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Young lawyers are exploited, not mentally ill

There is a lot of talk in the legal profession about a mental health crisis. Many people are trying to raise awareness about this issue and address it by getting people to talk openly about it.

There is a lot of talk in the legal profession about a mental health crisis. Many people are trying to raise awareness about this issue and address it by getting people to talk openly about it. Those who encourage openness often assume that these mental health issues exist in large numbers among members of the legal profession.

There is no doubt that many people in the legal profession struggle with negative thoughts, feelings and angst about the future and that this can be a clinical issue where intervention is needed. However, particularly among students and recent graduates, what is thought of as mental illness in the legal profession is not always or even mostly attributable to mental illness, especially when it comes to depression and anxiety.

I was a university student for seven years and throughout this time I thought that I had a tendency toward depression and anxiety. I went to see various doctors about these issues who prescribed various medications. Having been free of what I thought of as depression and anxiety for many years, I cannot help but wonder whether it was a misdiagnosis and if, rather than something like a chemical imbalance in my brain, I was just aware of how bad my circumstances were and had negative thoughts and feelings that were completely natural and reasonable in those circumstances.

For most law students, a stark choice is presented at the outset: 1) try to make sacrifices in your enjoyment of life and accrue massive amounts of debt, 2) try to enjoy your life as a student and accrue even more massive amounts of debt. Both options are bad and come with consequences of negative thoughts and feelings. Into this choice between two bad alternatives must be inserted the knowledge that law school is not a guarantee of wealth or even a guarantee of making the kind of living that justifies the time, effort and expense of law school. All law students recognize this right away, which is precisely what makes law school so competitive and what makes many students so riddled with anxiety.

I hated this system from the beginning of my undergraduate degree until the end of law school. Even though I am more than a decade removed from my days as a student, I still often ask myself what kind of a system this is. Whose idea was it to put the smart kids who listen to their parents and want to become a pillar of society into a situation where they are forced to endure circumstances like this?

As much as I hated my circumstances, things have become much worse for students since I graduated. The thoughts and feelings that students and young lawyers are experiencing are not, in my opinion, due to worsening mental health but rather due to circumstances getting worse. Tuition has gone up, in some cases exponentially, without any relationship to the quality of the education or the economic outcomes of the students. Hundreds of new law students are being added into the hyper-competitive fray each year and the numbers of people becoming lawyers are completely unrelated to jobs in the legal profession and the demand for lawyers.

Added to these deteriorations in circumstances in the last 10 years is the spiraling cost of house prices in many cities, so that students who are already in a bad situation additionally have the knowledge that it will be very difficult and maybe impossible to buy a home, which has been for generations a benchmark of stability and success.

If I am right that the problems many law students and young lawyers face are not related to mental health but rather to circumstances, then it is also important to point out that these circumstances are not a product of natural forces beyond anyone’s control. When administrators at law schools decide to raise tuition by tens of thousands of dollars and add hundreds of students to the class, their decisions are the product of choice. When the law society decides to approve new law schools and not limit foreign-trained students to become practising lawyers, their decisions are the product of choice. The people making these decisions almost invariably did not face the hyper-competitive, debt-addled pressure cooker that is being imposed on the students.

n retrospect, I do not believe I ever had anything like depression or anxiety in a clinical sense, I was just aware of my circumstances and how bad they were. I do not believe that law students today are, for the most part, experiencing a mental health crisis. Law students and young lawyers know that they have been put into bad circumstances and there is nothing they can do about it.

Being sad and anxious is exactly how they should feel.

Millennial lawyers look for the value proposition

Law firms would do well to identify the “why” of their practices in order to attract and keep young lawyers, argues Daniel Lo

In the past decade we have been seeing droves of millennial lawyers leaving the seemingly stable and prestigious legal profession, citing factors from unrelentingly long hours to constant stress and pressure, toxic office environments, fixation with Post-Qualified Experience (PQE) ranking, mundane and repetitive work, and the increasingly redundant billable hour.

Law firms and in-house legal departments are scrambling to understand why this is happening and how to adapt in order to retain millennial talent. Initiatives such as open concept offices, flexible work schedules and ping pong tables (yup, they are still cool) have been some of the responses to “what millennial lawyers want”; however these are short-term measures toward a major generational workplace shift in how millennials view work and life.

