A law firm graduate at one of Australia’s biggest firms reveals the stresses and strains faced by
young lawyers today.
Before I started work as a law graduate in a large corporate firm, I was aware that life in corporate law would not be easy.
I had been warned of the hours, the nature of the work, the lack of work-life balance and the stress.
My sister, also a corporate lawyer, had told me: “If you don’t like working as a summer clerk, you definitely won’t enjoy life as a grad.” But I thought I would be crazy to turn a
graduate position down.
Life as a young lawyer in a corporate law firm is not entirely awful. There are definitely advantages and I have enjoyed aspects of it, however, I feel it is important to inform future graduates about the reality of corporate law, and to remind them that the corporate path is definitely not the only option available.
Time to change
The type of hours a young lawyer works is highly dependent on their practice group and also the workload at that particular time of year.
For example, I had friends in M&A who at times would be out the door at 5pm, whereas others in litigation would be working until 2am (completing tasks such as photocopying and assembling briefs to counsel), rejoicing when they managed to have a weekend out of the office, something they had not experienced in weeks.
One of the biggest problems within some firms is the notion of “face time”. A friend of mine working in another corporate law firm spoke of a partner in her team who would not let her leave until 8pm each night, despite her having no work to do on many of those occasions. Another friend, who had been back until 11pm for a number of nights, asked to leave earlier one day as his girlfriend was severely ill in hospital: he was not allowed to do so. If firms are so insistent on instigating work-life balance, something needs to change.
At a seminar I attended last year on anxiety and depression in the legal profession, hosted by the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, I spoke to a retired judge about the issue of unreasonable hours in corporate firms. He explained that, 40 years ago, it would be rare for lawyers, senior associates or partners to be in the office past 6pm.
He believed that the cultural change was a result of technology.
While smartphones and remote-access devices may be seen as a step towards work-life balance by allowing people to work from home, in reality they only create more anxiety, due to the expectation that lawyers will be contactable 24/7.
Thus, lawyers will constantly be checking their buzzing devices as they attempt to enjoy dinner with their spouses, family or friends, stressing over the fact that they must reply to that barrister, partner or client as soon as possible.
After working in a corporate law firm for only a couple of months, I began to develop extreme feelings of anxiety: coming home each night in tears, facing panic attacks at work and absolutely dreading the approach of Monday morning.
As a result, I went to my local GP who referred me to a psychologist. Amongst other helpful advice, the psychologist pointed out that the world is not going to end if a reply to that email is not sent until the next morning. This is one of the key problems in the culture of some law firms: everything needs to have been completed five minutes ago.
Perhaps if technology was not relied on to such a large degree, lawyers would leave their computers at a reasonable hour and go home, without constantly checking their emails for the rest of the evening.
I have to admit, I have been lucky enough to work reasonable hours on the whole. I have also been lucky enough to work with a number of genuinely lovely, humble and extremely intelligent partners, senior associates and lawyers, who do everything they can to minimise the long hours and stress placed upon young lawyers. However, there still exists a culture and expectation that lawyers must work as hard as possible to bring in as much business from clients as possible, particularly in the current economic climate.
Another contributing factor to this culture is the competitiveness amongst lawyers. Many corporate lawyers will have attended a competitive school, perhaps having been raised in a competitive home environment, before entering a competitive law school in the hope of working in a competitive, top-tier law firm.
No wonder anxiety and depression are so prevalent; lawyers are constantly competing with others, worrying whether they will understand the complex tasks given to them, whether they will have enough work to do to reach their billable targets (a particular concern post-GFC), or whether they will have too much work to do.
There is a particular problem concerning billable targets, as young lawyers are unable to ‘create’ billable work themselves; thus if there is a quiet period, it is impossible for them to reach their targets, causing further anxiety.
While there are programs to assist employees who are struggling with anxiety and depression, often they are just a band-aid solution to the real problem of firm culture. Perhaps if initiatives to minimise this competitive culture were instigated, anxiety and depression in the legal profession would also be minimised.
A trap I fell into, and one that I believe law students should consider carefully, is the lure of the summer clerkship, which often leads to a graduate program.
While it can be enjoyable to have the occasional free plate of sandwiches, your own glass office and a free dinner and taxi if you stay past a certain time, the flip side is that you are trapped inside in a training session for your lunch hour, you sit isolated away in your office (feeling ‘watched’ whenever someone walks past your glass door) and you are forced to stay back until all hours of the night. If after a few months you do not think that this is for you, you can leave, however it will cost you; most firms will make graduates who leave before a certain time (often around two to three years) pay back their Practical Legal Training fees, which today total approximately $8000.
There needs to be greater awareness in law schools of the range of career options available. Corporate law is not the only career for someone with a law degree; even a legal career may not be the right option.
Another common problem among lawyers is the ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality. While a lot of firms have a mentor/buddy system, it can be somewhat awkward opening up to someone you barely know about your struggles.
Although you can talk to your family and friends, it can be hard for them to understand if they haven’t experienced life in a law firm. It was not until I shared my struggles with a fellow graduate that she explained she felt the same way.
After discussions with friends at other firms, I began to understand just how prevalent this feeling was. Often when I catch up with such friends, the majority of our conversation centres on how we are not happy at work and questioning what we are going to do with our lives.
However, I should say that there have been positives to my experience in a large law firm. As mentioned earlier, I have developed relationships with some truly fantastic people with whom I hope to stay in touch. For those who do want to practise as lawyers, a law firm is a great place to develop a solid training ground. However, law students should keep in mind that around half of law graduates do not practise as lawyers.
If I can give any advice to future law graduates, I would suggest seriously considering whether you want to enter the corporate law world, or even practise law at all.
For some people, it is their passion and they love it, but the majority of friends I have spoken to are looking for a change. There are so many other options out there.
Also, you should avoid getting caught up in the competitive environment of law schools; continue to invest in the things you love and enjoy, whether they be religious beliefs, friendships or your relationship.
Importantly, if you do experience feelings of anxiety and depression, don’t bottle them up, as there is nothing worse than keeping these feelings to yourself and trying to plough on without help.
At the end of the day, your happiness and wellbeing are much more important than the figure in your bank account.