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“Big Law firm culture is toxic…”

But what can we do?

The results from the American Lawyer 2024 mental health survey are in. The results have ever so slightly improved but are still not good. The bottom line: Being in Big Law is still tough.

Here are some excerpts from ALM’s write up that caught my attention.

Lawyers of all ages reported being overstressed, overworked and underappreciated in our annual mental health survey…The billable hour remains the boogieman, followed closely by always being on call and a prevailing culture that prizes perfectionism and lacks empathy.

…But young lawyers, in particular, are struggling to live with the Big Law’s grueling norms…If you’re a Big Law equity partner who gets the feeling that your associates just don’t want to work as hard as you did when you were their age, you might be right. If it seems like they need more feedback and hands-on training than you got, that may be the case. And if you find they expect to be treated as humans with emotions, personal lives and aspirations outside of work—rather than fungible billing units—you might just be getting somewhere.

Big Law firm culture is toxic…“The economics drive a hierarchical structure that is and always will be opposed to any genuine culture of caring or well-being,” said a litigator aged 55 to 64. “Those who make it to the top by virtue of having withstood this for decades will not really be able to have empathy for those below. It’s just not part of what happens.”

Until better mental health is associated with higher profits, the culture appears unlikely to change.


Three thoughts:

Self-Induced Pressure: We’re creating our own stress with an “always-on” mindset, anticipating that clients expect immediate responses. However, my conversations with clients reveal that they typically only require around-the-clock attention for genuine emergencies or end stages of matters, such as deal closure or trial. In most cases, they understand and respect reasonable response times.

Motivating Senior Attorneys: It’s vital to communicate to our more experienced lawyers what’s in it for them to foster a more supportive work environment, beyond just the financial incentives. Here’s why it matters:

    • They can focus on what matters: When they work with people who are engaged, partners can more comfortably delegate, freeing them up to concentrate on strategic priorities.
    • They can sleep better at night: When they work with people who are confident and dependable, they will experience lower stress levels.
    • Team members will have their back: Building a culture of trust equates to having continual, reliable support.
    • They will have more fun: Ultimately, work becomes more rewarding and enjoyable.

The Link Between Mental Health and Engagement: Mental wellness is directly tied to how involved or disengaged employees feel, which is supported by significant research outside of law firms. The impact on businesses is clear:

    • Performance: Businesses with high levels of engagement outdo their rivals by 202%.
    • Profitability: These firms also boast a 23% increase in profitability.
    • Productivity: Engaged employees demonstrate 45% greater productivity.

The 2024 American Lawyer mental health survey paints a stark picture that is hard to ignore: the pervasive stress, overwork, and underappreciation in Big Law are not just incidental; they are symptomatic of a deeper, structural malaise. It’s evident that unless there are fundamental changes in law firm cultures, the health and well-being of lawyers will continue to struggle.

We need to continue to strive for a legal community that values not only the billable hour but also the holistic well-being of the individuals who contribute to its success. By doing so, we might just find that profitability naturally follows, as a healthier workforce is invariably a more productive one.


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