Depression, anxiety, stress, no sleep, alcoholism, exacerbated cocaine use, self-harm…. and Freud. The reality of life in a corporate law firm
It’s something we’ve been hearing about for a while now; the unsustainable lifestyle of the City lawyer, the late nights, early mornings, the demanding clients and the hostile superiors.
Firms may make smarmy claims about ‘work life balance’, but I’ve been there, and I can assure you: it is all nonsense. I was a trainee solicitor at a top international corporate law firm, based in London when I fell severely and almost fatally ill in 2008. For six months I had worked excessively and continuously under the fluorescent lights. The partners were creaming the profits off the slavery of young, keen trainees like me. For a week, I felt queasy. I was forgetful. I knew I was ill. But there was a deal on, I was under pressure, and my superiors were demanding. My job depended on it. Then I was rushed to hospital, was placed in a coma, nearly died, woke up paralysed and spent two years in hospital having extensive neurological rehabilitation in order to function again and to gain some semblance of independence.
I have made only one huge mistake in my life, and it very nearly cost me my life. It was being duped by the dream of working at a high level in a corporate law firm. What was I taken in by? The money, the power, the promise of an exciting lifestyle? It isn’t exciting, I can assure you. It is dull, repressive, repetitive, and hostile. The junior associates pressure the trainees to complete their work, so they won’t be bollocked by the senior associates, who are trying to make partner, so they can swan round the world schmoozing clients and earn millions. And then, along the way, these people become sociopaths; lacking empathy, driven only by money, unable to see, or even to care, that doing deals with unethical governments for oil and huge hotels in Dubai to be built by Bengali slave labourers is ultimately not a great way to earn your living- particularly when it involves making so many sacrifices along the way.
Graduates, thousands of pounds in debt, are taken in by the promises of the legal recruiters as they do the rounds at law fairs. It is shameful, to both the duped young lawyers and to the millionaire partners looking to deceive intelligent, enthusiastic, graduates, that all it takes to seduce them into entering the gilded cage is some expensive dinners and promises of a huge salary and visions of success- or rather, what society deems successful.
The long hours, the hostile superiors pushing you to do the grunt work so they can grab their bonus, or the ‘prize’ of partnership, the pressure to smile when all you want to do is scream, the conservative dress code, the false smiles and camaraderie, the perpetual repression and the sinking feeling that as you are immersed deeper into the culture of the firm, you are losing your creativity, your joie de vivre, until all you are, all that you are valued for, Is your utility as an economic unit.
Yet the money isn’t great. In fact, it is rubbish. If you work sixteen hours or more,daily, all week, and you work out the hourly rate, then on a graduate salary of £35,000 then you are being financially ripped off- big time. It’s a wonder that these eager young lawyers don’t work this out.
Over the past few years there have been a spate of lawyer suicides. In 2007, Mathew Courtney at Freshfields Bruchhaus Deringer, one of the elite ‘Magic Circle’ firms, threw himself off the Tate in London. That’s what depression does to you. Whatever your views on suicide, depression can make someone desperate. The late nights, the deadlines, the status and importance that lawyers place upon themselves and their profession, the years spent training. When work comes first, having a life doesn’t get a look in. Your soul is corrupted, and then you lose yourself.
It is depressing. And depression among lawyers is rife. We burn out. It isn’t sustainable; but the firms aren’t listening. They don’t care about the sacrifices, the corruption of the soul. My mental strength was tough, but the stress came out in my body, and it nearly killed me. One friend escaped to South America to become a yoga teacher. Another close friend is retraining as a psychotherapist.
It takes a huge amount of strength to look at your life, to examine society and who you are and everything that has made you who you are, and extreme experiences push you to do that. Mine was near death and two years in hospital. But it was precipitated by my gruelling experiences of life in a corporate law firm.
It is well documented that lawyers are notoriously depressed and that suicide is rife. In his seminal work ‘On Mourning and Melancholia’, Freud explained that depression was caused by the individual suffering from guilt, who subsequently experiences anger from this guilt and then turns it inwards, directing the anger he feels at himself, while Seligman, in his 1974 work ‘Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death’, promoted his theory of ‘learned helplessness,’ describing depression as a learned behaviour in which people who find themselves unable to exercise control over their own lives begin to consider such helplessness as their own fault, subsequently finding themselves unable to control their lives even in situations when it would be possible to do so. In a law firm, only the partners are in control.
