JLU: Junior Lawyers' Union

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

Friday, April 27, 2007

This is WHY law firms need to do something about depression - Part II

Another story from an ex-practitioner which speaks for itself...

Hi, I am so glad I found your blog. I now know I am not the only one who has been chewed up & spat out by a law firm.

I spent two years in legal practice, after being 'head hunted' from my previous job. The first 18 months or so were fine - I exceeded my budget, enjoyed the work, and got along well with everyone.

One of the partners told my husband I was the best graduate they had recruited in years.

Then, it all started to go wrong. I suffered a sporting injury and had to have some time off work. This was right at the start of the financial year, so I started behind the eight-ball.

At first, the partners seemed understanding. After a while, however, it became clear that I was expected to make up the billable hours I had missed. I worked my backside off, and started to catch up. Then my supervising partner began to have some personal problems, and she took out her anger on everyone who worked for her. I became increasingly stressed and felt like I couldn't do anything right. I became very depressed and began to lose interest in my work. My billable hours dropped even further. I confided in another partner. He seemed to be sympathetic, and told me 'everyone knows' Partner X is a bully. He said if he had his way, he would sack her. Behind my back, however, he told a Workcover investigator that he didn't want anyone who was depressed working at his firm, and that everyone likes Partner X, and that I must have misunderstood him.

Eventually, I was 'counselled' a couple of times about my steadily decreasing billable hours. The managing partner told me he didn't think the targets were that hard to meet, and that they had made a lot of allowances for me. I started to envy people with 'simple' jobs like the checkout operators at the supermarket. A few weeks later, I made a mistake while nearly at breaking point, and they had the excuse they needed to sack me.

12 months later, and I am still on 3 different anti-depressants. I see a psychiatrist regularly and I have survived a suicide attempt. I still think about killing myself almost daily. I feel like a complete failure. On the bright side, however, I stood up for myself and put in a Workcover claim, which has recently settled in my favour. I have recently obtained another job which I really enjoy. The pay is crap, but there are no billable units, and I can go home at 4:30 every afternoon.

I just thought I would share this with you in case you needed another reminder of how widespread this problem is. I was only working in a mid-tier firm in a smaller city, so I can't imagine what it would be like to work in
a large Sydney firm.

Keep up the good work! That was a great idea to send the depression information kits to law firms. I can only hope that some of the information sinks in, and that others don't have to go through what I did.


Blogger Peter said...

Another heartbreaking story. Thank you to the JLU for pushing this, and to the ex-practitioner who had the courage to tell their story. I hope it gets better for you. I dare say that now you have left the law, it will. Life's too short to give it to a law firm, I'm sure you'll agree.

27 April, 2007 10:55  
Blogger Legal Eagle said...

Ex-practitioner, you should not feel down on yourself. You are not the one with a problem. It is these firms which have a problem.

I hope that things get better and that you continue to enjoy your new job.

27 April, 2007 15:00  
Anonymous Free At Last said...

A big thank you to Helen and today's contributor for sharing their stories. Helen, you have taken such a great step in setting up Blue Letter Lawyers – it shows the kind of gusty determination that these firms should really value.

There is an overwhelming pressure within many firms not to admit any sort of doubt about one's career choice. If one does, one is invariably, and perversely, labelled as ‘unstable’ or ‘incompetent’. It is a cruel and irrational response by people who probably don’t have enough emotional intelligence to even consider trying to walk in another person’s shoes.

During my ‘performance management’ for being depressed, I was told that whilst my father’s very recent diagnosis of advanced cancer was unfortunate and stressful, it was best if those sorts of issues were left at home. What the hell is that about? I mean, seriously, who says that?

And, of course, their response to the situation always ignores the root cause of the problems – in my case it was a combination of bullying, being told that my involvement in pro bono work wasn’t valued by the firm and being forced to settle into a practice group that I had expressly told them I had no interest in.

