Lawyers and allied professionals in their own words.
The title of this article is based on an open-ended question presented to more than 3,800 professionals who responded to ALM Intelligence’s recent Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey (ALM Survey).
Granted, this is a population of very busy people, so not everyone took the time to fill out the text box with their proposed solutions or suggestions to the serious challenge of mental health. That said, 1,882 lawyers and allied professionals shared their views, with responses that ran the gamut from hilarious to blunt to deeply pessimistic. One of us (Lauren) just graduated with a degree in Anthropology and had the time, skill, and curiosity to read every response, looking for patterns and themes. The other (Bill) is skilled in quantitative research and has a strong grasp of the legal marketplace. The open-ended question at the end of the ALM Survey gave us a perfect opportunity to leverage our respective skills.
What did we learn? Here are a few findings presented in more detail below:
- In both volume and substance, women professionals had a lot more to say than their male counterparts. If holding on to this talent is important, we wonder, “Is anyone listening?”
- Within law firms, allied professionals appear to be the most tuned in to the mental health challenges, though all professionals are in broad agreement the law firm business model and related cultural factors are significant drivers of unhappiness, anxiety, and stress.
- Cutting against stereotypes, older legal professions tended to be most in tune with mental health awareness and stigma issues, yet cutting in the opposite direction, they were also less likely–often by relatively wide margins–to cite specific causes, such as high billable hour quotas, unrealistic expectations, lean staffing, or inability to disconnect from work.
The careful reading of the lawyers and allied professionals in their own words is highly informative and, at times, somewhat heartbreaking. Yet, it’s possible that what we are observing are “market” conditions driven by demanding judges, ambitious partners, and the business needs of clients with no shortage of choices.
This post is organized into three sections. In Section I, we briefly summarize the composition and findings of the ALM Survey, as its multiple-choice format provides a useful backdrop to the open-ended question on mental health in the legal profession. In Section II, we discuss the characteristics of the professionals who answered the open-ended question and the coding system we developed, providing specific examples of each category. In Section III, we present a mix and quantitative and quantitative findings and our collaborative interpretations.
I. Overview of ALM Mental Health & Substance Abuse Survey
The ALM Survey is based on data gathered in November and December of 2019 by the research team at ALM Legal Intelligence, with questions covering several categories, including respondent demographics, mental health, substance abuse, billable hour pressures, work-life balance, adequacy of staffing and personal stress levels.
The full 3,800 respondent sample breaks down as follows:
- 51.1% female, 48.7% male, 0.2% transgender or other.
- 40.6% under 35 years old, 27.5% 35-44, 17.1% 45-54, and 14.9% 55 and over.
- 34.1% in 1000+ lawyer firms, 28.5% 501-1000, 18.8% 201-500, and 18.7% < 200.
- 72.4% of respondents in the US, 12.7% in the UK, with the remainder scattered across North America, South America, continental Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.
- The top five cities were New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
- The sample reflects a relatively homogeneous ethnic composition (all too common within the legal profession), with 84.4% of the respondents classifying themselves as white or Caucasian, followed by 5.2% Asian and 3.6% Hispanic or Latina/o.
In terms of job categories, Associates accounted for 50.2% of the sample, followed by Equity Partners (18.6%), Nonequity Partners (12.3%), Other Attorney Timekeepers (8.8%) and a wide array of professional staff that we have grouped as Allied Professionals (10.0%).
To be clear, the ALM Survey is a survey of legal professionals working inside large (or relatively large) corporate law firms, which is only a subset, albeit an influential one, of the broader legal profession.
With that caveat, the survey results as published by ALM Legal Intelligence contain many important and surprising findings regarding the state of mental health and wellness inside corporate law firms. For example, ALM’s multiple-choice questions yielded the following results:
- 64% of respondents reported feelings of anxiety; 78.1% knew of colleagues experiencing anxiety.
- 73.4% reported that work conditions were contributing to the respondent’s own issue(s) of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, or other mental health problems.
- The majority of respondents cite four workplace issues negatively impacting their mental well-being: always on call / can’t disconnect (72.0%); billable hour pressure (63.6%), lack of sleep (58.6%), and client demands (58.8%).
- 63.6% of respondents struggle to use all their vacation time; and when on vacation, 72.5% feel unable to disconnect.
