‘A survey of nearly 13,000 lawyers published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine found that almost half – 46 percent – had experienced concerns about depression at some point in their careers’
PEGASUS REPORTERS: JUNE 29, 2023
When Tracy H. graduated from an elite liberal-arts college in 2011, she had no clue what she wanted to do with her life. It felt like she needed to find a prestigious next step — one that would earn her respect, stability, and a comfortable living. Many of her peers were focused on careers in banking, consulting, and medicine, but none of those seemed right for her. So she decided to become a lawyer.
“I basically came to law school through a process of elimination,” said Tracy, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy.
Once she became a lawyer, however, Tracy was “really unhappy.” She craved independence and creativity, but both felt unobtainable at her jobs, first at a small boutique shop and then at a Big Law firm. She was so miserable, so driven down by the drudgery and pressures of the law, that she wanted to quit, but she feared taking such a drastic step. She felt like something was wrong with her — no one at her law firm ever talked about being unhappy, she said, because they didn’t want to be seen as weak.
Although Tracy didn’t know it, she was far from alone. Many lawyers are deeply dissatisfied with their day-to-day work, toiling in jobs in which they have little autonomy and crushing responsibility. A survey of nearly 13,000 lawyers published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine found that almost half — 46 percent — had experienced concerns about depression at some point in their careers. Another survey, published in PLOS One, found one in four female lawyers were thinking of leaving the profession because of mental-health issues, burnout, or stress.
For some, it’s the disappointment of spending three years studying law to pass a grueling bar exam, only to end up drafting paperwork for a corporation they don’t care about. For others, it’s the incessant demands of clients who expect them to do that paperwork at all hours of the day and night. Lawyers are so miserable, in fact, that a host of coaching services have sprung up to help them escape their careers. “It’s the only industry that has a sub-industry devoted to helping people leave it, so widespread is the misery,” Liz Brown, a former attorney who fled her career at Big Law firms for a new career as a law professor, said. Being a lawyer, it turns out, is a lot like smoking. It looks cool, but everyone wants to quit.
Tracy eventually sought the help of Leave Law Behind, a coaching service dedicated to helping attorneys extricate themselves from the field they worked so hard to join. The program — founded by two former lawyers — includes self-paced learning materials, one-on-one coaching sessions, and monthly group sessions. At first, Tracy balked at the cost. It wasn’t prohibitive financially — it was only a few thousand dollars. It was the mental leap that blocked her. “I couldn’t spend more money to leave the law because I had already spent so much money to get into the law,” she said.
But Casey Berman, the founder of Leave Law Behind, offered her a discount, and that made all the difference. Today, Tracy is running projects and data analysis for a Big Law firm. Yes, the setting is the same, but she’s no longer a lawyer, and her workdays couldn’t be more different. She works on a team, has flexibility in how she structures her day, and gets to be creative. “I really like my job,” she said. “My day is fairly independent, and rarely is there an assignment that I have to do within the next two hours.”
Berman said that 280 lawyers are currently enrolled in Leave Law Behind’s course. What they have in common is misery. “We ask in our application, why do you want to leave? What is the pain?,” Berman said. For a profession that prides itself on its lofty values, the responses are heartrending. “I’m not able to enjoy anything,” said one respondent. “Work has become my existence and it needs to stop. I’m stressed beyond belief trying to keep it together. The clients are always unreasonable. I’m miserable. I have no hope.”
‘We pursued it for the wrong reasons’
It’s only in recent years that lawyers have begun to talk about the deep discontent they feel in their chosen profession. When Brown published her book, “Life After Law,” in 2013, there were only a handful of people talking about switching careers: “It did not seem to me at the time that there was any conversation about leaving the law, other than that you’d be considered a failure for not being able to cut it.” Since then, Brown said, the network of consultants set up to serve fleeing lawyers has “exploded.”
Berman said many clients come to him feeling paralyzed — they’ve sunk far too much time and money into becoming a lawyer to justify quitting. Imagine spending $200,000 and three years to get a job and then deciding to just … give it up. They worry about confronting the unknown, burning bridges, or disappointing their parents. “There’s a real sense of, I shouldn’t be talking about this,” Berman said. “I’m embarrassed to not like my white-collar job.”
For most unhappy lawyers, Berman said, the root cause is simple: Like Tracy, they shouldn’t have become lawyers in the first place. “We pursued it for the wrong reasons,” he said. “I always joke that I was a Jewish kid who didn’t like blood, so I went to law school instead of medical school. I joke about it, but it shows how noncritically I thought about this choice.”