Making a living is not good enough anymore; millennials want purpose-driven careers and are willing to take a pay cut to find this. Recent surveys reveal that millennials will consider a company’s social/environmental commitments before deciding where to work and won’t take a job if they do not feel there is a strong alignment in terms of corporate responsibility and diversity practices. Millennials want to actively contribute, and believe, in the social purpose of the companies and firms they work for. They want to be able to share their goals and values with their employer and be involved in discussions about how their company achieves their purpose at an early stage. A 2011 PwC report describes millennials at work as wanting “their work to have a purpose, to contribute something to the world and they want to be proud of their employer.”

What can law firms and companies do to attract and instil trust and loyalty among young lawyers? The overwhelming answer is to focus on your “why.” Simon Sinek is the author of several books on the topic of leadership, including Start with Why. In this book he describes a “Golden Circle” with three layers, with “why” as the focal point, followed by “how” and “what.”

The Golden Circle model attempts to explain why some people and organizations are more successful in inspiring others and differentiating themselves. The neuroscience behind it is that humans respond best when messages communicate with those parts of their brain that control emotions, behaviour and decision-making: the limbic brain. Sinek explains that “why” is probably the most important message that an organization or individual can communicate, as this is what inspires others to action and provides identity.

“How” is the process in which an organization or individual achieves their end goal, such as the actions they take, the systems and processes in place, and also appeals to the limbic brain (however not as strong and lasting as focusing on the “why”).

“What” is the most basic function of an organization or individual; it is what one does, the products or services one provides. It appeals only to the neocortex, which focuses on the rational.

“Why” is how one explains one’s purpose, the reason one exist and behaves as one does. Sinek’s theory is that successfully communicating the passion behind the “why” is a way to communicate with a listener’s limbic brain. This processes feelings such as trust and loyalty, and informs our decision-making. An organization that is successful in understanding and articulating their “why” will be able to garner the trust and loyalty of their employees because everyone will believe in and contribute to a common purpose.

Lawyers, law firms and legal departments, probably due to the isolated and specialized nature of the profession, have largely gotten away with focusing simply on the “what” of their practice, and have perhaps only recently started articulating their “how.” Overall, they have never needed to consider their “why.”

Certain practice areas are well positioned for a shift towards “why” due to the more personal nature of the work, such as family, criminal and employment law. The more difficult practices to make this shift would include corporate/commercial law, capital markets and banking. How would a corporate practice begin to make this cultural shift? This is not an easy question and would require some self-examination by a law firm in order to reshape its identity. However, perhaps instead of the typical “We are a Tier 1-ranked corporate law firm with highly regarded practitioners,” shift the mindset to “We believe that running a company should be fun and uncomplicated; let us help you simplify the process.”

The culture of the firm might then shift to one that emphasizes the pursuit of simplicity. This new “why” would permeate down to each lawyer in the firm as they work toward the common purpose of simplifying the lives of company owners and making transactions as stress-free as possible.

Another example could be an intellectual property law firm that pursues innovation as their “why.” Perhaps it’s in their processes and adoption of legal tech, perhaps it’s in the creative pursuits the firm encourages their lawyers to chase. No matter what methods and processes that this intellectual property law firm adopts, it is still guided by its core purpose of innovation.

At the end of the day, this shift in corporate culture may be too farfetched or intangible for law firms and in-house legal departments to even consider right now. Discovering an organization’s “why” is not easy, and will require a hard look at an organization’s value proposition. By 2025, millennials will make up three-quarters of the global workforce; even if law firms and in-house legal departments do not adapt to millennial thinking, their clients inevitably will be led by millennials and will pursue this new purpose-driven agenda.

If ensuring the longevity and relevance of your firm or department is important to you, then it’s time to sit down and have a think before it’s too late.

Networking can help young lawyers absorb the coming recession

It has been a decade since the world experienced what is considered the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. Since then, the global economy has been slow to recover, not helped by the 2014 oil crisis, the rise of populist politics and trade wars. There are now warning signs that we are headed towards another recession, as early as next year. Millennials, are you ready?

