The dissatisfaction epidemic: Why are lawyers unhappy?

The dissatisfaction epidemic: Why are lawyers unhappy?

03 March 2012 By Lawyers Weekly

Low satisfaction levels and consequent mental health issues have long plagued the legal profession. But what leads to unhappiness in lawyers, and how can it be turned around? A roundtable of law…

Low satisfaction levels and consequent mental health issues have long plagued the legal profession. But what leads to unhappiness in lawyers, and how can it be turned around? A roundtable of law firm leaders recently debated the downsides of private practice, and their ultimate impact on practitioners. Angela Priestley reports

UNDER PRESSURE: Leading industry figures discussed what is contributing to job dissatisfaction in the legal profession at a recent roundtable event in Sydney
The high levels of job dissatisfaction afflicting legal practitioners can come as a surprise to those outside the profession.

Seemingly, lawyers are high achievers presented with a clear career path to follow at a young age. They have the privilege of participating in the administration of justice, are revered as trusted advisors and, at least in some facets of private practice, are particularly well paid.

But despite the numerous positives an outsider can attribute to a legal practitioner's career and lifestyle, the statistics regarding the mental health and satisfaction levels of those within the profession tell of a different reality.

"The statistics paint a very damning picture on what lawyers go through everyday ... Some say depression occurs because of the billable hour, the stress levels we go through, the increasing demands from clients and sometimes it's just personal issues"

Daniel Petrushnko, President, NSW Young Lawyers

According to a recent study by Beaton Consulting, 15 per cent of lawyers suffer moderate to severe symptoms of depression - a rate much higher than similar studies of architects, engineers and accountants. A now well-publicised 2008 report by the Sydney University Brain and Mind Research Institute reveals some even more alarming statistics, with the survey of more than 2000 lawyers finding that at least one third had suffered from some form of depression at one point in their careers.

There's something going on in the legal profession that's not only contributing to dissatisfaction within its ranks - as evidenced by the high rate of lawyers who drop out of private practice in their junior years - but also to the happiness levels of its individuals.

Outdated work culture

Late last year, then Australian of the Year Professor Patrick McGorry contributed to the debate regarding lawyer unhappiness at the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation 2010 Annual Lecture. He put the problem down to the fact that law firms are akin to "19th century work environments" due to their lack of "autonomy, mastery and purpose".

A lack of autonomy was a point recognised by the law firm leaders present on a roundtable last week, organised by legal publisher (and also the publisher of Lawyers Weekly) LexisNexis, who sought to debate just what leads to dissatisfaction amongst private practice lawyers.

"The high level of turnover within the first three years is resulting in firms saying 'well the likelihood of us retaining a big chunk of his group is pretty minimal, why would we invest heavily in their retention?' But then the failure of not investing is contributing to that high level of turnover."

Joydeep Hor, Managing Partner, People & Culture Strategies

According to Daniel Petrushnko, president of NSW Young Lawyers, many young lawyers feel that they cannot access a sense of mastery over what they do because they don't "own" their work. "They don't have an ownership of the actual file they're working on," he said, speaking in relation to preliminary results he's seen regarding an extensive research project into the causes of depression in law to be released later this year.

Ian Robertson, the managing partner of Holding Redlich, said that if law students were to believe the usual marketing materials from large law firms regarding graduate opportunities, they would never consider that a lack of "ownership" over their work could ever be an issue, given the pro bono work they'll get to undertake, the work/life balance they'll enjoy and the glamorous office environment they'll be a part of. "All that reads a lot better than saying .... 'if you really want to succeed here, you'll be given a budget and if you understand the culture you'll actually do double that. And if you do that you'll be going up the ladder and one day you too can have sweeping harbour views and the other wonderful things that go with it including marital breakdowns and mid-life crises'," he said.

It was a point backed by Joanne Rees, CEO of Allygroup, who bluntly stated to the table: "If your firm is such where you actually want to make profits, you actually have to be honest with people."

The life of a lawyer

That honesty may mean better educating law students to understand that life as a young lawyer can be difficult and that career progression takes hard work and persistence

Nick Abrahams, a partner with Norton Rose, told the roundtable that young lawyers must understand that a career in private practice involves a high degree of pessimism.

"It's a professional pessimism that we're taught to do and rewarded for doing it," he said, suggesting that teaching lawyers to be more optimistic about factors away from their day-to-day tasks could help.

"I don't think it's the 'school of hard knocks' anymore [for young lawyers in law firms]. I think law firms are doing a good job of nurturing lawyers and we're doing our damnedest to ensure they are having a good experience."

Sharon Cook, managing partner, Henry Davis York

Petrushnko agreed: "Our lives can be consumed with solving the problems of others, and we have no time to solve the problems of ourselves," he said.

And for Howard Harrison, the managing partner of Carroll O'Dea, a hard truth about life as a lawyer is that it has - especially in private practice - become somewhat "dehumanised" in recent years, predominently because of the profession's commercialisation.

"It's 'information overload', it's emails, it's the 'that's your budget, there's your business development plan, just get on and do it'," he said. "[There's also] the lack of effective human contact and adequate support and mentoring for young lawyers."

"There is a real opportunity at the education stage to help set realistic expectations on what legal practice is really like. Being able to set those expectations realistically for people at a younger age, before they get in there and realise it's not quite what they were expecting, may help in terms of either making people reassess whether they want to go into law, or at least not really surprising them and perhaps leading into issues of frustration which may channel into depression."

