PTSD in Biglaw?

At Above the Law, Will Meyerhofer writes an article about the dangers of stress disorder for those attorneys who work at bigger law firms.  Apparently the constant stress of working in a high-pressure environment where you are constantly criticized and always worrying about what you may have screwed up can create something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder:

Maybe you forgot to ask a crucial question during a deposition. Or you wrote a memo that didn’t have the answer your partner wanted. Maybe — and this happened to me once — you ended up getting berated for being “too friendly” to the other side at a drafting conference. Maybe you’re still not sure exactly what you did wrong, but it must have been something. It’s always something. . . .

At a law firm, the standard predictive cognition — the expectation — is that you are going to be criticized. They do that a lot at law firms. It is a fair guess that if something goes wrong, you are going to be blamed – and things go wrong all the time.

Meyerhofer is a “biglaw” attorney who decided to become a therapist instead – having come from a family of social workers and therapists, it was not a big leap for him.  His account of the “toxic environment” of the big law firm, and his observations on how lawyers’ “inner child” is suffocated in such an environment is fascinating.

It doesn’t matter where you work – biglaw, small firm, or solo practitioner, it is a high pressure job with a lot of criticism and little opportunity for things like nurturing your inner child.  The pressures of trying to run a business as you are trying to take care of your clients, the worrying that you forgot something in this case or that case, or that you may have missed a filing deadline, the criticism from clients or the supervisor even in a small firm, and the harshness of opposing counsel, a judge, or you for that matter, makes for a high stress environment that is sustained over time.

The pressures of trial, something that biglaw associates rarely if ever need to endure, elevates the stress to incredible levels.  All of the everyday stress is still there, but has been pushed to the side and suppressed because the immediate needs of your client who is fighting for justice or his freedom takes over for the duration of the trial.  There is little sleep, there is constant pressure from the other side, from the judge, and from your client.  You are on a stage for the duration, and if you screw up it can have big consequences.

Truth is the job is not for everyone.  It’s not for many.  I never had an inkling of an urge to work at a big law firm – I have no desire to be lost in the masses of office-bound lawyers scrambling and clawing to reach the top of the heap, only to 1) be spit out once thoroughly chewed; or 2) to reach the top of the heap only to discover that the job still sucks and my life is more boring than it was when I began.  Like a commenter says at the ABA Journal: “Here’s another diagnosis for you.  Happiness found as an associate in a big law firm is just a form of Stockholm Syndrome.”

I love my job and what I do.  I suspect that most of those who cry about how difficult it is working at Biglaw also would not survive in my office for very long.  The pay sucks.  There’s plenty of criticism, and things have to be done right – preferably the first time.  We are in the trenches and we’ve experienced shell shock in the office and in the courtroom.  But, we know who our clients are and we see the difference that we make in their lives.  And we do have love, respect, and friendship here.

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