Wednesday, February 21, 2007

 
I've been meaning to write about Matthew Courtney, the London associate at Freshfields who died a couple of weeks ago after falling from a stairwell at the Tate Modern museum (news articles here, here, and here). I've probably received more e-mail about this story than about anything for as long as I've been blogging here.

All the stories hint at a possible suicide, caused by the stress of his job, but none of the articles make that seem certain. Apparently he'd recently complained to his firm about his workload, and people at the museum saw him go into the stairwell to take a BlackBerry call. It seems like it's completely possible the whole thing was an accident, but it's causing a series of articles in the British papers concerning the workload of young associates.

And perhaps it's about time.

I've resisted blogging about this incident for the past couple of weeks -- and to some degree resisted blogging here at all -- because it's hard to write over-the-top satire when the reality is that the work might be causing people to leap off stairwells. A number of the e-mails I received pointed to the "minute of silence" observed by the firm after Courtney's death, and how it's predictable that they couldn't spare more than a minute.

The practice of law certainly isn't alone as far as jobs that eat up more hours of the day than desirable, and cause undue amounts of stress, but there seems to be something about the law firm culture -- the billing of hours, the nature of the work, the lack of connection to the client and the overall picture of the case -- that makes a blog like this resonate with people more than if I was writing about the long hours put in by neurosurgeons. Perhaps that's not really the case.

Regardless, if Courtney's death can spark a real discussion of working conditions at firms -- based in reality, and not just the satire written here -- at least it will have done some good.

Comments:
As an avid reader and one who has emailed you about this idea before, I think that your work here is that much more important BECAUSE of this incident. The choice of law does resonate deeper because of the nature of a task that not only backpedals itself, but has no real goal except a null. That is to say, if you hire a lawyer, the only reason you need one is to get your life back to the way it should have been to begin with, so a lawyer's job is to return the null from a negative. This is why it means so much, what you write. Because these people work so extremely hard at doing nothing. It's not meaningless, but it certainly seems, at the very least, like spending 90 hours a week shooting yourself in the foot and then stitching it up so you can do it again.
 
Well being a doctor is a "null" prospect too. Someone is sick and wants to return to health.

A lot of people are risk averse, so getting people back to normal might be the best and most valuable service some people can provide.
 
Having worked as a client and as a private practice lawyer (which I current still am), I think the problem is that there is no end in sight for the private practice lawyer.

Take, for instance, a big project development. The people working for the developer know that while they are working awfully hard to get the deal up, after completion they can look forward to a completely different job of running the new power plant etc. The legal advisors on the other hand know that there is another development which is pretty much the same coming right behind it.

Coupled with that, there isn't any real personal satisfaction. You're too far away from the deal and there tends to be little client contact (especially in absolute terms when compared to say a doctor).

And, of course, becoming partner is an extremely difficult mountain to climb... talent is not enough these days.

By my logic, the same reasoning would also apply to accountants, investment bankers etc . I think that is true to an extent, though some of these professions don't have the hideous demands of clients sitting on their shoulders to the same extent as corporate lawyers. And, at the risk of generalising, they have more control over their own work that we do.

Anyway, the Anonymous blog is important because at least it allows us to laugh at ourselves, see the truths of our work that are exposed by the satire and, most importantly, reassess if this is what we want to do.
 
As a prospective law student who is currently employed as an accountant, I couldn't disagree more with Tman. Of course, private practise lawyers may have bigger workloads than other professionals, but I don't believe that their work can possibly be any less satisfying than that of an accountant. At the risk of generalizing, public accountants, by and large, do the same monotonous work day in, day out involving nothing but numbers. The only real variable is the client's social security number. Attorneys, on the other hand, at the very least, have a myriad of diverse cases that can come before them. Of course, if one is pigeon-holed by the firm as one who is a jack-of-one-trade, I suppose he might only see one type of case/job.
 
Thank you Jeremy for this thoughtfful and serious post, in what has become the most spot on piece of satire for those of us in corporate law firms.

As for the substantive issue, my tuppence worth, is that the culture we have created in large firms in common law jurisdictions, is a product of the common law way of thinking - absurdly reductive and, as noted above, negative in its focus. (Maister has also written about this). This is compounded by outdated working practices and the fact that most partners of law firms have bneevr done anything else for a living, giving them a very limited experience set. Add the arrogance that can come from being elite and you get a vicious circle, in which every player hates what they are doing, but no-one knows who we got here or how to stop.

Satire, however, IS part of the answer, because humour (humor, sorry) unmasks the structures and gives us the space between chuckle and weary resignation that allows the glimpse of the hope of alternative was of being human lawyers.
 
Ahhh, lawaspiring. Its true that if you work at a relatively small firm you will end up with a varied practice. But if you want to play with the big boys in NY or London (with the benefits that go with it - big deals, international travel, salary)it really is all about corporate and banking and the deals are remarkably similar. Sure, the takeover may be funded by wrapped bonds this time and an IPO next time. Or maybe they want limited recourse on their loan or perhaps the security is in France. But to someone who is not a specialist, these differences don't appear on the radar... so the firms drive people to at least an area of speciality so they can charge high fees for the knowledge. You wouldn't want your heart bypass done by your GP, and clients don't want their coporate takeover done by a generalist lawyer.

