Stopping the My-Life-Sucks-More-Than-Yours Competition

The “My-Life-Sucks-More-Than-Yours-A-Thon” (“MLSMTYA”) that plays out daily among lawyers provides a peek into current law firm values. The game is similar to a Your-Mama-Thon (in which comics trade barbs about their moms’ ugliness or heft) but much less funny. It is a competitive race to the bottom in which lawyers trade ever-worsening tales of sleep deprivation, mounting deadlines, and missed family vacations. At the same time, they watch as their talented colleagues flock to the exits after the MLSMTYA loses its luster. Given the sweeping changes overtaking the legal industry, perhaps it is finally time for lawyers to remodel the ideal by which they measure themselves.

The Aftermth of the 2008 Economic Collapse

The wallop that BigLaw took from the 2008 economic collapse has left it dazed. Shock waves have reverberated through the industry due to the folding of large, prominent law firms, such as Howrey LLP, Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP, Heller Ehrman LLP, and Thelen LLP (Harper, 2013). Former firm leaders from Dewey who currently are embroiled in fraud criminal charges claim that the “voracious greed” of firm partners caused the firm to crumple (Simmons, 2014). Corporate clients are not only refusing rate-hikes, they are demanding deep discounts (MacEwen, 2013). They have pulled more work in-house and have been experimenting with lower-cost firms, contract or temp lawyers, and outsourcing overseas. They also have begun refusing to pay for junior associates’ work altogether and comb bills for inefficiency or excess. While pricing pressures have continued to rise, revenue, demand, and realization (how much firms collect of what they bill) all have fallen (MacEwen, 2103).

Legal industry experts such as firm management consultant Bruce MacEwan (2013) predict that the BigLaw business environment has so fundamentally changed since 2008 that law firms must adapt or fold. Surviving and thriving will depend on a vibrant firm culture that incubates innovation, is resilient to setbacks, and is propelled by engaged lawyers who are committed to a shared vision of the future.

Lawyers are Not Currently Thriving

Far from teeming with thriving lawyers motivated to invent a new future, the legal profession is plagued by poor mental health and lifestyles that threaten their physical health. Common lifestyle and personality traits among lawyers may contribute to mental health issues and job dissatisfaction. Firms that continue to ignore these issues may find it increasingly difficult to compete in the future.

Depression is about twice as prevalent among lawyers as the general adult population. Suicide ranks among the leading causes of premature death among lawyers. Lawyers also experience higher than average levels of alcoholism, anxiety, social alienation and isolation, insecurity, paranoia, hostility, stress, anger, and marital dissatisfaction (Daicoff, 2004; Peterson & Peterson, 2009). About 20% of lawyers suffer from a clinically significant psychological problem that is sufficiently severe to warrant intervention (Daicoff, 2004). A study of practicing lawyers found that 70% were likely to develop alcohol-related problems over the course of their lifetime, compared to only 13.7% of the general population (Beck, Sales, & Benjamin, 1995).

Studies have found the prevalence of workaholism among lawyers to be 23-26% (Doerfler & Kramer, 1986; Howerton, 2004). This is more than double that of the 10% rate estimated for U.S. adults generally (Sussman, Lisha, & Griffiths, 2011). Work addiction is excessive work performed to the exclusion of meaningful relationships or neglect of physical and emotional reactions to stress (Howerton, 2004).

A 2012 study ranked lawyers as the second most sleep-deprived occupation in the U.S.—behind only home health-aids (Weiss, 2012). Sleep deprivation has been linked to a multitude of health problems that decay the mind and body, including depression, cognitive impairment, decreased concentration, hypertension, diabetes, impaired immune system, weight gain, burnout, and early death (Maxon, 2013; Ferrie, Shipley, Akbaraly, Marmot, Kivmaki, & Singh-Manoux, 2011; Soderstrom, Jeding, Ekstedt, Perski, & Akerstedt, 2012).

Given lawyers’ high risk for depression, it is worth noting evidence that sleep problems have the highest predictive value for who will develop clinical depression (Franzen & Buysse, 2008).

Sleep-loss also ruins productivity (Kessler et al., 2011; Rosekind, Gregory, Mallis, Brandt, Seal, & Lerner, 2010). A 2011 Harvard Medical School study found that insomnia significantly affects worker productivity and estimated that the U.S. economy lost about $63 billion due to sleep loss (Kessler et al., 2011).

