What It's Like to Be a Lawyer Who Hates Lawyers

Climbing the ladder at a major firm can lead to substance abuse, depression, and suicidal thoughts—or at least, that's where it led me.

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Aug 14 2015, 4:00am

Not the best fortune. Photo via Flickr user slgckgc

I was at a fundraising event downtown—accountants, doctors, entrepreneurs, and engineers mingled about, cocktails in hand. A young, smug-faced finance guy with expensive shoes came up to me, shook my hand and asked what I did for a living.

"Lawyer."

A smirk began to curl on his lips and he said: "Hey, what do you throw to a drowning lawyer? His partners."

Little did he know that earlier that day, I had spent an hour of unbillable time researching effective suicide methods on lostallhope.com. Accounting for lethality, time, and agony, "drowning," whether in an ocean/lake, bathtub, or swimming pool, ranked 18, 23, and 24 respectively. "Shotgun to the head" ranked first, though best use slugs, not buckshot; if buckshot is all you've got, use .24 to .36 caliber, not skeet-grade .05 pellet. Sadly, I'm not joking about any of this.

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So I'd had a rough day. I'd also heard the joke before, but this was a networking function, so I had to be on.

Without missing a beat, I said, "Y'know what the problem with lawyer jokes is? Lawyers don't think they're funny, but no else thinks they're jokes." He laughed, enjoying the repartee.

I drank a lot that night, hating myself for being a lawyer and hating myself for hating myself for being a lawyer. Surely, among the lawyer set, all ambitious and cocksure, I'm alone in my melancholy, I figured. I must be licking invisible psychic wounds. Besides, no one would have sympathy for my privileged-wealthy-white-guy whimpers.

Indeed, we lawyers should be a happy lot. We're paid well, many of us earning six figures within the first few years of practice. We've got smarts; research suggests our average IQ is a not-too-shabby 120, for whatever that's worth. We're lucky in that our skill set can easily align with our social values, too, whether that means serving big business or helping refugees. And while everyone has a lawyer joke up their sleeve, parents are generally proud to say their kid is a lawyer. We should be winners in the pursuit of happiness.

But we're not. Far from it. Reams of data prove it. "They are at much greater risk than the general population for depression," wrote Dr. Martin Seligman, a former president of the American Psychological Association, in his 2004 book Authentic Happiness.

One study that supports Seligman's sad verdict is a 1990 paper from Johns Hopkins University that found lawyers suffer from depression at a rate 3.6 times greater than the general population.

In my experience, depression in the lawyer world is a silent, underground phenomenon. Taking sick days is not part of the culture, so it's hard to take a day or two to binge-watch Netflix and spoon Ben & Jerry's into your face. For litigators in particular (i.e., lawyers who plead in court and deal directly with clients as opposed to the backend legal researchers and drafters), there's a lot of theater and often a harsh audience, so you've got to hide your darkness. For example, one of my mentors was a superstar pleader, a real firecracker, full of bluster and stereotypical lawyer bravado. But once a week he'd close his door and blinds for an hour and later on you could tell he'd been crying. As irony would have it, he once warned me about a senior lawyer I had a file with, a former big-firm shining star and Supreme Court pleader who had a breakdown and now sleeps in his office all week and goes to court unwashed and reeking of body odor. Another solo practitioner friend of mine, a warm-hearted, bowtie-wearing intellectual who could blow your mind with fancy insights into the history, meaning, and purpose of some esoteric statute, would sometimes disappear for weeks at a time.

As for myself, my coworkers would describe me as plucky and playful (I even use emojis and exclamation points in my text messages!), but I take Zoloft, see a therapist once a week, write daily thought journals, and still my mind gravitates to self-destruction on my way back from court.

We Canadian lawyers also booze and drug ourselves at a rate greater than twice the national average.

While I had a big-firm buddy pothead who blazed every day after court, cannabis addiction wasn't popular in the suited-and-booted lawyer world. Booze and coke seemed to be the go-tos. A remarkably high proportion of the senior attorneys I dealt with were known to be alcoholics—my mentor would warn me about them, but I developed a knack of my own for detecting them at the courthouse: perpetually flushed and rashy faces, even before they started yelling at you, and a slow or funny gait. The cokeheads skewed younger and something subtle behind the eyes gave them away. A sneaky, snaky, and suspiciously gregarious energy coursed through them. I definitely channeled the same vibe the times I did bumps in the office tower bathroom to break writer's block from drafting proceedings all day.

And, yes, we snuff it. Our suicide rate is six times greater than that of the general population.

What makes us so gloomy?

The misery begins in law school, where we're trained to be wet blankets. One key term from Seligman is "Pessimistic Explanatory Style" (PES), a mindset in which bad events are interpreted as "pervasive, permanent, and uncontrollable," in contrast to an optimistic style that sees them as "local, temporary, and changeable." PES is not only a principal cause of depression, it's also a productivity and success killer; it makes you perform worse at your job, give up on things prematurely, suck at sports, and generally fuck you up.