Katrina Johnson, director of legal affairs, eBay Australia and New Zealand

Unrealistic expectations

A sense of offering a realistic reality of life in law was a point raised by Katrina Johnson, director of legal affairs at eBay, also present on the roundtable. "There is a real opportunity at the education stage to help set realistic expectations on what legal practice is really like so people don't come in bright eyed, bushy tailed, expecting to get this instant career progression - especially when it comes to gen Ys who are used to that instant gratification," she said.

But Petrushnko added that law students are starting to catch on to the difficulties they'll face in private practice - a realisation, he believes, that is resulting in more recent law graduates heading straight to the bar and bypassing private practice altogether.

"It's almost as if coming to the bar in the last couple of years has become the flavour of the month. There are more people in the bar practice course," he said. "Some of them say it's because of the GFC, but the majority of answers I receive is that 'we want satisfaction, we want ownership of the file that we're working on' and the satisfaction you can get as a barrister, they say, is almost instant. Sometimes, at a firm, you don't get it."

"People feel almost that they become a commodity when they enter the firms ... I think people need to be individuals, they need to feel that they can be creative, that they can express their own individuality that they're free to be themselves. I think one of the major problems in many firms is that they just don't feel they can be."

Joanne Rees, chief executive, Allygroup

Allygroup's Rees, meanwhile, said it's the "common criteria" that legal employers apply to their lawyers that could contribute to lawyer dissatisfaction later on. "So many people who are different and want to be creative find themselves as outcasts in firms. They just don't fit the mold," she said.

School of hard knocks

Also contributing to professional dissatisfaction and unhappiness amongst lawyers, according to some roundtable participants, is an epidemic of bullying in law firms.

But bullying, like in other professions, is nothing new for the legal sector. Indeed, a number of law firm managing partners on the table acknowledged going through the "school of hard knocks" themselves in the early stages of their careers.

"There's a high prevalence of people in the legal profession who are anxious and under-confident. I think a lot of the bullying comes out of people being highly insecure. One of the things observable across many partners I had when I was at one of the big law firms was that, although they were competent practitioners and leaders of the profession, there was an immense anxiety. 'This young gun coming up below me is going to overtake me and remove my whole reason for being'.

Jamie Prell, director and head of corporate, Advent Lawyers

Joydeep Hor, the managing partner of People & Culture Strategies believes there's a cycle of bullying cycle present in some law firm. "While this is a generalisation, there's a strongly prevalent view that it's got to be a 'school of hard knocks' and you become good by being traumatised in some ways in your formative years," he said. "The validation of that view is that the person expressing that view has themselves been traumatised, but they got through it and they're now successful."

Damaged goods?

The law firm environment cannot be solely to blame for lawyer dissatisfaction and its consequent impact on a lawyer's mental health.

As one managing partner noted, law graduates are arriving in law firms as "damaged goods".

That's because high levels of depression run rife in law schools. As the Brain and Mind research institute found in 2008, 35 per cent of law students report high or very high level of distress, compared to just 13 per cent of the general university population.

"It's a professional pessimism that we're taught to do and rewarded for doing it. Well, in terms of depression and the fighting off of depression, optimism is a critical aspect. You can learn optimism and so trying to teach the younger lawyers this concept of optimism not in a professional sense, but outside of the professional things they're doing day to day."

Nick Abrahams, managing partner, Norton Rose

Henry Davis York managing partner Sharon Cook believes law firms are much more nurturing environments than they were ten years ago, and that law schools must take some responsibility for the damaged state in which their students graduate. "The massively competitive environment that young people go through does not prepare them for life in law," she said. "They have been beaten around for five years. There are some universities - like the University of Wollongong - that that are introducing core elements of [teaching] 'resilience', but other universities do nothing and simply pit highly intelligent people against each other in a massively competitive environment."

At the law school and the junior lawyer level, Cook added that some senior legal practitioners and mentors could step in and urge younger lawyers and law students they believe might be at risk to question if law is the right career path for them to pursue, and to be honest about what being a lawyer in private practice actually entails.

"It's saying to people in their first and second year 'is this really the career you want for yourself?' I think a lot of people self-select out and I think that's what we need to be doing."

"I do think the dehumanisation of law, the information overload, emails, the 'that's your budget, there's your business development plan, just get on and do it', the lack of effective human contact and adequate support and mentoring for young lawyers is a part of what's happening with the commercialisation of law and the transformation of legal practice ... I think that's a part of the problem."

Howard Harrison, managing partner, Carroll O'Dea

It was a notion backed by other roundtable participants, who said that the type of individuals who chose to pursue a career in law must also be considered in addressing why so many lawyers fall victim to professional dissatisfaction later on.

There's often an underlying anxiety attached to lawyers, no matter how experienced, according to Jamie Prell, director and head of corporate at Advent lawyers. He put it down to the fact that too often, those who pursue a legal career forget the fact that the law is grounded in highly logical thought. "I think a lot of people look at law as a social science and an opportunity to be creative, using the right brain rather than the left brain but in fact, it's highly logical and scientific," he said.

"Some firms, particularly the larger firms, are guilty of saying one thing and doing something entirely different."

Ian Robertson, managing partner, Holding Redlich

While the personality make-up of individuals who chose a life in private practice could be at least partially to blame, like other factors raised by the roundtable, no single roundtable participant could pinpoint why private practice legal practitioners experience such high levels of professional dissatisfaction that can ultimately culminate in mental health issues.

But all seemed to agree that law schools, law firms and individual lawyers themselves must do more to address the problem.

For help with depression, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36 or at

The dissatisfaction epidemic: Why are lawyers unhappy?
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