A while back I wrote a book for lawyers about wellbeing. In it I used three fictional case studies to illustrate aspects of professionals’ experience.
This piece is about Beth, a young lawyer beginning to question her career choices.
The uncertainties faced by lawyers are really no different to those we all face.
Bullies have no favourites.
It was pretty much out of desperation when Beth telephoned LawCare one lunchtime.
She had been vaguely aware that there were some organisations which provided help for lawyers in difficulty. Following a Google search she had found the LawCare website and downloaded some information about stress and bullying. When the phone was dialling she could feel her heart pounding. It had taken great effort to decide to call and when a helpline lawyer answered the call she felt rather tongue tied.
Gradually, she was able to tell her story and was almost overwhelmed by relief when she put the phone down almost an hour later.
Beth was 28. After graduating, she had joined a large city firm as a trainee. The firm had kept her on as an associate and she was spending long days as a young corporate lawyer. Over the last year the hours had increased and the expectations of her profitability had grown. 15 hour days were becoming more common and although she was not really aware of it, she was becoming increasingly tired and had begun to make silly mistakes. Nothing serious, only arithmetical errors and clerical oversights; however, she was acutely aware of them and was increasingly beginning to feel that she had made the wrong career choice.
Four months previously she had missed an important deadline on one of her files. Nothing turned on it and it caused no difficulty with the client, but her supervisor Steve made much of it. Not only did he lose his temper with her one-to-one after it came to light, but he let everyone in their team know what had happened. From then onwards she felt that she would take the blame for difficulties within the department. On occasions Steve would say things which, on the face of it, could have been innocuous, but were clearly loaded and intended to humiliate her publicly.
The longer working hours meant that she was unable to go out with friends as much as she had in the past. She became increasingly socially isolated, stopped going to the gym, and felt that she had no one with whom she could share her worries. There seemed no way out, other than to hand in her resignation or apply for another job elsewhere. Moving would probably also mean a fair reduction in salary and she had worked out that this would mean downsizing her flat. She had thought about giving up the law entirely and maybe opening a coffee shop. But she did’nt feel brave enough for this and all the financial uncertainty that would be involved.
As her story unfolded, the LawCare helper’s questions made her think of things that hadn’t occurred to her before.
Was it possible the long hours might be having some effect on the mistakes that she was making?
Had she raised the issue of her colleague’s bullying with his superior?
Did she feel able to raise the bullying issue directly with the supervisor?
Was she working the long hours purely to meet the time recording requirements of the firm or also to impress people?
They looked at the options of staying with the same firm, moving to another firm in the same area, and moving location. They thought in general about the possibility of leaving the law. The helper made a number of suggestions about ways in which she could think about her position. As a result she googled ‘transactional analysis’ and was helped by the idea of parent, adult, and child relationships.
The helper wondered whether Beth might like some free ongoing support from a LawCare volunteer who had experienced similar problems to hers. She was put in touch with another lawyer with whom she talked on the phone at prearranged times over the next three months or so. Together they were able to think about what was happening in the workplace and to plan ways in which she could find her voice, particularly with her difficult supervisor.
She had been on the point of making a complaint about her supervisor, but things settled down after she plucked up the courage to talk to him in a more self-assertive way about how he was behaving.
After this talk, she was able to understand a bit more of the pressures that he was under. She wondered if this may have been fuelling some of his aggression towards her.
She became more disciplined in her timekeeping and prioritised regular times for meeting friends.
After the talk with Steve she realised more clearly that others in the department had also felt intimidated by him and that she had not been the only one. She had not been able to see it like this previously.
After the involvement with the LawCare volunteer finished, Beth was weighing up her options of staying with the firm or applying for work elsewhere.
(This is an edited excerpt from my book A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress published by ARK Group in 2015.)