- 60.6% of respondents believe their firm has a sincere concern for their mental health, yet only 36.8% believe that concern translates into changes to the firm’s practices and business model.
- Two-thirds of respondents (67.0%) report that work has caused their personal relationships to suffer. Nearly three-quarters (74.1%) acknowledge that the profession has had a negative effect on their mental health.
Suffice it say, corporate law firms have a serious problem on their hands.
That said, the professionals working inside law firms are among the world’s smartest and most talented problem solvers. Thus, when they are asked in an open-ended way what needs to be changed to address these issues, doesn’t it behoove us to carefully listen to what they have to say?
Fortunately, the ALM Survey gave us the opportunity to do just that.
For the purposes of this post, we sidestep the important topic of substance and alcohol abuse, which, according to the ALM Survey, is less pervasive than the broader issue of mental health and well being.
II. Characteristics and coding of open-ended responses
More than 3,800 legal professionals responded to the ALM Survey. However, slightly less than half (1,882), took the additional time to answer what appears to be the final item on the survey, which was an open-ended question that reads, “What do you think needs to change about the legal profession to improve the mental health and well-being of its members?”
The advantage of open-ended questions is that respondents are free to express exactly how they feel, as they control the content, language, emotion, and length of their answer. The primary downside to all this richness and nuance is the need for skilled researchers to carefully sift through and organize the responses so they can be analyzed and interpreted into something that can be acted upon. (Our five-category coding system is presented in detail in Section II.B.)
A. Multiple responses per respondent
A key feature of this type of qualitative research is that a single narrative answer can fall into more than one response category. Thus, our coded sample of 1,710 legal professionals yielded a total of 2,920 discrete responses or an average of 1.51 per individual. (Including noncoded responses, the average was 1.81.)
Regarding the volume of discrete responses that fit the five-factor coding system, as shown in the table below, some groups of respondents had a lot more to say than others.
|Variable||Value||Avg. # Responses|
|Other Attorney Timekeeper||1.44|
|Firm Size||1000+ lawyers||1.63|
|< 200 lawyers||1.45|
|55 or older||1.28|
Associates (1.71) and Allied Professionals (1.54) seem to have the most to say about how to improve mental health and well being, versus Equity Partners, who were the least voluble (1.27). Similarly, women (1.70) tend to hit more categories than men (1.38). There is a clear positive correlation between firm size and volume of comments, moving from an average of 1.45 responses in firms of 200 or less to 1.63 responses in firms of over 1000. Finally, legal professionals under 35 (1.70) wrote a lot more than those over 55 (1.28). All of these differences are statistically significant at the p < 0.01 level.
B. Coding the data
The task of organizing this rich quantitative data fell to Lauren Henderson, who recently completed her B.A. in Anthropology from the University of British Columbia. Indeed, reading and categorizing narrative comments is very much in her professional wheelhouse. Step one in this process was reading the narratives of all 1,882 respondents while jotting down potential themes and patterns. Step two was developing a coding system and applying it to the sample. Step three was the use of statistical methods (correlations, factor analysis, significance tests) to identify similarities among categories and thus guide their consolidation.
The result is the following five categories, which are roughly even in total number of responses:
|Unrealistic Standards and Lean Staffing (n = 668)||Noting how unrealistic demands from clients and high expectations from partners fuel unhealthy work habits. Also, complaints about the lack of adequate staffing and the inability to disconnect without consequences.|
|Billable Hours (n = 622)||Focusing on lowering or abolishing billable hour requirements and quotas in favor of alternative performance metrics; noting the detrimental impact on mental well-being; pointing out misguided emphasis on quantity over quality and profit over the welfare of people.|
|Work-Life Balance (n = 618)||Requests for a healthier work-life balance and the ability to take time off with family, for emergencies, or for mental health without feeling as though their performance or career trajectory will be negatively impacted.|
|Mental Health and Support (n = 564)||Emphasizing lack of awareness or care for mental well-being by partners and management. Requests to destigmatize conversations about mental health in the workplace and to protect affected individuals from professional and personal discrimination. Appeals for more and better resources.|
|Culture and Industry Change (n = 448)||Comments appealing for a change in the hierarchical mentality within the legal field; insinuating poor treatment by higher-ups and an inequitable work environment. Noting that current culture is counterproductive to well being and/or promotes alcoholism and other unhealthy habits.|
Specific examples are useful in understanding the content of each category.
