JLU: Junior Lawyers' Union

Asserting the rights of junior lawyers, who have much more power than they realise.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

This is WHY law firms need to do something about depression...

We were worried that visitors to this website might not notice this post from an anonymous contributor named Free at Last so we have included it in its own post:

"When I finally walked out the door of the top tier firm that I worked for, I had no job to go. It was a leap into the great unknown - terrifying but ultimately liberating.

And, I don't regret it one bit. When I made the decision to leave the firm, I was taking 100mg of Zoloft a day and spent much of my office time wondering whether my desk chair was heavy enough to smash the window of my 18th floor office.

Prior to my departure, I disclosed my depression to the firm, thinking that since things had spiralled so far, perhaps, somewhere, there might be someone with a glimmer of humanity lurking around the firm who could help me out.

Instead, the firm demanded a medical certificate to confirm my depression. Once that was produced, two of the partners sat me down and advised me that I was being formally 'performance managed'. They told me that they expected me to get in earlier and leave later, be more 'enthusiastic' about the work I was being given and to increase my output. They then demanded that I say the words 'I want to be a commercial lawyer'. I kid you not.

Needless to say, a couple of days I tendered my resignation. The sad thing is that one of them seemed genuinely surprised by my decision.

Keep up your good work. I hope that even if it doesn't change the attitudes attitudes of those leading these firms, it will help more young lawyers out there to realise that they don't have to live their lives according to an ultimately corrupted and destructive moral code."


Blogger Legal Eagle said...

What an appalling story. Unfortunately, it doesn't surprise me in the least. Firms have no idea how to deal with these questions, and even those who are "sympathetic" are often more harm than help.

I am glad that you managed to get out.

Kind regards, LE

21 April, 2007 12:42  
Anonymous Free At Last said...

I'm doing very well thanks! However, I should qualify my comments a little.

Moral codes are, in many respects, personal each of us. Many law firm partners probably believe that treating junior staff as 'business tools' (whose sole purpose is to be exploited in order to maximise returns for the partnership) is natural in the order of things, and quite proper.

And, to be fair, those attitudes are somewhat a natural outcome of the partnership structure - partners have an immediate and direct financial interest in ensuring that their juniors work their guts out. The more that their juniors bill, the more each partner can reasonably expect to draw down that year.

The most important thing that I learnt in commercial law had nothing to do with the law. It was simply that one should never, ever, underestimate the importance of working for an organisation, and with people, whose values align with your own.

So, whilst I wish the partners that I worked for no harm (hell, I even liked one of them), I am quite sure that spending any more time in that environment would be a pointless waste of my emotional energy and professional skills.

If any of you young commercial lawyers are feeling like you are a stranger in a strange land each time you step foot in the office, think twice before you apply for jobs in other firms. It is quite possible that you're experiencing a misalignment of values, rather than a workplace culture clash.

At the end of the day, the values of those firms are homogenous. And, if you don't share their values, little satisfaction will come your way if you just join the commercial lawyer roundabout.

There are many satisfying and important alternative law careers awaiting you - if you are willing to take the leap.

21 April, 2007 20:18  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Free at last, that is an awful story. But what it highlights to me more than anything is the fact that many of the large law firms are killing the law for young lawyers. I have been lucky enough to have had great mentors (always in smaller firms) and through my LIV invlovement have been surrounded by committed, passionate and caring lawyers. As such, my passion for the law and what it stands for has not been beaten out of me. Why young lawyers see large firms as the ONLY job/career option is beyond me. Here's hoping your story will help those applying for articles or their next job consider the smaller firm. the suburban firm or the country firm before they consider one of the Big Six.

And here's hoping the JLU can show yound lawyers that there there is more to being a lawyer than timesheets and partnership aspirations. It can be a fulfilling career if you are willing to reassess what you consider to be a "good" job in a "good" firm!!

23 April, 2007 10:03  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Instead, the firm demanded a medical certificate to confirm my depression. "


It's these people who give lawyers a bad name.

26 April, 2007 17:01  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I said in my previous post, these old school type lawyers will soon cough off the face of this earth or retire and that can only be a good thing. Eventually, a new generation of different thinking lawyers will take over, hopefully for the better.

04 July, 2007 23:35  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that the culture and structure of law firms and the old guard of lawyers who prop it up are an inpenetrable barrier to lawyers achieving work life balance - and, I would venture, to gaining meaningful work. But as the old guard retire, the structure ensures the culture remains the same. The worst feature of this system is time based billing which encourages overwork and workplace inflexibility. Legislative protections (eg re OH&S, equal opportunity and maxium ordinary hours of work) are little used and have had little impact because lawyers - especially young lawyers - are afraid to speak up. Young laywers can't vote with their feet because, as it was stated above, the culture of private law firms is essentially homogenous so there is nowhere to run - no alternative but to get out of the sector. The flood of lawyers from the sector into the 'buffer zone' positions of in house counsel and public sector work actually only serves to prop up the system. Because conditions are better, demand is high and experienced ex-commercial lawyer defectors get first pickings so an aspiring buffer zone lawyer is forced to take the commercial route first. Works well for the firms. It seems to me that the situation won't change until employee lawyers, including young lawyers, effectively organise. Although difficult to get up, what is needed is an effective lawyers union. This blog is called the Junior Lawyers Union but why not start a real one? If one was formed, employee lawyers would have more bargaining power, informational resources and could speak out anonymously or at least with the support and power base of the union. If one was formed would you join? I would.

01 July, 2008 15:48  
Blogger Shop Steward said...

This blog was originally set up on the half-joking premise of "Imagine if we actually did have a union..."

Of course, it'll never happen. The constituency is inherently way too conservative and junior lawyers' ability to opt out - to take it or leave it - much less effort.

While I despised the "take it or leave it" argument, I'm no martyr. So I left it.

01 July, 2008 22:45  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I so admire you Shop Steward for doing what you have done. I can understand your reluctance to take it to the next level. The point of a union would be that lawyers wouldn't have to martyr themselves to effect change. The union could agitate on members' behalf and members would enjoy freedom of association protections. At the very least, we lawyers could petition the ASU for a separate lawyers division and try and get up a better award. It's worth debating. I'm not sure the difficulties are insurmountable. Do you think it is worth posting as an issue for debate on your main page?

02 July, 2008 16:11  
Blogger Lee said...

I feel for you and have just got myself out of a similar situation myself... you should feel proud of yourself that you took control of the situation by actually deciding to leave. The problem is that this issue is too common... I recently attended a conference on the myths and realities of the legal profession where a person actually said that they did not believe that a law firm should not have to retain or support a depressed employee - this was a person in the audience, presumably a young practitioner. This to me sums up the whole thing - firms are denying that they are a major contributing factor to people suffering mental illness in the profession... they demand so much and yet will push people into a corner when they understandably break under the intense strain. I am glad that I found this blog, I think this is a start in getting the situation changed... I wish you all the best and hope that the legal profession has not lost you because we need more people like you - people with the strength to stand up for themselves.

29 September, 2008 21:33  

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