Tell me why? I don't like Tuesdays
Apparently it’s quite stressful being a lawyer. This does not come as too much of a surprise because it’s pretty stressful doing any sort of job, although it’s even more stressful not having a job at all. Nonetheless, it would seem that lawyers have particular issues when it comes to dealing with stress at work, which are perhaps peculiar to the legal profession.
I am constantly amazed at the number of lawyers I know. Not the ones I’ve met through work - that wouldn’t be amazing at all - but it seems an awful lot of the people I went to school or university with or who I met in other jobs are now lawyers. I can’t help wondering if there is enough legal work to go round.
More to the point, how is it that I know so many competitive type A personalities with sufficiently high regard for their own abilities that they became lawyers? This isn’t just another opportunity for me to have another rant about lawyers and their superior attitude to non-lawyers: it seems that having the sort of personality that makes you a good lawyer can also make you more prone stress at work.
It is not so much a myth that some jobs are more stressful than others; rather the myth perpetrated concerns which jobs are the most stressful. Being a hot shot city lawyer or a brain surgeon is no more stressful than being a bus driver or shop assistant if you love what you are doing. In fact, the more menial and low quality the work, the more likely you are to be stressed or depressed, proving that not all work is good for your health.
The problem for many lawyers is not that their jobs are inherently stressful, but that they are not psychologically equipped for dealing with the stress when it hits them. Occupational psychologists often argue that lawyers are relatively prone to depression because pessimists, people able to foresee problems, do better at law.
Lawyers are also problem solvers and see themselves as someone others come to for help making them prone to think they can sort themselves out without any help. That, as anyone who has suffered from depression knows, is a recipe for disaster, because it serves to internalise all your angst until it spirals out of control, often to spectacular effect.
I had to chuckle at this piece by David Pannick QC in the Times last week, in which he described the sorry case of barrister Alexander Mercouris who concocted an ever more elaborate scenario to explain to his client why her settlement money had not appeared. He was eventually struck off with the chairman of the tribunal describing it as a ‘sad case’ in which Mr Mercouris ‘went completely off the rails’. Doubtless it probably wasn’t quite so amusing for his client.
As Pannick goes on to say, it is probably surprising that there aren’t more lawyers who have a mental breakdown given that their success, or otherwise, is usually measured by winning cases that may be unwinnable. The hours many of them work in pursuit of working these miracles are criminal: when I worked in a law firm I often felt opprobrium from lawyers when I explained I only worked nine to five and could not, therefore, attend a meeting at 6.15 (pm or am) on a Wednesday.
According to a survey last year, ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning is the most stressful time of the working week with mounting pressures from the trivial to the significant causing one in three lawyers to cry. Nothing wrong with a good cry, but probably not ideal if you have set your sights on partnership in a competitive and high-pressured environment.
The problem is so acute that lawyers have their very own charity to help them cope. LawCare, set up to help struggling law professionals, has seen the number failing to cope rise notably in recent years, particularly since the economic downturn. Its chief executive says a key problem is lawyers lacking support when they are struggling to handle their workload, afraid to raise their voice in case they jump to the top of the redundancy list.
She adds ‘Some partners live in blissful ignorance of what is going on around them [but] as a partner you have to make sure you are available and set time aside if someone wants to talk to you’. I have to be honest, I can’t imagine anyone I’d have wanted to talk to less, but then I’m not a lawyer.
It was an interesting coincidence that immediately after coming across the Pannick article, I read about the Legal Services Board’s chairman David Edmonds telling lawyers to ‘get off their high horse about non lawyers’ impact on their ethics’. You would expect me to agree with him that it is ‘demeaning’ to suggest non lawyers are less capable of ethical behaviour in business than lawyers.
As he says ‘I wager the title solicitor isn’t a good predictor of whether someone will act honestly or ethically' and highlighted the sting of lawyer scandals to ensure people did not look 'backwards to traditional regulation through some sort of rose-tinted spectacles, dreaming of the time when professional ethics were consistently high and only jolly good chaps were able to practise law’
It strikes me this sense of superiority that still permeates the profession is the other side of the same coin that is causing more and more lawyers to suffer from stress and even, in the case of Mr Mercouris, driving them mad.
Bad news for the lawyers. But equally as disturbing is the impact this could have on unsuspecting clients. Because lawyers rarely let the professional mask slip, there really is no way of knowing if yours is about to crack up. All you can realistically do is make sure you don't arrange to see them on a Tuesday morning.