Unrealistic Standards and Lean Staffing:
“The competitive pressure has to be reduced. We are in internal competition and external competition, and we exacerbate it by reporting annual numbers to things like the AmLaw100 … If a firm slips in the standings, they ‘can’t recruit’. It’s a treadmill with one button: ‘Faster’. … No one should be surprised that the tradeoff is mental health and stability.” Male equity partner, 45-54 years old, 1000+ lawyer firm.
“Trying to go leaner and leaner in a race to the bottom becomes counterproductive at a certain point, not least because it ends up putting so much pressure on associates and staff that their mental health and morale is adversely affected. … [S]etting reasonable client expectations … will not necessarily result in lost clients. Many clients respect boundaries, and, with appropriate boundaries, attorneys are happier and, consequently, more productive.” Female associate, 35-44 years old, < 200 lawyer firm.
“No more billable hours and eliminate origination credits – these two things cause extreme competition within firms and are basically the sole factors that determine compensation; billable hours cause clients to be untrustworthy of bills; it causes unethical billing; it favors men; and it has no bearing on the quality of an attorney’s work. Clients would be appalled to know how firms compensate their attorneys, if they don’t know it already. … [E]liminate as much as possible the antiquated white male fraternity system . … A lot needs to be fixed.” Female nonequity partner, 55+ years old, 501-1000 lawyer firm.
“Law firms should stop billing by the hour as it is out of step with the way our clients’ businesses run, out of step with modern technology, and creates perverse incentives. … From what I’ve observed in other industries it appears corporations value [the] mental health of employees more because they are focused on the long term. … [Law firm partners] prioritize short term profitability over employee well-being, employee retention, and adapting to new technologies and changing business models. … [I]f the firms aren’t adopting the technology necessary to make leaner staffing feasible, the pressure falls on the attorneys.” Female associate, 35-44 years old, < 200 lawyer firm.
“The focus on being available around the clock and working in lean teams has to change. The impact on sleep and mental health cannot be overstated. I think we are working in industrial revolution-level distress, except instead of poisonous gasses and dangerous machines, we are incurring brain damage due to lack of sleep and complete inability to disconnect, ever.” Female associate, 25-34 years old, 501-1000 lawyer firm.
“There need to be more options to work less and make less money, without this being like you ‘can’t stand the heat’. I can stand it, I just don’t want to. Surely it would be better for them to allow me to contribute my specialism (sometimes from home) with reasonable targets than just have me leave when I finally crack. I know others feel this way too.” Female other-attorney timekeeper, 35-44 years old, 1000+ lawyer firm.
Mental Health and Support:
“We need to be more honest and communicate better. Our fear of causing offense has led to isolation borne of cotton candy communications — i.e conversations that are 10% sugar, 90% air, and contain absolutely no intellectually nutritional value. A key to happiness in being embedded in a community and the key to forming a good community is to establish one based on trust and acceptance. Unfortunately, It is increasingly difficult to trust others who pose a threat and seem more willing to judge than accept … .” Male equity partner, 55+ years old, < 200 lawyer firm.
“Destigmatize mental illness and addiction. Normalize mental illness and addiction. I spent half my career in addiction and half in recovery. No one in my firm, including my direct supervisors and HR, has ever expressed any support at all for people who are suffering mentally, aside from providing health benefits and an EAP pamphlet. The assumption is that an addicted or mentally ill lawyer can’t do the job, so no one talks about it. This is wrong.” Female nonequity partner, 55+ years old, 1000+ lawyer firm.
Culture and Industry Change:
“[T]here needs to be a cultural shift in the industry. … Women have it the hardest, as I have personally seen women pushed to one side as soon as they have a family. … [t]here is a culture that the client is king, so we can go without sleep for 3 or 4 nights … No partner in a law firm is ever going to say ‘no’ to a client, and when you are dealing with 5 or 6 transactions at the same time you are pulled in too many directions. … Discrimination is widespread, sexism is very common and there is very little regard for people’s well-being and mental health.” Female associate, 25-34 years old, < 200 lawyer firm.
