the sacred cows were, and what was in desperate need of gold fairy dust. I was mentally flailing.

I kept avoiding the work. And I knew full well that my procrastination was due to whopping uncertainty about what I needed to do. I could watch myself dive onto Facebook, read news sites, or research random future purchases, and know I shouldn’t. Yet I could not make myself work on cracking that nut.

As the deadline approached, my anxiety rocketed up through a few more levels. Then I had an epiphany: This particular level and kind of anxiety was very, eerily familiar.

It was exactly the feeling I’d had as a young associate, when I was given assignments with scant background and even less instruction on what the end goal was. And if I tried to ask questions, I was usually told the Very Important Partner did not have time for them, or was outright mocked for not knowing. Or both. Fun times.

Sink or Flail Is No Way To Train

Sink or swim was, and remains, the basic pedagogy that lawyers use to “train” new attorneys. If someone is going to make a good lawyer, the thinking goes, then they can figure it out for themselves. (Also, and not coincidentally, this increases billable hours. But that’s another rant.)

Even my teenage son knows sink or swim is ridiculous. We were talking about that dynamic while we were bingeing The Umbrella Academy. The teen said, “Well everyone knows that saying: ‘Sink or swim’ leaves a lot of dead bodies behind.”

I’d never heard that saying. But I’m thrilled that his generation sees that, because certainly most Boomers, many Gen Xers, and some Millennials believe “sink or swim” is a perfectly valid way to see if people have what it takes to succeed. Of course, without training or some advice, most people at least flounder, and often sink, absent freakish good luck or freakish latent abilities.

Toxic Reservoirs

But the “figure it out yourself” approach had wound its corrosive tendrils deep into my psyche, and it did not occur to me, 20+ YEARS LATER, that I could just, yanno, ASK the client some questions.

Meaning to this day, I still have leftover reservoirs of toxicity lurking in unexpected places.

Trust me, it’s not the only dark, noxious pool from law that lurks in my soul. It’s just the one I encountered most recently.

I wish the sink or swim attitude was the only thing that created toxicity in most law firm cultures. That would be any easy fix. Of course, it’s not the only toxic demon in law culture. I’ll dive into more on trauma, toxicity, and dysfunction in law next time.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who survived BigLaw culture, and has the emotional scars to prove it. She loves telling all the secrets about that elephant in the room of legal culture—toxic dysfunction. If you need help overcoming some of the toxic side effects of working in law, send her a note at