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The pressures faced by lawyers – some of them because you do a good job!

BY EVE DULLABH
Much has been written about the pressures and stresses of working in law. As many of those words of caution have appeared within advice articles about legal careers, you might be forgiven for thinking that every upwards step through the law firm hierarchy exacts some horrific self-punishment of the hair follicles. All law firm partners of all genders must be bald, yes? After all, haven’t they spent years getting where they are while tearing their hair out because of the intrinsically stressful natures of their jobs?
The reality is far more nuanced. Massive numbers of lawyers end their careers with full heads of hair, job satisfaction and have balanced building legal businesses while enjoying their personal and leisure lives. However, this isn’t to downplay how very demanding life can be for lawyers – or the burdens genuinely felt by many in the profession.

The “natural” stresses and strains of legal life

Law is a career not without its challenges and difficulties. But many of those exist because lawyers help clients through challenging and difficult times. Any job where you help others with their burdens is demanding. Not all hurdles in legal life are placed there by long hours or corporate culture.
Lawyers are often given work only after a problem for a client has occurred and, most likely, when needs things resolving quickly and with a level head (while others around may be losing theirs). Lawyers deal with clients who are fully exposed to the worst that life can offer: divorce, deportation, insolvency, housing disputes, being on the receiving end of crime. In commercial law, mistakes can have ramifications that wreck organisations and those within them. No one is surprised that medics, healthcare staff, members of the emergency services or social services experience stress. No one is surprised if those workers also derive great satisfaction from what they do. Lawyers can also derive satisfaction through bettering prospects for their clients. The difference, perhaps, is that lawyers are thanked less for what they do.

How legal markets create pressure

What is true is how competitive legal markets have become. There are more lawyers chasing work – and they’re under ever closer scrutiny. Concerns about volumes of work and chasing fees can be put in the shade by the constant rigour of charging by time, right down to billable minutes in most cases. Add in the long hours worked in some practice areas, high targets, response times being monitored, technology, meaning you’re always on call, student debt, and you have a mix that can weigh down formidably upon teams and individuals.

What can be done?

Many organisations now have policies and procedures that help lawyers manage the pressures of work. These range from offering relaxation, wellbeing and mindfulness programmes to scaling back on the numbers of communications read and sent out of hours. Some firms have outsourced tasks to remove them from lawyers’ to-do lists. There is more of an emphasis upon offering support and encouraging staff to share and listen to concerns.
The profession must do all it can to protect its members from excessive pressure. But law will always be a high stakes career option with the challenges and rewards that it entails. Whenever anyone asks, “Is law a career for me?”, we’d ask them to remember that fact.
The Law Training Centre has formed a partnership with LawCare, the charity dedicated to promoting mental wellbeing in the legal profession – for support and more information, click here.