“The ‘caste’ system of attorney vs. professional staff needs to be removed from our day-to-day. Everyone should be treated equally and with respect. I can’t believe that in (almost) 2020 that we still go through this. I started my career at an AmLaw 100 firm where my first manager told me that I couldn’t communicate a certain way due to not being an attorney. Attorneys at the firm were nice to me and saw that I was competent, but my manager didn’t see it the same way.” Female allied professional, 25-34 years old, 1000+ lawyer firm.
Some responses, of course, touched on multiple themes. Below is an excerpt from one of the 48 responses that were coded a “yes” for four of the five categories:
“[(1) Culture and (2) Unrealistic Expectations:] Language needs to change. Describing someone as 24/7 merely perpetuates the idea that everyone must be on call at all times in order to succeed. People should work more as teams so that expertise is not limited to a single person. When it’s a single person that person is effectively on call at all times. People should be encouraged and rewarded for working as teams as opposed to holding everything close to the vest so they get more credit for it. [(3) Mental Health:] There needs to be more tolerance for people who need time to take care of their mental health. [(4) Billable Hours:] Firms that are focused on billable hours should give lawyers credit for a modest number of health hours per month (e.g., 2-3 hours/month) so people won’t put off taking care of their health because they need to meet their billable hours. Firms should focus less on the bottom line and more on the well being of their people (which sadly I don’t believe will ever happen).” Female Equity Partner, 55+ years old, 501-1000 lawyer firm.
C. Noncoded responses
The overall narrative sample in the ALM Survey contained 3,413 discrete responses provided by the 1,882 respondents. However, 493 responses (14.4%) did not fit into any of the five coded categories. Likewise, 172 legal professionals (9.1%) were excluded from analysis because their narratives proved to be too narrow or idiosyncratic for coding. Thus, the coded sample consisted of 2,920 discrete responses from 1,710 individual respondents.
This is not to say, however, that the noncoded responses lack research value. Our coding system was applied without any knowledge of demographic attributes. Nonetheless, male, older professionals, and equity partners made up an outsized proportion of idiosyncratic noncoded replies.
What was on their minds? Here are some examples:
- “People need to suck it up and just do their jobs. … [Q]uit complaining and always making excuses for poor work or non-performance!” Male equity partner, 55+ years old, < 200 lawyer firm.
- “When my parents and my generation were coming along, we were too busy focusing on how to be successful to have time to indulge in micro-analysis of our behaviors. If you think I’m not sympathetic to all of this, you are right!” Male equity partner, 55+ years old, 501-1000 lawyer firm.
- “Stop putting together obviously biased surveys like this. What a joke! … I can see it now: Law Firm Stress at Crisis Levels, yadayadayada.” Male equity partner, 55+ years old, 1000+ lawyer firm.
- “Get rid of women attorneys and computers.” Male associate, 25-34 years old, 1000+ lawyer firm.
To the extent we can see a common theme across these comments, the total volume of similar responses (roughly a dozen) is not enough to justify a freestanding category.
As discussed in Section II, the responses to the open-ended mental health and well-being question were organized into five thematic categories. In the Findings sub-sections below, we evaluate how the importance of these themes vary (or stay the same) across the four dimensions–job title, gender, age, and size of firms–included in the ALM data. We also offer some final interpretive remarks.
A. Job Title: Difference roles see different things
Below is a breakdown of the number of respondents by job title:
Of the 1,710 respondents who provided a response to the open-ended question that fit our five category coding system, the majority (51.0%) where Associates. However, because Associates were, as a group, more voluble than the other respondents (see Section II.B, supra), they provided a larger proportion of overall coded responses (54.3%).
The bar chart below summarizes the coded responses by job title:
Associates appear to be more focused on the three issues that affect workload (Unrealistic Standards, Billable Hours, and Work-Life Balance), as each category has a higher percentage than the 54.3% baseline for total Associate responses. These concerns were partially shared by Nonequity Partners, who provided 12.3% of the coded responses but were overrepresented in Unrealistic Standards (14.1%) and the Billable Hour (13.8%).
In contrast, Equity partners, who account for 15.1% of the coded responses, are disproportionately focused on Mental Health and Support (17.7%) and Culture and Industry Change (17.2%). Likewise, Allied Professionals, who make up 12.8% of coded responses, are less likely to offer suggestions related to the Billable Hour (8.8%) or Work-Life Balance (10.7%) but are much more attuned to Mental Health and Support (16.7%) and Culture and Industry Change (15.4%).