The law is a powerful agent for changing peoples’ lives for the better, in the right hands. It’s such a shame that many of the people who rise to the top of the firms that have the greatest capacity to use the law in that way don’t have any interest in anyone else’s lives, least of all their employees’.

Thank god that there are lawyers out there willing to be paid a pittance to work for community legal centres, legal aid, government departments and suburban/rural practices in order to try and really change peoples’ lives for the better.

Hang in there kids, and never forget that there’s so much more to life… you didn’t do this to yourself, they did it to you!

27 April, 2007 20:46  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear ex-practitioner,

Your story was very heart rendering and I feel with you.

I am currently a law student and I am doing very well in my law degree.

Last year I worked as a legal secretary part-time for a tiny suburban conveyancing firm (consisting of two solicitors, one of whom had not renewed his practicing licence and an unlicenced conveyancer). During my employment, I was bullied by one of the solicitors I did dicta-typing for: I had doors slammed in my face, had to put up with sarcastic comments and swearing,was told how "dumb" I was and how he was perplexed as to how I ever made it "into law school" because I couldn't understand all of his slurred and mumbled tape recordings (I finally told him he was inarticulate and needless to say he could dish out criticsm but didn't take it very well). On top of all that, I was paid late on numerous occasions. When I complained to the other solicitor he was so unsympathethic and told me he could not apologise on his behalf because he had warned me when I first started that the other solicitor was very difficult to work with and I wasn't the first secretary he made cry. The secretary before me quit after three days, however, I stayed at that firm for 7 long months because I "needed the money" and I am a poor uni student etc..you know how it goes.

Anyway, about 4 months into the job, the conveyancer brought her unemployed boyfriend to the firm and this loser, who needed to rely on his girl friend to find him a job, slowly took over my tasks/duties until I was literally left with nothing to do but filling for 20 hours a week for three months. When I had organised all the filling that could be done, the firm and I mutually called it a day.

When I left it took me one month to chase all my superannuation and other holiday entitlements(I had to calculate these myself and I still don't trully know if I was even paid the right amount - it was a very dodgy law firm if you haven't worked it out by now).

This all happened when I was doing my exams, had no money and found out that my dad had a tumour in his bladder (he is fully recovered now btw). I am glad to report that that semester I strangely managed to get the highest grades I ever received at law school when all of this that was going on. I am still surprised how my grades had not suffered because self-esteem did suffer quite a blow whilest I was working there.

Looking back, there are a few positive things that I can take out of this experience. My view is that if I ever work in a place like that again, I would just pick up my bag and leave - I now know that an empoyer (be it law firm or any employer for that matter) should not be able to hold you HOSTAGE like this - staying for the money is not worth the toll on you health.

And when I say I will never allow anyone to hold me hostage again, I really mean it - I would RATHER become homeless, write up a sign on a piece of card board - park outside the building of my ex place of employment - busk for money if I have to!!!(I have a somewhat absurd sense of humour and I do amuse myself with my imagination).

Admittedly, while I may not yet crazy enough (yet) to actually do that, my point is that my philosophy in life is to hold "no fear or favour" for anyone in life - even if it means I end up being homeless holding a card board sign up outside the place of my ex employers, if thats the worst that can happen I can live with it!

To all the young lawyers out there (and future lawyers), there is still hope....one day those white conservative old partners in law firms (who only got in to law school back in the old day because they were white, male and upper-class) will eventually retire and soon cough off the face of this planet (I don't mean to sound this harsh). These old school "boys club" lawyers will be replaced by a fresh generation of lawyers, who understand the importance of a work/life balance, are more tolerant and well-rounded than their predecessors.

Ex-practitioner, I am so happy you didn't kill yourself and I am happy you like your new job. If you do however ever want to return to the law, I think you should go for it, you still have youth on your side (something your boss does not have remember) and you still have a bright sparkling future ahead of you...

04 July, 2007 22:18  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing information............
conveyancing Sydney

24 October, 2011 21:47  

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