Mental Health, Increasing Wealth, Punishing Hours: Young lawyers may choose to exit

Mental Health, Increasing Wealth, Punishing Hours: Young lawyers may choose to exit

As it continues to devastate lives and livelihoods, the Covid-19 pandemic has affected countless millions of people. Its impact on the mental health of young lawyers was recently revealed by the International Bar Association (IBA) in a study of 3,000 people and 186 legal organisations which found that their wellbeing is a cause for “global concern”.

The study suggests that more than half of lawyers under 30 have experienced “depressed thoughts” and that 10% of them have had suicidal thoughts arising from the pressures of work. These high figures cannot be attributed exclusively to the pandemic, but they confirm that significant damage was being done to young lawyers’ mental health long before Covid-19 emerged.

Although some law firms were initially slow to acknowledge the problem, it is now being openly addressed. In doing so, the collective PR output of BigLaw has been widely disseminated. Google the name of any prominent law firm + ‘mental health’ and the results will invariably show their commitment to multiple wellbeing initiatives. 

Punishing schedules

Empathetic statements, underpinned by celebrations of World Mental Health Day and similarly themed events, do not however sit comfortably with associates who endure regular 14-16 hour days and the relentless drive by partners to boost their utilisation rates. The much publicised 95-hour weeks of young Goldman Sachs bankers, liberally splashed across media on both sides of the Atlantic, resonated with associates at several prominent law firms: they talked to the media about their high stress levels and the continual fear of burnout.

In interviewing Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of the legal mental health charity LawCare, it was evident that young lawyers under enormous pressure do not always get sufficient access to professional support when it is needed. ‘Every junior lawyer should know where to get help,’ she said. ‘Raising awareness about why mental health really matters for junior lawyers must be a key priority.’ The LawCare support service is available for those who work in the legal profession including support staff and concerned family members. [Helpline 0800 279 6888 Mon-Fri 9am–5.30pm. From outside the UK +44 1268 921 600]

In business terms, most law firms have had a good pandemic; some of them very good indeed, as will soon become evident when their financial results are announced in the coming weeks and months. In part, this has been achieved by the increasingly punishing work schedules of their associates. 

No off button

Recent media reports indicate that young lawyers working from home are expected to be on call more than ever before. Their firms know that there is not much else they can do. The prevailing expectation is that they are online and at their virtual desks for longer each day. There is no off button.

According to these reports, an associate at a leading US law firm in London said: “For the last eight months, I’ve been receiving emails from my partner at 11:30pm and I’m expected to deal with them. That wasn’t normal when we were in the office.” A junior lawyer at a magic circle firm added: “Working from home has resulted in clients and other lawyers deciding that the working day is every hour of every day. We’re not doing more work, but we’re constantly on call and I can’t leave my laptop.”

The expectation of permanent availability is widespread. One associate recently spoke of “an insidious creep towards the working side of the work/life balance. Closing the laptop at 7pm now feels like a half day”.  Another noted that “the pandemic has eroded all boundaries. We’re expected to be available 24/7”. A third added: “Respect for private time during the pandemic has diminished. It is not uncommon to receive messages at 10-11pm asking for work to be completed instantly on the assurance that the government has left you with little else to do”. 

Last month, Ashurst chair Ben Tidswell told the FT that law firms face losing junior staff because of burnout. “I do think it will lead to people leaving,” he said. “We’re really worried about it, and not just as a retention issue, but as a welfare issue.” Meanwhile Law Care has confirmed that half of their calls last year came from junior lawyers worried about isolation, long hours and a lack of supervision due to remote working.

Splash the cash

Fieldfisher has hired a therapist for staff to use when they return to the office. But many firms have simply joined the stampede to shower their young lawyers with one off pandemic bonuses as a thank you for all their hard work in difficult circumstances.  Clifford Chance set the ball rolling with an extra bonus of five per cent of their salary, payable to each CC lawyer and business professional around the world. Linklaters followed suit, as did Allen & Overy, Herbert Smith Freehills and a host of others.

Not to be outdone, some US law firms in London upped the stakes. Among them, Milbank, and Skadden, which have announced even more generous pay outs. At Milbank, for example, associates will receive between £8,700 and £46,500. That is in addition to other discretionary annual bonuses which they may receive for performance. The most junior qualified Milbank lawyer in London already receives £132,000 in basic salary before any annual bonus.

At Skadden, a near identical pandemic bonus for associates has been announced: between £8,800 and £46,400, dependent on seniority.  The annual salary of the lowest paid Skadden lawyer in London is £133,000 before conventional bonuses are added.  No doubt, lawyers at other profitable US firms in London – Latham, Kirkland, White & Case and Debevoise & Plimpton among them – will follow the same path, possibly with even more generous one-off bonuses. At 3 years PQE, young lawyers at these firms can already earn £200k+ when their annual bonuses are taken into account. 

No quality of life

But if you are a 27-year-old City lawyer suffering from stress, depression, or suicidal thoughts, your problems are very unlikely to be caused by lack of money. When you are working 70, 80, or 90-hour weeks and being paid more than £200,000 a year for your efforts, how does a pandemic bonus of between £8,800 and £46,400 improve your mental health, or stop you feeling suicidal? Being given yet more money is certainly not the answer.

Of course, more money is usually welcomed by any employee. But the collective decision of City law firms to pay their young lawyers extra bonuses because they have worked extra hard while being locked down in their London flats or shared houses seems to miss the point. When so many of them are suffering from depression and 10% have suicidal thoughts, more money might be better spent on addressing their mental health needs. Better still, scrap the pandemic bonuses altogether, cut their working hours, and ease the pressure.

As a return to the office gathers pace and the virtues of more flexible and remote working are championed from the rooftops, the question must be asked: what is the genuine benefit of working from home only to be trapped in front of a laptop for almost every waking hour?

Ironically, there might be greater freedom in the office where a quick chat over lunch or a coffee is possible. When young lawyers are isolated and chained to their desk at home, then all the money in the world will do nothing to improve their state of mind.

These young lawyers are smart people. Ultimately, Tidswell is right: many of them will vote with their feet. And no bonus, no matter how large, will keep them there.

Dominic Carman

Written by:

Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator.

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Author: Dominic Carman