Mental Health In The Legal Profession: Why It’s Time To Cease And Desist

Mental Health In The Legal Profession: Why It’s Time To Cease And Desist

This past weekend, in preparation for an upcoming move, I found myself digging deep into cleaning out old boxes of letters and cards. Among old birthday cards and handwritten letters, I also came across a printout email chain of correspondence between a supervising partner and myself from 2007 when I worked in Biglaw. I chuckled as I read the lines, “I should not have to remind you of your job obligations. I have no confidence you are doing as you are told.” I held onto those emails for a reason: I wanted to be able to reflect on them a decade later and remember just how far I had come.

I could still remember the feeling of sheer terror when I first received his emails back in 2007. The sad part is that I received daily berating emails from him. He would print his motions out to the main printer in the hallway and send me an email telling me to retrieve them for him like I was his gofer. And, if by chance, I didn’t make it to the printer to grab my draft motion before another male associate grabbed it, I would receive a lecture on how I needed to proofread my drafts before they hit the main printer so I didn’t embarrass him or the department with errors in my draft motion (which was three rounds shy of proofreading). I was the only female associate in the department. I had no one to commiserate with, and on my worst days, I would lock myself in the bathroom stall and let tears pour out until I could venture back to my closet-sized office and continue being his gofer. On paper, I was working for a prestigious law firm, building my resume, and I was earning a lot more money than some of my law school classmates. What other alternative did I have?

According to the ABA Journal, a recent study reported that depression symptoms, anxiety, and stress are higher in women attorneys since the pandemic, and 1 in 4 women have considered leaving the profession due to mental health concerns. A new ABA report openly discussed the problems that women lawyers face, which span from disparity in power, disparity in promotions and pay, discrimination, and lack of opportunity.

I have never forgotten what it was like to work for this partner, or subsequent others who followed closely in his footsteps. Like the women in the ABA report, I too have faced harassment, discrimination, and pay disparity. Many of those examples led me to not only want to leave law but seek help for anxiety that developed from being in such abusive environments. Wrapped up in my insane work ethic was a relentless perfectionist who worried about disappointing others and herself. On one hand, it propelled me to be a high-achiever and high-performer in my business, so I didn’t have to go back to working for a nightmare Biglaw partner. On the other hand, the stress during the higher-than-normal flows of work felt like an endless bout of worry that consumed me internally with how much I need to do.

When I got COVID-19 in mid-March, it was a giant wake-up call for my physical and mental health. I began to create more boundaries and truly acknowledge that I am only one person and that I can tackle only so much in a day. I realized that without my health or quality sleep, I cannot thrive in my work or personal life. I am now transparent if I need an extension or need to push something out on my calendar because I have too much on my plate that day, week, or month. As lawyers, we are trained to say “yes” to the partner, to the CEO, to our client, and to everyone else who we feel “owns” us. But, at what expense or detriment to us?

We need to reduce the mental health stigma as a profession and an industry. We need to stop treating young associates like they are gofers and stop making them fearful they are irreplaceable at any moment. We need to start valuing paid time off and safeguarding our weekends so our batteries can be recharged for better productivity. We need to respect the “out of office” message or the notice of unavailability. After all, we are human beings first.

Wendi Weiner is an attorney, career expert, and founder of The Writing Guru, an award-winning executive resume writing services company. Wendi creates powerful career and personal brands for attorneys, executives, and C-suite/Board leaders for their job search and digital footprint. She also writes for major publications about alternative careers for lawyers, personal branding, LinkedIn storytelling, career strategy, and the job search process. You can reach her by email at wendi@writingguru.net, connect with her on LinkedIn, and follow her on Twitter @thewritingguru.