Positive Law Firms Will Foster Physical and Emotional Wellness

Although these health issues have pervaded the legal profession for decades, law firms have not taken any action—suggesting a belief that lawyers’ health is their own personal business. Aspiring positive law firms will realize that lawyers’ physical and psychological wellness is an integral part of the agenda to build a thriving firm.

A view that lawyer health falls outside firm management’s concern overlooks that organizational wellness is interdependent with the wellness of the organization’s members (Prilleltensky, 2012). When lawyers are healthy, they will have more energy to invest in the business and treat clients well (Mackey & Sisodia, 2014).

Consequently, firms should gladly accept lawyer well-being as a shared responsibility (Prilleltensky, 2012). As a point of clarification, I am not suggesting that law firms are responsible for ensuring that all lawyers are happy and healthy. Even in high quality work environments, some people will fail to thrive for a variety of reasons. My main point here is that law firms should share responsibility for creating a work environment that enables and encourages thriving.

Below is a discussion of work environment factors and lawyer work habits that are leading candidates for health-related interventions to enhance lawyer wellness. As the discussion reflects, the positive law firm’s goal should not be just to contain health care costs but also should include the development of a wellness culture that finds ways to nudge lawyers to lead healthy, vibrant, fulfilling lives (Mackey & Sisodia, 2014). In addition to benefitting from having a healthier workforce, law firms may reap benefits in recruiting. Firms who fully commit to building a wellness culture may be able to capitalize on the results by sharing information with new prospects about the firm’s better overall health, lower cancer rates, lower cholesterol, etc.

Respectful Bosses Develop Healthy Employees

The quality of the workplace can significantly impact people’s physical and psychological wellness. For example, evidence is accumulating that managers’ leadership style predicts employee health (Nyberg, Alfredsson, Theorell, Westerlund, Vahtera, & Kivimaki, 2009). Studies have linked leaders’ considerate behavior toward employees to good health and productivity.

Evidence also reflects that a bad boss literally could kill you. A 2008 Swedish study found that workers’ risks for angina, heart attack, and death rose along with the reported incompetence of their bosses (Nyberg et al., 2009). Manager competence was judged by employees’ answers to questionnaires. Questions that had a significant association with heart disease included those inquiring whether managers provided needed information, explained goals, showed that they cared, provided sufficient power to carry out job duties, became involved in professional development, and praised employees for good work (Nyberg et al., 2009).

A similar study showed that, on days that employees were supervised by bad bosses, their blood pressure was much higher (Wager, Fieldman, & Hussey, 2003). There, employees’ responses to questionnaires about their supervisors showed that blood pressure was most strongly associated with items pertaining to interpersonal fairness such as praise for a good job, demonstration of trust and respect, and non-partiality in treatment of employees.

These findings suggest that training partners and others in supervisory roles to foster a workplace characterized by fairness, empowerment, and consideration for others may positively impact health (Nyberg et al., 2009; Wager et al., 2003).

Advantages of an Active Lifestyle and Work Day

Lawyers’ sedentary lifestyle also is a significant health risk. Physical exercise frequently is among the first casualties of lawyers’ busy schedules. Given the substantial evidence that exercise enhances physical and mental health, positive firms will try to counteract this pattern through information and other nudging.

As to physical health, physical activity is associated with reduced rates of cardiovascular disease, colon and breast cancer, and obesity (Hillman, Erickson, & Kramer, 2008). As to mental health, aerobic exercise can be as effective at improving symptoms of depression as antidepressant medication and psychotherapy (Chu, Buckworth, Kirby, & Emery, 2009). Exercise may even act as a buffer against the onset of depression (Hillman et al., 2008). Physical exercise also is associated with reduced symptoms of anxiety, irritability, low vigor, and pain (Herring, Jacob, Suveg, & O’Connor, 2011).

A growing body of research shows that physical exercise also improves brain functioning and cognition (Hillman et al., 2008). Physical activity, which stimulates new cell growth in the brain, can offset the negative effects of stress, which causes brain atrophy (Duman, 2005). Greater amounts of physical activity (particularly aerobic) have been associated with improvements in memory, attention, verbal learning, and speed of cognitive processing (Hillman et al., 2008). Fit people actually have bigger brains than unfit people (Hillman et al., 2008).