Its not like on TV. The basic facts of each deal are the same (save for the weird one which you might get once a year). The clients want the deal done in often impossible time frames which the partners agree to for fear that the client will go elsewhere. So who is at work at 12pm on Friday night making sure the share pledge is just A-OK. Associates like me. And who does the interesting work of structuring a deal with the clients - generally the partners. A good partner will involve you, but they're not all good partners.

This is probably an overstatement of the position. My practice area is not as bad as I've painted, but my speciality by its nature has a fair degree of variance (well, I think its has a fair degree of variance, people on the outside think its all the same). I guess the reality is that if you don't enjoy the detail, can't handle the hours or find it boring, then the law is a horrible place to find yourself as a young lawyer.

The Freshfields associate was a junior. The reason so many juniors leave the profession is that once they get here they realise its not what they thought it would be. Anonymous' comments about law firms being all nice to get students in is 100% on the mark. When people get here, they find it hard to leave for various social, financial reasons. Though others, like me, actually like it - but it does involve a level of sacrifice.

My reference to accountancy was poorly made - I was thinking of the forensic accountants I occasionally deal with. That seems like an interesting job.
 
I believe that too much emphasis and blame is being placed upon the work. The work, in a vacuum, is by no means maddening, especially given the amount and level of work it takes to get into and graduate from a prestigious law school that provides the opportunity to work for a firm that does such work.

I believe the blame lies with people. Lawyers are mean and they are insecure. Associates are not treated well. I could go on, but it is not worth it, because no one is going to change, especially given the amounts these associates and partners are paid.
 
I agree that it is not the work per se that drives young associates out of the profession. When viewed on a case by case basis, the work is often interesting and somewhat mentally stimulating. However, there are only a select few people that find anything stimulating after 2200-2400 hours a year, year after year. Even more depressing is when you see the partners still billing the same or more hours. At least with some professions, it would appear that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
 
I just discovered anonymous lawyer a few weeks back when googling "hate being a lawyer" to see if there were others out there blogging about it; for me, my first two years of being a lawyer have been mostly about disheartenment and fatigue. I would love to change careers, but have 100K+ in law school debt -- a monthly student loan payment equal to a mortgage and secured with my happiness. People have jumped off stairs for a lot less. Being an associate involves way too much pressure in the youthful years of your life. Thinking of law school? Give it serious thought beforehand - it's not a choice to take lightly.
 
As a young, aspiring associate and eventual partner, I consider the point made by tman crucial - lawyers take themselves far too seriously. No wonder the legal profession has such high rates of depression. This site is but one way to have a laugh (especially at ourselves).

But, if we consider this issue on a deeper level, one must agree with hector - you are spot on. Working in a common law jurisdiction myself, it never ceases to amaze me how good lawyers are at what I term 'putting on an English accent' - in other words, putting on a persona, complete with accent, to make themlselves sounds intelligent and better than the rest of the population (read: coming across as completely arrogant). This is of particular benefit to clients who will perceive their lawyers as smart if they are cocky and appear all-knowing. Its almost as good as the lawyers who wear glasses during all waking hours not really because they need them, but because they think they look smarter with them on. I have seen highly capable lawyers use these, and other, tactics.

The vicious cycle referred to by hector will eventually have to be broken, or at the very least, modified. Female lawyers who want to have children and the career, along with droves of both male and female Lawyer Gen Y's, will eventually water down the cultures ingrained by our predecessors. I guess until then, we just have to wait for all the old partners to get with the times, or die out, least we all take the plunge.
 
Anonymous Lawyer - good post...thoughtul of you to use your popularity as a writer to write about this tragic incident.

Charon QC
http://charonqc.wordpress.com/
 
I appreciate and admire this thoughtful post, and the responses, but I would gently take issue with the phrasing of the last post (Charon QC), when he/she said:

"Female lawyers who want to have children..."

I suggest that a first step in the sort of changes we are discussing would be to reprogram our idea that women (and only women) "have children."

[Full disclosure: I'm a female lawyer, who does not wish to have children.]
 
I have known lawyers who have committed suicide. I have also had two clients who ended their cases prematurely.

The practice of law is not for everyone. It can be demanding and at times infuriating. Some lawyers do work that no reasonable person would do voluntarily. Yet the work has to be done so big firms hire young associates under false pretenses. They give them a summer of fun and having lured them consign them to work that kills their spirits. High pay and even partnership does not equal professional satisfaction. In fact "partnership" at large firms is often an empty promise, another form of peonage.

A real lawyer will take charge of his or her own life and find work that is fulfilling. Those lawyers do not often kill themselves, because at those levels the practice is just too damn fun.
 
The thing is, life in a big law firm isn't a life, it's an existence. The only people who think it's a life are those who have diluted themselves. The most depressing thing is not the lives of associates, it's the lives of partners.