Depression and anxiety are linked. Sufferers of anxiety feel constantly threatened by people and circumstances, living lives of chronic worry, insecurity and vulnerability. Whilst depression is typically characterized by a sense of complete apathy, of dissatisfaction, pessimism, guilt and worthlessness, anxiety and depression are two sides of the same coin. Lawyers daily experience high levels of stress which attacks them from various angles, from their colleagues, from their superiors, from their clients, and from the work itself. And stress is the fight-or-flight reaction to some perceived threat…feeling anxious or depressed in the face of perceived danger stems from your concluding that you can’t successfully defeat your adversary – real, or imagined.
Then there is the stigma of suffering from mental health problems- even though the very nature of the work and the repressive surroundings makes such suffering likely. So young lawyer who find themselves struggling with the condition must admit they are suffering and search for treatment in a competitive environment where to admit to struggling with mental health problems might be to risk losing professional trust and respect. Unbelievably, in America, bar associations may legally question applicants about their mental health histories, and ban them on the grounds of mental health problems.
Some of the highest achieving law students go into City law, and numerous psychological studies have shown that the tendency to anxiety and depression amongst students is most pronounced in those students who are high achieving, and who consequently place themselves under the greatest pressure, and experience the greatest stress. Lawyers are more prone to suffering from depression than members of any other profession, experience feelings of inadequacy and inferiority in their personal relationships, as well as anxiety or social alienation.
Lawyers have a distinctive personality type. I know; I was one of them. Some of my best friends are lawyers. We are high achieving, competitive, dominant, less cooperative than others, and apparently, less interested than others in emotions. (I’m not sure that’s true for us all). But- there is, without doubt, amongst lawyers a strong tendency towards perfectionism, not only in their work in the sphere of law, but in every area of life. And a tendency to perfectionism is very likely to lead to someone becoming inflexible. Such attributes may lead to alienation from other people and consequently isolation, itself a cause of depression. This alienation may be exacerbated by the tendency of the lawyer to think, rather than to feel.
Interestingly, the psychologist Alfred Adler developed the theory that the early memories of individuals are responsible for their choices later in life, in contrast to Freud, who was a proponent of the unconscious and conscious dichotomy of the mind. Adler theorized that if an individual has suffered in his early years from what he terms ‘psychological exclusion’, his later choices in life will always be motivated primarily by his desire to subdue those early feelings of inferiority. It follows then that using Adler’s theory as an explanation; an individual is not choosing the law as a profession out of a conscious desire, but solely due to his unconscious desires to thwart the inner voices of his early youth which told him that he was inferior. When the individual graduates from law school and realizes the reality of the profession, this confrontation may be a trigger for depression.
Added on to all this, is the actual nature of the profession. A strong cause of depression is a lack of autonomy and social isolation. Lawyers do not have autonomy. They are answerable to their bosses, to their clients, and to their colleagues. They deal with time restraints, and suffer from working long hours. They may have conflicting loyalties. The practice of law is rarely as glamorous as it appears from outside. When the law firms put an ordinary, mentally and physically health individual with unresolved issues and inadequate defenses in a highly stressful, ultra-competitive, hostile, fluorescent light lit box, with little sleep and masses of intellectual work to do, the formula for a psychological crisis is established.
Then there are the bosses. It is interesting that instead of becoming angry with the senior lawyers who are exploiting them, lawyers revert to blaming themselves. At a law firm, a trainee, and indeed, an associate, is reduced to the level of a child. There is no right to speak your mind, to advocate for yourself, to stand up to authority. When the junior associate is giving you a roasting, demolishing your personality because you made a mistake on the contract you stayed in the office until five in the morning to finish, when he calls you incompetent, or lazy, you can’t ask him if he’s annoyed that his girlfriend realized his bank balance didn’t compensate for his erectile dysfunction, or that you understand he lost his personality long ago, but you’re not planning on taking the same route-although really, thanks all the same for the heads up. . Instead, you go helpless, and try to please. Any anger, if it is acknowledged to any degree, is tightly bottled. You can’t show it. And then you hate yourself. Freud might have a point here. His explanation of depression, as hostility turned inward is a convincing explanation for the increase of depression among lawyers.
This toxic combination of competition, rigidity, hostility, the stifling of creativity, the culture of homogeneity results in a horrible combination of stress which adversely affects everyone who experiences it, one way or another. To those entering the profession now, I’d say, get the training, and get out. It isn’t worth it. And to the law firms themselves, I wouldn’t even bother.