For many smart, straight-A college students, law school seems like a respectable next step. It looks glamorous on TV, it rewards go-getters, and, as conventional wisdom has it, you can do anything with a law degree. After law school, students get funneled into jobs at corporate law firms, where the path to promotion is clear and the pay is high enough to help them chip away at their student loans. But at some point, there aren’t enough gold stars to make the work worth it.
“Law school was an easy path for smart kids to have a challenging job and make decent money,” Annie Little, another lawyer turned career coach, said. “Plus, we’re children when we make these decisions.”
Nneka A. Norville practiced law for “maybe two years” after law school before going into marketing. She liked the theories she had learned in law school but didn’t like the practice itself. A few years ago, Norville and another former lawyer founded More Than Esquires, a private network of about 1,000 lawyers and former lawyers. Some members are looking for jobs outside the law; others are just hoping to escape the confines of their professional identities.
“Law school tends to be a catch-all for people who are good writers, who have a vague skill set,” Norville says. “That doesn’t mean you’re going to love going to the courtroom or negotiating points in a contract.”
Some of the most disappointed lawyers are those who entered the profession because they wanted to change the world, only to end up feeling like they were serving as butlers to capitalism. They studied environmental law hoping to work at the Sierra Club, only to somehow find themselves defending Exxon. Brown called it the “failed promise of justice.”
“A lot of people go into law because they’re idealistic, they want to make the world a better place, and they like the idea of justice,” she said. “But all the jobs that will help pay back law-school tuition are not creating justice for anyone but corporations.”
Elena Deutsch, a career coach who founded Women Interested in Leaving Big Law, described most of her clients as “smart, ambitious, great students, learners, eager to make a difference in the world.” But the reality of the law hit them hard. “A lot of the people I work with, they have ethical agita about the work they’re doing,” she said. “They don’t want to make banks and insurance companies more money.”
‘They feel unseen’
And then there are the lawyers who actually do want to serve banks and big corporations — but who get chewed up and beaten down by the pressures and culture of the profession. Lawyers are often expected to be on call 24/7 and to produce flawless work — every time — without ever being thanked or even acknowledged for it. Deutsch said one of her clients was rebuked by a superior for not italicizing a comma within quotation marks.
“These are the things that keep them up at night,” Deutsch said. “I spoke with a woman who said, ‘I just want to feel like I can get my nails done and not check my mail every 30 seconds.’ They get told they should be setting better boundaries. But when they don’t adhere to the demands and expectations, they get chastised.”
Coaches say their clients routinely describe feeling bored, overworked, and underappreciated. Some lawyers have reported digestive problems or trouble getting pregnant that quickly went away once they left their jobs. “It’s the basics of thank you,” said Little. “Like, ‘Hey I’m sorry we had to work over the weekend, but I really appreciate it.’ That’s it! But lawyers aren’t getting that.”
Little, who also coaches executives, said attorneys at all levels, even heads of departments, often feel like they don’t have autonomy or agency over what they do. “Burnout is caused by the workplace,” she said. “It’s not something lawyers are causing themselves.”
Lauren Krasnow, a former Big Law attorney, now works as a leadership coach for senior lawyers at law firms, teaching them about the seemingly small yet important things they can do to support their lawyers. “I’ve heard many stories about partners screwing up people’s names,” she said. “There’s no acknowledgment of this person as a human being, much less the specific qualities that person brings to the table. They feel unseen, they feel unknown, they certainly feel unvalued.” The bar is so low that some law firms have recently begun selling themselves to potential hires with a “no assholes” or “no screamers” policy.
For lawyers who have only known high-stakes, perfectionist workplaces, it can be hard to imagine anything different. “It’s like you are a morally deficient person because you don’t enjoy working in a super-toxic environment and billing tons of hours,” Sarah Cottrell, another lawyer turned coach who hosts the podcast “Former Lawyer,” said. “That’s how I felt. And on top of everything else, you have a license. So there’s this level of, at any moment I could make a mistake and that mistake could be the thing that could cost my job and my livelihood.”
Despite all the misery, the coaches said, their clients face huge mental barriers when deciding to leave the profession. “I can’t tell you the number of crazy accomplished people who come to me and say, ‘I don’t think I’m qualified for any other job,'” Cottrell said. “They’re like, ‘I don’t have hobbies because I don’t have time for hobbies. I don’t know what to do when this is all that I am.'”
In the end, coaches said, the hardest thing about separating from what’s making you miserable is rebuilding your sense of who you are. “The lawyer identity becomes its own pain point,” Deutsch, the founder of Women Interested in Leaving Big Law, said. “It’s an important identity, and they feel pride in it, but they feel trapped in it, too.” She recalled what one client, who was sick of being a lawyer, said to her in anguish.
“What will I tell my kids,” the woman lamented, “if I’m not a lawyer?”
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