Having said that, that doesn't mean one shouldn't go to law school; it means one shouldn't go after the brass ring in some attempt to score the stellar law-firm job. I turned down a full ride at the best school in my home state to go to an almost-top-ten school, where I was a go-getter, busted my hump, and scored a prestigeous clerkship after graduation. My *reward* has been a mountain of debt and a job (and life) I hate. I'm normally a very up-beat person, but I find myself waking up every morning and asking whether I really worked so hard to get here. It's like entering a pie-eatting contest and winning, only to find out the prize is that you have to keep eating pie forever.

If you want to be a lawyer, my advice is go somewhere that you can get a full ride, do well, get a job in a small-town DA's or PD's or whatever office and work your way up. At least you'll have something to work towards, and the financial freedom to be able to go back to school if you hate it.

Cheers
 
I would love to see a male lawyer (or any male for that matter) have a child.
I'm currently in law school - they do a terrible job of accurately describing the profession. We're led to believe that we're all going to land the big firm job, lots of cash. They almost laughed at me when I said I was interested in starting a practice suing lawyers for malpractice (it is a funny idea in a profession that is supposed to self-police).
--Invid
 
Invid said:
"I would love to see a male lawyer (or any male for that matter) have a child."

I am not suggesting that men can give birth, merely that fathering a child is the equivalent of "having a child." Many of my male cohorts "have children;" it is common usage to describe being a parent, whether male or female. I was attempting to address the assumption that men can be fathers and work as big-firm lawyers, while women cannot be mothers and work as big-firm lawyers.

On your other topic, a good friend of mine is a lawyer with a solo practice consisting entirely of suing other lawyers for malpractice. He does not want for business.
 
There are suicides in all professions. With greater pay and responsibility comes greater stress. Some people enjoy the challenge. For others, well, if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen. That doesn't mean kill yourself. I'd guess the young man that took his life had plenty of other things on his mind. He was probably mentally ill. Many of the above writers ASSUME it was solely because of his profession. Come on attorneys, you know better...

Jeremy I have been an amused reader of your blog for some time. However, lately I have noticed you've become a little weary and distracted... not posting when you say you are going to time after time, etc... the gig is getting old and the book sales must be slowing down. You never really practiced law anyway, so I find the whole premise a little self serving and hypocritical. Maybe it's time to set down the pen, and stop demonizing a profession for which you really only have a surface undersanding.
 
Much of what associates at large lawfirms do is create waste, because biglaw practice is predicated on hours billed rather than work accomplished. Many associates realize this; they realize that most of what they are doing really isn't all that urgent/necessary/key, and they work together to keep one another afloat.

The problem is that there are some associates (often those with no work experience prior to law school) who genuinely think that what they do is important. And every task for them is a fire drill.

It is the combination of the *purposeless* stress and the sense that what you're doing is worthless -- as well as the golden handcuffs that are very difficult to get out of if you have no other source of income -- that leads to depression and illness. It doesn't help that associates learn early on that one of the keys to success is never showing signs of stress to one's colleagues.

The law is a great profession, and it can be fun and productive and good. Unfortunately, the conventions of biglaw suck all the joy out of it, and for no good reason.
 
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Just a couple of additional comments:

1. By our nature, lawyers need to be right - what client is going to pay for wrong advice/representation? In my view, this leads us to create sometimes unrealistic demands on ourselves (and others). From high school, when we need to grades to get into the best uni and then the grades to get offers for the best job(s), we aim for perfection.

2. Ther gender of parent(s) is irrelevant - but I have been parenting whilst putting myself through law school and subsequently obtaining employment in a 'top tier' firm. In my view, 'having children' simply means caring for that child/those children. However, female lawyers will need some time off to actually give birth to a child, and, at least in my experience and of those around me, it is still generally more accepted that women assume the primary care giving role, particularly at this time - this is simply my view and I do not wish to engage on this topic here. My broad point was that lawyers must have outside interests, and to essentially get a life!

3. I completely agree that lawyers are mean and insecure (not all lawyers, and not all the time, and not always simultaneously) - they can also be rude, arrogant, pretentious and snobbish and a host of other negative adjectives.

4. They can also be fun, enlightened, funny, charistmatic, time efficient, wordly, and a host of other really good things.

So stop whining and do something about it - get a life!
 
A small response with your comment about why this blog resonates - I'm a first year in an NYC corporate firm, and I confess to my share of whinging about working weekends and vacations and never seeing my new husband. A friend of mine in law school pointed me your way, saying, "you'll find this hilarious." I stopped halfway through the first post I'd read and couldn't continue - as I told my friend, I didn't find it hilarious, I found it depressing, because the gap between reality and satire seemed smaller than it should have.

Luckily, I can now start to enjoy it once more - I've decided to leave legal practice while I still have health to ruin in a more fun way, so I can just grin at the fate of my soon to be former colleagues.
 
I'm a 3L 130K in debt and no job. The only thing that keeps me going is that at least I'm not getting my limbs hacked off in Africa or too stupid to use my intellect to make a living. is the future bleak? maybe. However, I'm young enough to pay down my debt by living a spartan lifestyle. If I don't like what I am doing after the debt has been alleviated I'll do something else. The demands of the legal profession may not be fair, but I don't ever remember anyone promising me fair in any part of life.
 
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