BigLaw Makes Feeble Efforts to Address Mental Health and Addiction

A recent ABA Law Journal digests a WSJ (sub. req.) discussion of BigLaw’s efforts to address mental health and addiction occurring in law firms. BigLaw Feeble Efforts. Those (my word) feeble efforts include hiring on-site psychologists once per week and tasking employees with recognizing mental health and addiction signs. As an employment lawyer, I am encouraged to see proactive efforts to deal with mental health and addiction in the workplace, particularly for my beloved profession. Anything is better than nothing.

I say “feeble” because anxiety, depression, and addiction are symptoms of a much deeper problem facing lawyers in private practice: the legal industry itself, as distinguished from the legal profession. The Journal of Addiction Medicine in January 2016 published the Betty Ford study suggesting that lawyers are addicted at twice the rate of the wider population and that the highest incidence within the profession occurs in private law firms. Worse still, the younger generations of lawyers show yet higher rates of addiction. Lawyers don’t seek help because of our extreme tendency toward “impression management,” keeping up appearances to maintain client relationships and status within our law firms and communities. Lawyers guard their reputations at all costs. Including their mental and physical health.

Clinical neuropsychologist Joel Becker, one of the on-site psychologists, was quoted: “Endless client demands, as well as stress at home, can contribute to stress and anxiety, he said. For those with particularly heavy workloads, he suggests one step: he suggests turning off cellphones between 2 a.m. and about 6 a.m.”

Mr. Becker is whistling past the graveyard, I think. Northwestern University law professor Steven Harper, a retired Kirkland & Ellis partner observed, “BigLaw could do a much better job of addressing mental health and addiction by simply examining its profit-focused business model.” Good luck with that, Professor. He goes on to note that becoming equity partner has become a “pipe dream.”

Thus, the profits-per-partner business model is bad for mental health and a significant contributor to lawyer addiction. As Duff McDonald convincingly writes in The Golden Passport, Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite, “Business has lost sight of its true function in society, which is to provide a mechanism by which we can work together and with our environment to achieve our common goals. It is not, and never has been, to simply make a profit.”

Lawyers practicing in these models are doomed, not always to addiction, but to unhappiness. Law firms face many challenges in the current milieu, from the paralyzing nature of fixed costs like salaries, rent, IT, and insurance that make up fully 90 percent of overhead, to the commoditization of work, and the historic low of loyalty between partners and their firms. It’s pretty grim, really:

Law firms are just hotels now, where equity partners with freely transportable books of business “rent rooms” that come with very high compensation and rich business development budgets, in exchange for doling out work to other partners, associates, and of-counsel “service-partners” whose maturity in their fields often surpass the guys or gals with the super-thick stacks of client contacts.

These unsustainable fake-business models reward unrestrained egos and short-term, profits-for-now thinking that would run aground most businesses and have their CEOs fired for such poor planning. The real heartbreak is what sustains these abusive systems: lawyers. But, I digress.

Turning off one’s cellphone for four hours in the middle of the night as a serious coping mechanism for stress and anxiety seems about as effective, to quote the late Robin Williams, as hurling bricks into the Grand Canyon. But in context, I get where Mr. Becker is coming from: it’s the industry. The distinction between the legal industry and the legal profession is not one I have seen, at least as far as I can tell, so I am happy to coin it. And I’ve often heard it said by those who quite sincerely believe they are offering to me much needed counsel, “The law is a stressful profession.” Umm. Well, so is law school. Lawyers are naïve who set our profession apart from the wider business world in terms of stress. Rather, the legal industry is the source of the unmitigated stress, which for three and a half decades has ravaged the legal profession. The industry excuses its misconduct by now routinely telling us that excellent legal services aren’t special and that clients have come to believe that generally pleasant (but productive?) relationships with lawyers are abundant. I think the lawyers who sit on committees (yes, Prudence, law firms actually run themselves by… committees) believe these pronouncements make them sound business-savvy.

Lawyers have become obsessed with remaking themselves into MBA-Franken-hybrid lawyers who don’t know who we are, what we do, or what we provide. We have become terrified of being lawyers; the industry has convinced us that it cannot just sell lawyers to clients. We have become embarrassed that we are efficient problem solvers within an opaque system about which we have specialized knowledge. Sheepish that we speak a common law and statutory language that has evolved over centuries that our clients don’t speak and need us to translate. And no longer proud, but we should be, that as advocates, we carry the obligation to recognize when the existing state of the law is not yet just or fair enough and to argue for its expansion or change when our clients’ interests demand that it be so.

Because in an industry that has “financialized” its professionals and thus sees us as little more than bundled sources of revenue for generating profits to the tops of its pyramids, so that the wealthy hotel guests (equity partners) in the swanky penthouses don’t check-out early, these professional values are either taken for granted, paid lip service, or both. The things we take for granted are lost to us, forever. So, if you’re not a Franken-lawyer in one of those industry hotels, you’re probably gonna need an on-site psychologist. But do get her or his cell number. You want one whose phone stays on between two and six in the morning: because that’s when you need someone to answer your call.

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The author, Peter Rutledge, is an Employment Lawyer and Partner at Rutledge Law, Greenville, SC. You can contact him via these channels:
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I say “feeble” because anxiety, depression, and addiction are symptoms of a much deeper problem facing lawyers in private practice: the legal industry itself, as distinguished from the legal profession.
–Peter Rutledge, Rutledge Law