B. Gender: Women professionals are speaking up. Are we listening?
As a group, the female professionals in the sample provided a large volume of suggestions on how to improved mental health and well being in the legal profession. Women accounted for 55.9% of respondents who provided a coded reply (n =953) yet supplied 58.4% of the number number of responses (n= 1705).
The bar chart below summarizes coded responses by gender:
In all five categories, female professionals were more likely than their male counterparts to make a comment or suggestion, with the largest differential for Work-Life Balance. Here is an example of a Work-Life Balance response that may be indicative of significant gender issues:
“The ability to disconnect is non-existent, so much client pressure and internal pressure in BigLaw. I’m on track to bill 2,150 hours this year and I have a 19-month old baby. This set-up is not sustainable and completely unhealthy. Unsure how to fix the problem.” Female Associate, 25-34 years old, 501-1000 lawyer firm.
Among the five categories, one relative similarity is noteworthy: Only the last category (on Culture and Industry Change) does not reflect a statistically significant difference between male and female responses. In short, this category is a unanimous issue regardless of gender.
C. Age: Predictable differences, surprising consensus
As noted in Section II, the younger the respondents, the more voluble they were on comments or suggestions that fit one of our five coded categories.
The bar chart below summarizes coded responses by age:
The key takeaway to the above chart is similar to the breakdown by job title—younger professionals are directing their suggestions to categories related to workload (Unrealistic Standards, Billable Hours, and Work-Life Balance) while older professionals are more attuned to issues of Mental Health and Support.
With this in mind, it would be research malpractice if we did not give voice to the intensity of sentiment of younger legal professionals regarding their unhealthy work conditions.
“There is an expectation, especially at the Associate level, that we need to go well above and beyond the ‘base’ requirements of our jobs. Because we are so connected to everything we do, you feel behind if you’re not constantly responding to email or addressing client problems because you know that each attorney is competing with each other innately–for partnership, bonuses, raises, recognition, etc. at every level. Law has a culture of work that becomes pervasive to nights and weekends. The nature of billing means our entire days need to be accounted for, and sometimes the only way to hit your billable hour numbers is to sacrifice your well-being to make them.” Male associate, 25-34 years old, < 200 lawyer firm.
“Lawyers need to be willing to tell clients with unreasonable demands that their demands are unreasonable. It is routine for senior lawyers to dump work on junior lawyers with the statement ‘I know this sucks, but this client refers a lot of work to us and we can’t push back on any of their requests.’ You can. If you can’t make a practice work without making people miserable, you don’t deserve a legal practice.” Male associate, 25-34 years old, 1000+ lawyer firm.
Somewhat ironically, a second, more subtle finding is the absence of an age effect on the issue of Culture and Industry Change. Specifically, a relatively similar and sizeable proportion of young, middle-aged, and older legal professionals believe that changes in law firm culture and the broader legal industry are necessary to make substantial progress on mental health and wellness.
D. Firm Size: Doesn’t matter much to mental health and wellness
Although the ALM Survey is framed as a measure of mental health and wellness in the legal profession, the sample itself is limited to legal professionals working in corporate law firms. Yet, the inclusion of a law firm size variable enables us to explore whether these issues vary in midsized versus large versus mega law firms.
The bar chart below summarizes coded responses by age:
In general, there are more similarities than differences, with only one type of response—Unrealistic Standards and Lean Staffing—reflecting a linear relationship based on size. Further, Unrealistic Expectations is the only category where the difference between < 500 lawyers and 500 + lawyers is statistically significant.
Some might find it surprising that the mega firms (1000+) are not also the firms with the highest proportion of responses for Billable Hours and Work-Life Balance. Yet, this could be a geographic effect, as it is often the case that lawyers working in the foreign satellite offices are often not under the same workload pressure as lawyers working in large offices. Unfortunately, we lack the data to isolate such effects.
Regarding differences, legal professionals in “smaller” large firms (< 200) are less likely to cite billable hours pressures as a problem for mental health and wellness. Further, this same group was also more likely to give responses focused on a lack of awareness and support around mental health issues.
