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 Chris, a senior lawyer facing burnout through unavoidable pressures.
The demands faced by lawyers are really no different to those we all face.
Burnout has no favourites.
The year started well.
Unusually, the office party had been a success and his firm seemed to be turning the corner after a difficult couple of years following the recession.
Chris was almost on top of his workload and for once didn’t start January with a sense of foreboding at what the next 12 months might hold.
Looking back on the year the following January, Chris described it as his ‘year from hell’.
Chris was in his 50s, a partner in a large provincial firm in charge of a department dealing with personal injury and clinical negligence claims. He was reasonably well organised, tried to keep a clear desk, and had a good professional record.
Generally clients’ complaints were rare and he made a point of dealing with any dissatisfaction face-to-face with the client. This had always served him well.
He had an open door policy in his department so that staff could, theoretically at least, talk to him at any time about things that were concerning them. If he wasn’t able to deal with things immediately he would schedule time later in the day or the following day to listen and supervise.
Disagreements between team members which happened from time to time were generally dealt with promptly, again with Chris getting the protagonists together to clear the air with him.
The resignation of a senior fee earner in one of the other departments in January did not create too much pressure for him, but when Joanne, the other partner in his department, announced in February that she was to move to a competitor firm his heart sank. He knew he wouldn’t be able to persuade her to stay and that in a couple of months he would have to break the news to the department.
Chris specialised in clinical negligence work. For the last few months he had been working on a case investigating the background of a claim involving a woman in her early 20s having been knocked down by a car when she was walking home with friends from a night club in the early hours of the morning. She’d been admitted to hospital and an overstretched A&E department had not detected a cerebral haemorrhage. The young woman died as a result of the undetected bleed.
When taking instructions from the family, Chris had soaked up a fair amount of the young woman’s father’s rage at his daughter’s death. On one occasion after the parents had left his office he felt overwhelmed with sadness. He represented the family at the inquest which he later described as his ‘hardest legal day’. The experience of preparing for and representing the family at the inquest was exhausting.
Shortly after Easter John assembled the department and told them that Joanne would be leaving the following month. This was met with a dismay, confusion and sadness by people. Joanne had been with the firm for over 10 years and was one of the family. Her announcement came out of the blue. For several weeks after this people popped into his office to talk about Joanne’s imminent departure. This was wearing.
When she left he had to supervise her ongoing caseload, involving work that he had been unfamiliar with for some time, including some complex occupational disease claims. He found himself in a difficult position, being asked for advice on technical matters from more junior members of the team, able to give general advice, but not with the confidence that he would have wished.
Work hours increased considerably and he would regularly be at the office for two or three hours longer than everyone else. This continued for several months.
Alongside this he was coping with family difficulties. In June his elderly mother had a fall and was in hospital for several weeks. He visited her regularly and dealt with her care arrangements on discharge from hospital. Earlier in the year he had been aware that his daughter who had been engaged for some time was having difficulties in her relationship. In August she broke off her engagement and returned to live at home for several months.
Later in the same month when he was on holiday he learnt by text that one of his work partners had died suddenly from a stroke. They sailed together and had been close friends for over 20 years. When he returned to the office after holiday he was again involved in pastoral work, looking after grieving staff members, whilst at the same time trying to come to terms with his own deep felt loss.
Around the time of the funeral he found that he could not sleep, felt vaguely nauseated throughout the day, and exhausted. He went to see his doctor who suggested antidepressants and he started on Prozac. The doctor also suggested referring him for counselling under the NHS but was told that waiting lists were lengthy. Chris took the initiative and started seeing a counsellor privately; this lasted for around five months.
His partners were supportive and in October he was able to take three weeks out of the office to recharge his batteries.
Very little, if anything, of what happened during the year could have been foreseen, prepared for, or avoided.
When he looked back on the year he said, “I could’ve coped with everything. It was my feelings of helplessness when my daughter’s relationship broke up. I think that’s what broke me up”.
(This is an edited excerpt from my book A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress published by ARK Group in 2015.)