An even bigger obstacle to good health than squeezing in regular work-outs is that most lawyers sit virtually all day. Studies have linked too much sitting to, for example, obesity, diabetes, blood pressure problems, cardiovascular disease, and colon cancer (Owen, Healy, Matthews, & Dunstan, 2010; Boyle, Fritschi, Heyworth, & Bull, 2011; Hellmich, 2012). Tom Rath (2013) has warned that “[s]itting is the most underrated health threat of modern times” (p. 21). Dr. James Levine, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, agrees, saying that “[e]xcessive sitting is a lethal activity” (Vlahos, 2011, p. 1).

Too much sitting is distinct from too little exercise (Owen et al., 2010). For example, people can be “active coach potatoes”—which are those who meet public health guidelines for physical activity but still have elevated cardio-metabolic health risks due to prolonged sitting (Owen et al., 2010, p. 2). One study found that, even among those who exercised regularly (e.g., seven hours per week), those who spent the most time sitting had a greater risk of all-cause mortality. A study of TV-time watching (a sedentary activity) found that, compared to people who watched less than two hours per day, people who watched four or more hours of TV had a 46% greater risk of all-cause mortality and 80% greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease (Own et al., 2010).

Research suggests that reducing sitting time to three hours daily could add two years to the average U.S. life expectancy (Hellmich, 2012). Reducing overall sedentary time is key, but just taking breaks from sitting also is beneficial. This can include transitioning from sitting to standing up and from standing to walking (Owen et al., 2010).

Firms could encourage lawyers to increase activity during the workday by, for example, pacing while on the phone, climbing stairs, standing while talking to colleagues, having walking meetings, and standing during meetings rather than sitting at conference tables (Hellmich, 2012). Partners could organize daily “energy” breaks or flash mobs in their office conference rooms to get people together and moving.

Technology also offers options. Law firms could consider offering treadmill desks in offices or conference rooms. Firms could offer adjustable desks that allow transitions from sitting to standing. Mini step machines are available that fit under desks that can be used during calls (Hellmich, 2012). Firms could consider covering all or part of the cost of such health-enhancing technology and offering the technology as prizes for social activities or achievement of performance goals.

Well-Rested Lawyers: The New Role Models

Sleep-deprivation poses another significant risk to lawyers’ health. Yet law firm cultures continue to glorify sleeplessness. In a study of associates in a large, world-wide firm, a common complaint related to high hours and little sleep, including “a quite childish competition… on who could do with less sleep than the others” (Forstenlechner & Lettice, 2008, p. 648). As with many corporate cultures (Fryer, 2006), firms use sleep deprivation as a proxy for high performance. Dr. Charles Czeisler, one of the world’s leading sleep experts, says that “encouraging a culture of sleepless machoism is worse than nonsensical; it is downright dangerous, and the antithesis of intelligent management” (Fryer, 2006, p. 1).

The negative impact of sleep deprivation is far-reaching.  As noted above, sleep deprivation has been linked to a variety of physical and mental health diseases including depression, cognitive impairment, decreased concentration, hypertension, diabetes, impaired immune system, weight gain, burnout, and early death.

While lawyers and firms should be troubled by all of these negative health effects, cognitive functioning is a capacity particularly important for lawyers. Cognitive impairment associated with sleep-deprivation can be profound (Fryer, 2006; Ferrie et al., 2011). A study of over 5,000 people showed that too little sleep was associated with a decline over a five year-period in cognitive functioning, including reasoning, vocabulary, and global cognitive status (Ferrie et al., 2011). Sleep deprivation also has significant short-term effects. People who average four hours of sleep per night for four or five days develop the same cognitive impairment as if they had been awake for 24 hours—which is the equivalent of being legally drunk (Fryer, 2006).

The analogy between sleep deprivation and drunkenness is apt not only due to the equivalent levels of impairment but also because, like drunks, people who are sleep deprived do not believe they are impaired (Fryer, 2006). For example, in a two-week sleep study, participants were assigned to sleep groups of four, six, or eight hours (Jones, 2011). Each day, they participated in a battery of tests of their cognitive functioning via computer. The four- and six-hour groups declined dramatically over the test period, and many were falling asleep at their computers by the sixth day. Yet, while acknowledging that they felt a little sleepy, they insisted that the sleepiness was not affecting them (Jones, 2011).