Finally, once again, we see an absence of meaningful differences on the issue of Culture and Industry Change. Below are several examples of essentially the same sentiments coming from younger, middle-aged, and older legal professionals:
“The legal community needs to stop adopting the mentality of the older generation. The current partners at many firms are of the mindset that one should work as hard as possible for as long as possible because that is how one ‘gets ahead.’ I believe the attitude should change to encourage hard work, but recognize that a balance is necessary. … There is nothing wrong with a work-life balance.” Female associate, 25-34 years old, < 200 lawyer firm.
“I think the most important change is for people at the leadership levels to understand that these issues are not a result of millennial weakness or whining … [which is] an attitude that … exists at the associate level as well. … The world has changed quite a bit since they were associates and it’s not acceptable for them to simply dismiss these concerns.” Male associate, 25-34 years old, 201-500 lawyer firm.
“[We need] clearer career paths for younger lawyers which [don’t] involve working yourself to death.” Female equity partner, 45-54 years old, 1000+ lawyer firm.
“Need to give young lawyers (especially) a sense that they can achieve their dreams without working long hours every day, that life includes recreation and me time as well as professional responsibilities.” Male equity partner, 55+ years old, 1000+ lawyer firm.
“We need to become a profession again, where the mission is great, ethical work for clients for which we serve as true counselors. We are managing to profits, rather than to developing people who will be innovators with [a] deep commitment to and enjoyment of the work and their workplace. … Firms need to recognize that work-life balance is critical to the profession’s progress on inclusion and attracting people with full lives, who can engage with clients as counselors.” Female equity partner, 55+ years old, 1000+ lawyer firm.
E. Final interpretative thoughts
An earlier Legal Evolution post chronicled the journey of corporate law firms from regional fiefdoms that enjoyed significant market power, to a national market with dozens of firms competing for the same coveted clients, to a final chapter where London Magic Circle firms are now being vanquished by the US high-pay/long-hours model. See “Pay-hours tradeoff at London law firms and related existential issues (082),” Feb. 3, 2019. Yet, this is hardly a victory, as few lawyers are enthusiastic about the new equilibrium.
We think a similar dynamic can be observed in the ALM Survey dataset, albeit we are now focused on the consequences to mental health rather than the grueling work conditions themselves. Where does this end? Some respondents in our sampled concluded that the answer was never:
“You would have to postulate a business model that defies social norms and measures success in something other than money. Not likely, I’m thinking.” Female other-attorney timekeeper, 55+ years old, 1000+ law firm.
“It will never change, ever. The basic personality of a lawyer is highly intelligent, highly skeptical with extremely low emotional intelligence.” Male allied professional, 55+ years old, 1000+ lawyer firm.
“[What is needed is a] fundamental, top to bottom restructuring. It will never happen.” Male associate, 25-34 years old, 501-1000 lawyer firm.
In terms of root causes, other parts of the ALM Survey provide important clues. For example, when asked “Do your clients have unreasonable demands?,” a remarkable 89.9% checked either “Sometimes”, “Often”, or “Always.” When asked, “Does your firm push back on unreasonable client demands?,” more than 70% replied “No.” Finally, 66.1% of legal professionals feel that their coworkers care about their mental health; likewise, 51.8% believe their managers care. Yet, when asked if clients care about their mental health, only 12.6% replied “Yes.”
On the one hand, we can conclude that the current state of mental health in law firms is the result of choices and tradeoffs freely made by smart, talented professionals. On the other hand, what we could be witnessing is a deplorable lack of leadership, courage, and professional responsibility.
In part, this may be due to law firm leaders with no formal business training who have been socialized into an antiquated business model that, despite its flaws, still reliably produces large profits. It may also be due to a swing in the marketplace where in-house lawyers have become drunk with their own power and enjoy being treated as the smartest and most important person in the room.
Regardless, rather than speeches, tweets, and op-eds, now is time for building institutions that solve industry-wide problems. This requires real sacrifice and real resources. Thus, the true catalyst for change is more lawyers willing to have the courage of their convictions. Meaningful change comes at a price. For legal professionals, this means risking our careers to fight for things that matter.
We would like to thank ALM Legal Intelligence for creating such a fabulous dataset. We would certainly welcome another!