Flom-ergasted: Reflections On Sad News

I read a blogpost this week that was so moving that I had to write about it myself. The post comes from the Above The Law website, and tells of the untimely death of an associate at a US law firm from a heart attack. The associate in question was just 32 years old.

The post tells the cautionary tale of the pressure that associates can be placed under to fulfil their required ‘hours billed’ targets, and the high attrition rates this leads to. I advise everyone to read this post: In Re The Passing Of A Skadden Associate.

As a future law firm trainee, it is a story that sends chills down my spine. Yes it’s uncommon, yes I knew exactly what I was letting myself in for when I applied – I’ve seen the kinds of hours that members of my family and my friends spend at their offices – but it still shocks and saddens me.

The thought strikes me that the young woman in question was probably bristling with excitement when she found out she had passed the New York Bar exams and had secured a job at a top corporate law firm.

Now, that job she craved and dedicated her late-20s and early-30s to has contributed to the early ending of her life.

If anything good can come from this and the other stress-induced collapses that have occurred recently, it is that law firms may heed the lesson that the Above The Law article teaches. The poster writes:

…our team was addressed by the partner in charge of the case. He gave us the standard blah blah blah about taking care of ourselves and all that. But then he said (and I won’t forget this until the day I die): “You guys, you don’t have a thermostat. Nobody knows how far you can go before you blow.”

…[The partner was] reminding us that we ourselves don’t really know how much we can take, until maybe it’s too late.

It’s not a story that will affect me on a day-to-day basis, nor will it dissuade me from following the path that I have chosen. All who are applying for training contracts at the moment should already be aware that the life of a corporate lawyer can seem like a never-ending stream of hours, deadlines, instructions and meetings. That the pressure of work at some firms contributes to stress for the lawyer and those around them. That life as a solicitor is not a fairytale existence most of the time.

Writing for Guardian Law today, Alex Aldridge says that some firms have started to implement schemes designed to improve the balance between work and non-work in the lives of lawyers. But perhaps these have not gone far enough yet. There is a continuing trend of steady growth in the in-house legal sector in the UK at the moment, and an article published today on The Australian website shows that new graduates in the Land Down Under are shunning private practice in favour of working in-house. I know from my own work experience that the life of lawyers in private practice can be far more demanding in terms of control over hours and targets than it is in-house, although this can vary according to department, sector and seniority.

If this seems like a wistful blogpost, it is only because I read this story and could see a blank space for the name of both the lawyer and the firm, able to be filled by countless others across the world who work similar numbers of hours under similar amounts of pressure for similarly sustained periods of time. There is probably a degree of personal contribution to the stress levels, either by nature or diet or volunteering for extra work. But in general, any of the trainees who choose the corporate life could be leaving themselves open to an early demise.

It is a sobering thought for a 23-year-old prospective solicitor.

About Ashley Connick
Ashley Connick is a solicitor at an international law firm. For a full profile, please visit the "About the Author" section of the blog.

2 Responses to Flom-ergasted: Reflections On Sad News

  1. Miss TS says:

    Managing stress/workload levels is really important. If either gets too high unless you are one of the rare breed that actually works well under pressure you are in danger of being unproductive and mediochre as well as putting your health at risk. I hope death and illness within the profession due to stress are uncommon but I would suspect that is not the case. Putting the client first is core to being a lawyerbut should not be at the expense of the lawyer!

    Unfortunately as a trainee I have to say I have been guilty of getting too stressed once or twice….. It is a somber thought that I might be doing myself some damage……

  2. Tim Bratton says:

    Ashley, I see the point you are making. However, no-one (including the Above The Law blog, which in fairness points this out) should draw too many conclusions from this until the cause of death is known. Irrespective of the cause of death it is a tragic tale for someone so young. The cause however could have been any number of things (e.g. underlying heart condition) and even if it was stress related, the job may have only been one of a number of factors. As a runner, I know that a small number of people have heart attacks in marathons each year. It’s not necessarily due to the marathon – if you put any volume of people in one place (e.g. in a marathon line-up or as associates in US law firms or in an airport) then statistically a small minority of people in the group are likely to suffer from certain underlying medical conditions which may be triggered whilst they are in that place – the place itself is not necessarily the trigger. That all said, I am a believer that lawyers (wherever they work) should be encouraged to maintain a work/life balance and some of the comments in the Above The Law blog post do not make for pleasant reading – not sure if the macho law nature of some of them is a coping mechanism for a gruelling lifestyle. Thanks for drawing attention to them. Best, Tim

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