Given the above, lawyers who say that they are among the select few who can function optimally without much sleep (and the managers who believe them) are almost certainly wrong. It is true that client demands and deadlines sometimes require lawyers to sacrifice sleep. But, for positive law firms, this should become the uncelebrated exception.

Importance of Recovery Periods

Law firms’ 24-hour/7-day work week paired with high job demands can drain lawyers’ health and well-being if they do not have adequate recovery periods (Soderstrom et al., 2012; Rothbard & Patil, 2012; Fritz, Ellis, Demsky, Lin, & Guros, 2013). “Recovery” in psychological terms refers to regeneration processes that enhance positive states (e.g., vitality, positive affect) and reduce negative states (e.g., fatigue, anger) that build up from effort and stress at work (Sonnentag, Niessen, & Neff, 2012).

Sustained engagement with work—i.e., always being “on”—can lead to exhaustion and burnout (Rothbard & Patil, 2012; Soderstrom et al., 2012). People who do not fully recover are at an increased risk over time for depressive symptoms, fatigue, energy loss, and cardiovascular disease (Fritz et al., 2013). By contrast, people who feel recovered report greater work engagement, job performance, willingness to help others at work, and ability to handle job demands (Fritz et al., 2013; Rothbard & Patil, 2012; Sonnentag et al., 2012).

Recovery can occur during breaks during the workday, evenings, weekends, vacations, and even mircobreaks when transitioning between projects (Sonnentag et al., 2012). The quality of employees’ recovery influences their affect, motivation, and job performance (Sonnentag et al., 2012). Quality sleep is important but is only one factor contributing to adequate recovery (Rook & Zijlastra, 2006).

Freely chosen activities and experiences (rather than obligatory chores) hold potential for recovery, including socializing with friends, playing with one’s children, relaxing (e.g., reading), activities that facilitate psychological detachment from the job, and mastery experiences (Sonnentag et al., 2012). Physical activity (exercise and sports) holds the greatest potential for recovery (Sonnentag et al., 2012). This is especially true for people performing mentally demanding work, for whom low-effort activities (e.g., watching TV) may actually increase subjective feelings of fatigue (Rook & Zijlastra, 2006).

Thinking about work during a recovery period can be beneficial or detrimental—depending on what one thinks about and for how long. Thinking about work can be beneficial for recovery if it involves positive thoughts and sharing stories of positive work events with family members and others (Sonnentag et al., 2013; Fritz et al., 2013; Culbertson, Mills, & Fullagar, 2012). But recovery can be hindered where employees think about negative events at work and continue to worry and ruminate (Sonnentag et al., 2012; Fritz et al., 2013).

Periods of not thinking about work at all also can be highly beneficial. A moderate level of psychological detachment is linked to positive affect, engagement, job performance, well-being, fewer health complaints, and lower burnout (Sonnentag et al., 2012; Fritz et al., 2013).

Given the foregoing, positive law firms will support recovery time for lawyers. They could facilitate psychological detachment by limiting work-related calls or emails during evenings, weekends, and on vacation. For example, Hewlett-Packard (“HP”) shuts down annually over the winter holiday and asks outside lawyers not to contact HP personnel unless it is an emergency. McDonald’s and Volkswagon—along with one in four U.S. companies—have agreed to stop sending emails to employees after hours (Fritz et al., 2013). Even in the high-demanding world of BigLaw, positive law firms that are serious about health could establish new norms for lawyers that limit after-hours emails and calls to emergencies—especially to associates who have less work-related autonomy and, thus, are at a higher risk for fatigue and burnout.

Under existing cultural norms in law firms, there are no work-life boundaries to allow for recovery time. Similar to sleeplessness, sacrificing weekends and vacations and responding to emails at 3:00 a.m. often earn a badge of honor that is culturally reinforced. For example, I’ve heard of law firm leaders telling new lawyers that they would not excel simply by doing great work; they would stand out only if, for example, they sacrificed their family vacations for their jobs. While client demands inevitably will intrude on lawyers’ personal plans, the well-being of lawyers would be better served by creating a culture that tries to minimize those intrusions rather than celebrating them as the only way to excel.


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