On May 22, 2017, The Wall Street Journal ran an article about the legal profession’s enduring problem: psychological distress. For decades, attorneys have led most occupations in the incidence of serious psychological afflictions — depression, substance abuse, even suicide. Now some law firms are “tackling a taboo,” namely, the mental health problems of their lawyers.
Some observers theorize that a special “lawyer personality” is the culprit. In other words, we have only ourselves to blame, so no one should feel sorry for us. Then again, no one ever feels sorry for lawyers anyway. But attorney psychological distress has become a sufficient problem that, as the Journal reports, some big law firms are now “offering on-site psychologists, training staff to spot problems, and incorporating mental health support alongside other wellness initiatives.”
Stated differently, law firms are following the unfortunate path that has become a dominant approach in the medical profession: treating symptoms rather than the disease. Perhaps that’s because law firm leaders know that curing it would cut into their personal annual incomes.
Other workers have serious psychological challenges, too. But attorneys seem to suffer in disproportionately high numbers. The Journal article cites a 2016 study of US lawyers finding that 20.6 percent of those surveyed were heavy drinkers (compared to 15.4 percent for members of the American College of Surgeons). Likewise, 28 percent experienced symptoms of depression (compared with eight percent or less for the general population). According to a 2012 CDC study cited in the Journal, attorneys have the 11th-highest suicide rate.
Now add one more data point. According to an ABA survey in 2007, lawyers in big firms are the least satisfied with their jobs. Anyone familiar with the prevailing big firm environment knows that it has deteriorated dramatically since 1985.
The New World
What has changed? For starters, just getting a job at a big law firm is more difficult. Corporate clients have found cost-effective alternatives to young attorneys billing $300 an hour to review documents. At many firms, demand remains soft.
But the real psychological problems begin after a new associate enters the door. For most of them, promotion to equity partner has become a pipe dream. In 1985, 36 percent of all lawyers in The American Lawyer’s first survey of the nation’s fifty largest firms were equity partners. In 2016, the comparable number was under 22 percent. More than 40 percent of all AmLaw 100 partners are now non-equity partners. The leverage ratio of equity partners to all attorneys has doubled. Stated another way, it’s twice as difficult to become an equity partner today as it was in 1985. That’s what’s been happening at the financial pinnacle of the profession.
The Business Model
There is nothing inevitable about the underlying business model that produces these outcomes. It’s a choice. In 1985, average profits per partner for the Am Law 50 was $300,000 — or about $700,000 in 2017 dollars. Today’s it’s $1.7 million. And the gap within most equity partnerships reflects their eat-what-you-kill culture. Instead of 3-to-1 in 1985, the ratio of highest-to-lowest partner compensation within equity partnerships often exceeds 10-to-1. As the rich have become richer, annual equity partner earnings of many millions of dollars has become commonplace.
At what cost? The future. As law firm leaders rely upon short-term metrics — billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios — they’re pulling up the ladder on the next generation. Too many associates; too few equity slots. Let the contest begin!
But rather than revisit the wisdom of the model, some big firm leaders have made what the Journal characterizes as a daring move: bring in a psychologist. It’s better than nothing, but it’s a far cry from dealing with the core problem that starts with the billable hour, moves through metrics that managers use to maximize short-run partner profits, and ends in predictable psychological distress — even for the so-called winners. The Journal notes that a psychologist at one firm was offering this sad advice to its attorneys: Take a cellphone reprieve by turning off all electronic devices between 2:00 am and 6:00 am.
But even such input from mental health professionals seems anathema to some firm leaders. According to the Journal, Dentons’ chairman Joseph Andrew says that his fear of offering an on-site psychologist was that “competitors will say we have crazy lawyers.”
Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates recently told the New Yorker about her father, an attorney who suffered from depression and committed suicide. “Tragically,” Yates said, “the fear of stigma then associated with depression prevented him from getting the treatment he needed.”
For some firm leaders, “then” is still “now.” And that’s truly crazy.