Thursday, July 31, 2003

Law: it’s bad for you
(a long polemic rant, approach with irony)

Want to risk depression, mental illness and alcoholism? Want to enter a profession where the highest-paid say, if they had their time over, they’d pick a different career? Want to make money but have not time to spend it? Patrick Schultz, an academic at Notre Dame Law School, has the answer: become a lawyer in a big firm.

It’s always nice to have an academic article backing your prejudices. Schultz’s “On Being a Happy, Healthy and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession” (1999) 52 Vanderbilt Law Review 871 neatly summarizes my reasons for leaving life (or un-death) at a commercial firm, even one with nice views of Sydney harbor.

Admittedly, the American situation Schultz studies is more extreme, and he’s a jaded ex-law-firm-partner, but broadly his ideas are sound. So, let me state my bitter, vitriol-filled position: big law firms are wrong and they warp you.

The major issue is time: lawyers sell their lives in 6-minute slices, putting their working day under enormous time-pressure. It’s a reactive profession: court and client deadlines are seldom realistic when working on several cases at once. Promotion is about how much you billed clients last year. Hours, unsurprisingly, are long. Thus, lawyers complain about (at 888-9):
" … pressure to attract and retain clients in a ferociously competitive marketplace. They complain about having to work in an adversarial environment "in which aggression, selfishness, hostility, suspiciousness, and cynicism are widespread." They complain about not having control over their lives and about being at the mercy of judges and clients. … Mostly, though, they complain about the hours."

The results? First off, lawyers are unusually depressed:
"In 1990 … only three occupations were discovered to have statistically significant elevations of MDD [major depressive disorder]: lawyers, pre-kindergarten … teachers, and secretaries. Lawyers topped the list, suffering from MDD at a rate 3.6 times higher than non-lawyers ... The researchers did not know whether lawyers were depressed because "persons at high risk for major depressive disorder" are attracted to the legal profession or because practicing law "causes or precipitates depression." "

Let me take a blind stab at answering that … but it’s not just practitioners:
"A study of law students … discovered that when students enter law school, they suffer from depression at approximately the same rate as the general population. However, by the spring of the first year of law school, 32% of law students suffer from depression, and by … third year … the figure escalates to an astonishing 40%. Two years after graduation, the rate of depression falls, but only to 17%, or roughly double the level of the general population."

Lawyers also suffer “elevated rates” of emotional problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, clinical anxiety, “social alienation and isolation … paranoid ideation, interpersonal sensitivity, phobic anxiety, and hostility”.

Firms seldom weed out problem personalities; indeed, they are sometimes promoted to partner.

The article then goes on to state the obvious:
"Lawyers appear to be prodigious drinkers. The North Carolina study reported that almost 17% of lawyers admitted to drinking three to five alcoholic beverages every day. One researcher conservatively estimated that 15% of lawyers are alcoholics."

Now, all this depicts people unhappy with, and because of, their job. Why don’t they leave? Are the addicted to the money, despite the fact that – really – you could work fewer hours, earn less but still be very comfortable, and regain quality of life?
" … lawyers don't think in these terms. They don't see their lives as crazy. … [indeed] very few lawyers are working extraordinarily long hours because they need the money. …

"Big firm lawyers are, on the whole, a remarkably insecure and competitive group of people. Many of them have spent almost their entire lives competing to win games that other people have set up for them. First they competed to get into a prestigious college. Then they competed for college grades. Then they competed for LSAT scores. Then they competed to get into a prestigious law school. Then they competed for law school grades. ... Then they competed for clerkships. Then they competed to get hired by a big law firm.

"Now that they're in a big law firm, what's going to happen? … [They're] competing to bill more hours, to attract more clients, to win more cases, to do more deals. They're playing a game. And money is how the score is kept in that game … These lawyers have spent their entire lives … measuring their worth by how well they do in the[se] competitions. ... Money is [now] what tells them if they're more successful than the [next] lawyer ... If a lawyer's life is dominated by the game - and if his success in the game is measured by money - then his life is dominated by money. For many, many lawyers, it's that simple."

I have to say, this rings frighteningly true. Lawyers are very position-conscious creatures, and can be quite intimidated by those of higher status. I’ve been asked at a drinks function (by someone who found out I worked for a more prestigious organization), “Oh, so are you still going to talk to me?”

But have I really escaped the game now? True, I’ve dropped out of the “money” game, but I wonder if I’ve now chosen to enter the “further degrees and published articles” game.

Schultz also poses a troubling question: if you have no life outside work, how can you possibly live an ethical life, being so out of touch with social institutions? Law is a closed shop, and following the letter of professional disciplinary codes is not enough: I’ve heard it said jokingly “you only get struck off for stealing the client’s money”. While every aspect of the profession continues to be driven by a culture of time-scarce competition over money, there is little chance of its image, let alone the lives of its practitioners, improving.

Other rants on this theme: God no, they mustn't breed!

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