"Thus, pessimists are losers on many fronts," writes Seligman in Authentic Happiness, "but there is one glaring exception: Pessimists do better at law."

Law school trains us to see shit coming from miles away. I studied for years on how buying an iPhone, renting an apartment, getting married, or posting a comment online could lead to catastrophic injury, imprisonment, or bankruptcy.

After law school, we enter the industry with turd-tainted PES glasses and the shit carnival begins in earnest.

Welcome to the scourge of the "billable hour," Mammon's preferred unit of measurement. Most firms' billing targets are approximately 35 billable hours per week, accounting for vacations. My non-lawyer friends often say, "Oh, pshaw, 35 hours of work a week ain't bad." This is where the word "billable" is critical. We can't bill work related to administration, marketing, recruiting, training, mandatory continuing education courses, coworker schmoozing, eating, urinating, defecating, or Facebook stalking. Data shows we bill two hours for every three spent in the office.

The crabs-in-a-bucket law firm structure doesn't help, because the fellow next door who's out-billing you will get your end-of-year bonus and might steal your partner track. This fosters a twisted culture where colleagues brag about sleeping under their desk to bill late into the night.

No wonder our attrition rate is terrible: More than a third of associates at big law firms quit in their first three years. Young attorneys soon realize that the fancy perks of free smartphones, catered in-office meals, and chauffeur services exist to make you a billing machine. You're working in a gilded sweatshop with floor-to-ceiling windows.

Then there's the dispiriting nature of the job itself—the quality of the work I perform sometimes has little effect on the outcome. There are few certainties in litigation. I mean no disrespect to centuries of jurisprudential precision and the hard-won assurance that the rule of law will be applied carefully and fairly but... litigation is often a crapshoot. At the end of the day, you're paying me a lot of money to present your personal problems to some stranger sitting on a bench.

I'm only as effective as my client, and my client is often my worst enemy. As a senior attorney once told me, "Your first assumption is that your client is crazy." People who need attorneys often come with conflict-prone personalities. They have trouble obeying rules, cooperating with others, and are good at making mistakes. They're also in crisis, so they can be unpleasant and unhappy. They're usually wealthy and with a sense of entitlement to boot. And they're flakey: One day you're their hero, the next day they refuse to pay you, and the day after you have to sue them to collect fees.

The last feature at the shit-carnival is other lawyers, a.k.a. "colleagues." I put that word in quotes because we also call them "adversaries," revealing a distressing paradox. Unique among professionals, ours is a zero-sum adversarial system. Scaring, devastating, surprising, misleading, and stressing out your enemy-colleague is part of winning. We're trained to not trust anything they say and have everything confirmed in writing.

Now you've seen the carnival, gone on all the rides, and feel the bile rising... but you buy another ticket because you've gotta keep up with the Joneses. John and Becky down the hall are billing 60-hour weeks, getting fancy condos, and eyeing the corner office. You can't admit weakness in a shark tank. The view of depression as moral weakness is a prevalent thing, particularly in a subculture designed for Type A personalities. So swallow your vomit, rinse with scotch, and bill on.

Bar associations are concerned about their morose, substance-addicted little foot soldiers. More than half of all disciplinary actions are against mentally ill or chemically dependent lawyers.

And big firms are also concerned because it eats into their bottom line. The average cost of an associate's departure is $315,000 Canadian (about $240,000 in US currency) and about 20 percent of payroll is devoted to addressing absenteeism, employee turnover, disability leaves, counseling, medical costs, and accidents.

What's being done about all this?

Not much, it seems.

Big firm marketing guys and bar association reps peddle platitudes about work-life balance, alternative dispute resolution models, and pro bono encouragement, but let's not kid ourselves: Lawyering is a mercenary profession. Litigation rates are increasing, competition for jobs is fierce, and firms don't want their worker bees spending more time with their families. We're not in Silicon Valley where a company can make a lot of money on new ideas or disruptive technologies and hence afford to encourage creativity over hours logged.

To me, the system looks broken and it's not getting fixed.

Yet I still practice. I didn't put a slug in the chamber or slap on my cement shoes. I picked myself up with some therapy, medication, and all that, but my relationship to the profession needed a rework.

But some silly macho complex was holding me back. All this talk about pro bono services, meaningful work, work-life balance meant making less money and resisting the allure of status, power and Harvey Specter–ness. It sounded pretty limp-dick to me.

But the lawyer existence I was chasing was also killing me.

I decided to walk away from my firm, open a solo practice, work fewer hours, work on things unrelated to law, and build an alternative online business model selling unbundled legal services to reasonable people at reasonable costs. And my dick works just fine, thank you very much.

There are of course people who are happy practicing law in the meat-grinder model, those who enjoy the carnival. They exist. I've met them. But they're not me and they're unlike a lot of lawyers. They also work with colleagues who struggle with suicidal thoughts, numb with drug and drink, and mask their melancholy with witty rejoinders at cocktail parties.

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