It has been a decade since the world experienced what is considered the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. Since then, the global economy has been slow to recover, not helped by the 2014 oil crisis, the rise of populist politics and trade wars. There are now warning signs that we are headed towards another recession, as early as next year. Millennials, are you ready?

The millennial generation (roughly born between 1980-1996) have felt (and are probably still feeling) the grunt of the 2008 financial crisis as many of us were just leaving the safety bubble of higher education and were headed into the uncertain job market. Why do millennials matter? In a year or so, this generation will make up over half of the workforce and within a decade, millennials will increase to nearly 75 per cent. In 2017, millennials represented two-thirds of the workforce and nearly 25 per cent of all lawyers were from this generation.

Post 2008, many millennials have struggled to start their chosen careers and have delayed their foray into adulthood. Many blame millennials for this failure on account of them being soft, entitled, lazy and narcissistic. However, I would argue that not only are these characterizations unfounded, but it has a lot to do with external factors. I highly recommend everyone watch this brilliant short video on millennials in the workplace by Simon Sinek, a British-American author, motivational speaker and organizational consultant. Simon discusses how millennials have been negatively impacted by poor parenting, the addiction of social media, the need for instant gratification and the lack of good leadership in corporate environments. In addition to these factors, I believe that the financial crisis has had more of an impact on our careers and career motivations that many would like to admit.

For law students that were fortunate enough to start their legal careers before the financial crisis, these millennials had a general sense of optimism about their future – graduating into a strong economy – and had a head-start on adulthood by starting their ever-essential junior years as a lawyer and having the financial means to move out of their parents’ house. This group could be considered the ‘early career millennials’ group.

The ‘later career millennials’ group captures those law students that were unfortunate enough to launch their careers after 2008. This group tends to have a more pessimistic view on career prospects and had trouble launching into adulthood. Many had to stay at home longer and had trouble securing articling and starting their careers. Later career millennials were met with rejections, expectations of continued rejection and increased competition from a larger pool of highly qualified unemployed candidates.

Motivation-wise, it has been found that early career millennials generally care more about autonomy, wanting the freedom to choose where, when and how they work and also who they work with. Those lawyers in this ‘early career millennial’ group have reached mid-level experience by the time 2008 came around and can draw on their exposure to the healthy amount of deal-flow and work gained from the good times pre-2008 to make such demands.

Lawyers in the ‘later career millennial’ group are generally motivated by money, with their workplace satisfaction more tied to their ability to earn so they can be free to live where they want and pay their bills. This general trend can be seen with other careers as well.

As a member of the ‘later career millennial’ camp, I have found that my outlook on what a proper legal career should look like has become much more flexible and more uncertain than my counterparts in the generation X or baby boomer generation. Through my early experience with incessant rejections from law firms and being told the “it’s not you, it’s the economy” bit, I was forced to explore more unconventional routes to qualification and legal practice. It was actually a blessing in disguise as through my journey to become a lawyer, I now see the benefits of quasi-legal roles, international work experience, an early grasp of personal branding and marketing and the building of a business-development mindset as a junior. Being “unlucky” enough to have been exposed to both the 2008 financial crisis and the 2014 oil crisis, I have found that one task has continued to help me prepare for tough times ahead and have allowed me to weather through career uncertainty, it is through caring for and building my network.

Your network is like your personal board of advisors where you can draw advice and support from. In the best of times, your network can contribute to your value proposition by bringing you clients, being your strongest marketing supporter by spreading your profile around or even introduce you to hidden investment opportunities. In the worst of times, your network can be your safety net by helping you look for work opportunities, providing you with encouragement and tips and providing a safe space for you to commiserate with others in similar situations. The easiest way to build your network is to connect with those that have similar hobbies/characteristics/interests as you, but also be open to meeting people that are outside of your comfort zone. Building a quality network is a numbers game, you will need to filter through many acquaintances just to get to individuals that you generally get along with and wouldn’t be shy to reach out for help from. Develop a relationship with your new contacts by listening to their stories. My focus on storytelling is enjoyable because even though each story is different from the next, there are always overarching themes and experiences that you can relate and empathize with.

