Career Building Blog

Career Advice

Does corporate law light your fire? Be warned. Your health could seriously be at risk.

The tragic news of the death of associate lawyer Lisa Johnstone in US firm Skadden’s may be the direct result of the 100+ hours a week she had allegedly been working. Then again it may not have been. She apparently died of a heart attack but no autopsy report had been made public at the time of writing as to the official cause. But whatever triggered her heart attack, we cant avoid the fact that the hugely emotive issue of stress in legal practice is never far from the news, at least in the legal media. The intense stress of corporate lawyer`s hours has a damaging effect on the individual, whether the symptoms are apparent early as, say her colleagues, in the case of Lisa Johnstone, or in years to come.

Some can cope, and indeed thrive, working to high-stress levels. But exhaustion or disillusionment in later years is not particularly unusual. Some lawyers will move to a different area of practice. Some change careers. Others suffer burn out. And occasionally we hear of the tragedy of another lawyer taking his or her own life.  Last month, the charity LawCare revealed that high numbers of solicitors seek help with depression and alcohol addiction problems most of which are undoubtedly related to stress.

Are senior partners ignoring the issue? It seems clear that some law firms are blatantly breaching health and safety legislation given the extreme stress some partners and associates are being subjected to in their workplace. Employers have a legal duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of all employees while at work. This extends to the obligation to assess the risks arising from hazards at work including work-related stress.

Do senior partners care about their fee earners stress levels? Whilst work /life balance doesn’t rank particularly highly at many law firms other firms, laudably promote the importance of a good balance of flexible working options including, for instance, Allen & Overy and Norton Rose. And there are without question smaller law firms who facilitate flexible working but, by their very nature, it`s the big firms that reach the news.

In the 21st century, in the age of the Blackberry, cloud computing and broadband, its unforgivable and inexcusable for law firms not to facilitate flexible working. The benefits are obvious.

And let’s not get bogged down, as some would have it, in talking about the mega bucks many of these stressed-out corporate lawyers are earning. That’s beside the point. The point is lawyers are human beings with their own physical, mental and social needs. The quicker the profession recognizes this the better. We’re about to enter the weekend. How many lawyers have done a long week, and are going home armed with more work for the weekend? Just a thought.

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