Millennials, as we prepare for yet another downturn in the economy, use the fear of rejections and hardships as motivation to recession proof yourself through building your network.

The difference between a manager and a leader

Leading a law firm is a difficult task. It requires expert legal knowledge, business acumen and people skills. These aspects of the job require different skills and the ability to bring all three into a unified perspective. This can be done by fully understanding both your role as a leader and your organizational purpose, and these will act as a focusing lens as you move your organization forward.

Leading a law firm is a difficult task. It requires expert legal knowledge, business acumen and people skills. These aspects of the job require different skills and the ability to bring all three into a unified perspective. This can be done by fully understanding both your role as a leader and your organizational purpose, and these will act as a focusing lens as you move your organization forward.

Let’s start with distinguishing between managers and leaders. A manager is someone who deals with assigning tasks to others, overseeing workflow, acting as a subject matter expert and who steps in when files get complicated. Leaders leverage the knowledge of managers to inform their decision-making and to understand the challenges facing the business. Being a manager is integral to the role of the lawyer as they oversee various clerks, paralegals, case files and clients.

A leader is someone who holds a vision and understands the purpose of an organization. A leader has the foresight to see what the organization has the potential to become, can develop a plan to get there and can communicate the plan to inspire the team who will realize it. A leader’s goal is to keep the organization unified and moving in the same direction. If you’ve ever tried to lead a group of lawyers, you realize the magnitude of this task.

Lawyers often make good managers, but the jump from manager to leader is a tough one because it requires a different set of skills, ones that don’t necessarily come easily to those who have been practising lawyers for several years.

As lawyers, we are trained to spot legal issues, apply rules and argue a position (sometimes referred to as IRAC: Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion). This process requires the lawyer to identify a problem and drill down into the details of the law and the facts. This training is excellent for arguing a case, but it isn’t as helpful when it comes to firm leadership. Leading is a proactive exercise as opposed to a problem solving or reactive one. Of course, leaders need to solve business problems, but the way in which those challenges are met should be informed by the bigger forward-moving picture.

In legal practice, sharing information can mean losing strategic advantage, so lawyers also tend to keep information to themselves and respond to alternate views with counter arguments. Legal practice also requires the ability to think quickly on your feet and be ready to prove the correctness of a given position. These same traits in business and leadership discussions can prevent open and productive discourse and limit potential opportunities.

Leaders need the ability to openly discuss their vision and operational plan and consider constructive suggestions that can develop ideas and help the organization thrive. It’s the difference between deconstructing an existing problem and building something new.

The first step in moving from a manager to a leader is to understand what the firm does best and the motivation behind it. People, be it employees or clients, will rally behind an identified purpose. It inspires and gives life to an organization.

Many lawyers have a reason or purpose as to why they entered into the profession. Profit can be a key motivator; however, profit is generally considered a result of work and not the purpose for it. Many of us decided to go to law school for a reason: a desire to fight for social justice, to have global influence, for the intellectual challenge or the prestige of the role. For me it was a love of policy development, which creates the structure to solve social challenges.

Leaders can draw on the reasons why they became lawyers to inform their purpose and to motivate the work that their firm does. If you have risen to a leadership role within an existing firm, understanding the firm’s history and the purpose of its founding partners may be the key.

The purpose and the area of law practised do not necessarily need to be directly related. An example of this is a lawyer I know who has a passion for social justice and practises and teaches tax law. Although the two seem incompatible, he views tax law as the means for encouraging and discouraging social behaviours, an expression of societal values. In this way, he brings a sense of social justice and development to a topic that can seem arbitrary. He uses his passion to inspire both his work and a room full of tired and cranky law students. He leads and innovates through his sense of purpose.

Once you identify your firm purpose, you can use it as a filter to make informed and consistent decisions on all levels whether legal, business or people based: how to develop business leads, where to grow the firm’s potential, how to staff and structure teams and the list goes on.

This big-picture thinking requires law firm leaders to move away from getting caught in the details and to take a step back to think about the big picture. This can be challenging for lawyers, but the conscious effort to do so can improve your firm operations, distinguish your firm in the marketplace and help to achieve success.

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