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The Dire Straits of Legal Practice: Overcoming Industrial Disease with Psychological Detachment and Assertiveness

The Dire Straits of Legal Practice:
Overcoming Industrial Disease with Psychological
Detachment and Assertiveness 

Ice-breaker questions can be fun as well as practical when a new group of people is getting to know each other. Over the years, I have done many variations of ice breakers both as a meeting leader and as a participant. One favourite question was “what is the first concert you attended?” I had fun using that question, until it started appearing as an authentication question on websites that need to ascertain identity. All of a sudden, talking about your first live concert became a security risk.

However, I haven’t seen any security questions asking what your favourite concert was. And this makes sense because favourites can change. You might see (or hear) someone new that displaces your previous favourite. Or you might decide that, in retrospect, another one was actually better.

So, because a favourite concert can be transitory and not suitable as an authentication question, I can talk about my favourite concert. A group of my friends was on a concert-going junket in the early 2000s. I remember seeing the Rolling Stones, Elton John, The Eagles--all big concerts, full to the gills at the Calgary Saddledome for the whole arena rock experience.

But my favourite concert didn’t take place in an arena, even though I would have gladly attended regardless of where it was held. It was held in the beautiful Jack Singer Concert Hall with its magnificent pipe organ and beautiful tiered seating. Capacity is about 1700 people, and they were all there to hear my favourite rock god, Mark Knopfler.
I was a big Dire Straits fan. Dire Straits was Mark Knopfler’s band. I remember the first time I heard Sultans of Swing, hanging out with two friends in grade 10, eating sunflower seeds, and realizing that this new band (at least new to me) was not constrained by conventions. Dire Straits ultimately became hugely successful due to pop hits like “I Want My MTV.” But those hits weren’t the music that was meaningful to Mark Knopfler. The band broke up and he emerged as a stripped-down version of himself—him, his guitar, and his talent. He travelled with a small ensemble, including a standing bass. And when he walked across the stage in the Jack Singer Concert Hall, we all stood and applauded. He played his non-commercial songs and his post-Dire Straits work, and it was magnificent.

The Rolling Stones and Elton John put on incredible shows—they travel with large set designs and a cast of what looks like a Cecil B. DeMille movie. And they were fun.
But nothing compares to a single guitarist, singing his poetic lyrics, accompanied only by a tight core of musicians and with absolutely no light show or gimmicks.

I was thinking about Mark Knopfler and my favourite concert this week because of a couple of news stories and one insightful article. Lawyer Twitter and LinkedIn followers will have seen the postings about a Paul Hastings senior associate’s slide presentation to new associates explaining what they needed to know and do in order to succeed at Paul Hastings.

Here is a copy of his slide titled “Non-Negotiable Expectations.”

I am not surprised that information along these lines circulates at large law firms. It has been quite awhile since I was an associate at a large law firm—and we didn’t charge out juniors at $850 per hour—but we certainly applied Rules 1 and 2.

Rule 3 was a bit different. We weren’t online 24/7, although we were expected to make ourselves available to work 24/7 if the need arose. I remember a lawyer at another firm who was tracked down by her demanding principal at a dinner party on a Saturday night. Technology enhanced the ability of senior lawyers to reach juniors, but the thought was always present.

I suspect that Paul Hastings, a well-respected firm in the AmLaw 100, a grouping considered by many to be elite, doesn’t tell prospective hires that they are expected to be online 24/7. Most firms express a level of commitment to work-life balance, which is fairly easy to do. But we all know that few lawyers would ever say to a client that their juniors are a bit burned out after another project so the firm would have to pass on a big file. Somehow, the juniors (and the senior ones, too) are expected to put their exhaustion, stress, depression and anxiety into their back pockets and magically pull out their A game.

Thought leader Jordan Furlong linked the Paul Hasting Non-Negotiable Expectations with Industrial Disease, a song by, you guessed it, Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits (although it was in their commercially successful period.)

First, here is what Mr. Furlong has to say about the Paul Hastings slide:

…What’s really noteworthy is that the slide is an almost perfect illustration of intergenerational trauma in the legal profession. The slide, boiling over with hostility and contempt, is the work of an upper-year associate who, as a novice lawyer years ago, must have absorbed a lacerating outburst from an angry junior partner, who in turn once endured intense verbal abuse from a senior associate, and on and on, back through generations of young lawyers.

But I think the real trauma here doesn’t arise from being yelled at, so much as from being held mercilessly to an impossible standard. You can’t deliver perfect work yesterday — nobody can. You can’t be available 24/7 — nobody can. But whereas many people would ignore or laugh off such ridiculous instructions, high-achieving young lawyers — already suffering from impostor syndrome, anxious about the pressures of their new job, heartbreakingly eager to do well — try their utmost to follow them.

He then diagnoses Industrial Disease by reviewing seven studies of lawyer mental health, including Canada’s National Study, because our well-being ranks very low among our priorities.

He has five suggestions which I am happy to share with you:

  1. Inform—educate prospective law students about current mental and emotional health crises in our profession so that they can make an informed decision about whether this is the career path they want.
  2. Prepare—educate law students about these issues along with physical and mental health strategies to manage pressure and encourage them to mandate being kind to themselves.
  3. Empower—assist young lawyers (and students) in developing individualized personal identities which incorporate their values and make career choices for their own benefit.
  4. Integrate—make well-being skills and practices part of our core competencies.
  5. Support—mandate mentoring and guidance for lawyers in the first two years of practice.

Many law firms operate on the inverted pyramid structure, where large cohorts of articling students are hired each year. Winnowing and self-selection occurs regularly so that the cohort being admitted into the partnership is quite small, such that there are many billing drones and fewer queen bees to reap the rewards of their labours. I don’t like to mix metaphors (okay, sometimes I do), but the legions of eager articling students are essentially cannon fodder in some firms’ battles to legal industry and financial dominance.

And here is an excerpt from “Industrial Disease” which sums this up:
He wrote me a prescription, he said, “You are depressed”
But I’m glad you came to see me to get this off your chest
Come back and see me later, next patient please,
Send in another victim of industrial disease.

Well-Being in Law Week is May 1st through 5th this year. Assist has some exciting and fun ways that you can engage with well-being. Well-Being in Law Week is an initiative created by the American Bar Association in response to their 2016 Survey which indicated high rates of substance use disorder and mental health issues among our American colleagues. Because Assist is a member of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (whose Executive Directors form my peer group along with the other independent lawyer assistance program in Canada EDs), Assist joined Well-Being in Law celebrations in May a few years ago.
Well-Being in Law Week recognizes that well-being has many dimensions:

This year, please join us for:

  • Social Well-Being: Red Mug Coffee Circle on Monday at noon where you will meet a supportive community of lawyers who discuss issues and assist students and lawyers who are seeking their way, or to make changes, in our profession.
  • Emotional and Social Well-Being: join our fifteen-minute Mindfulness session on Tuesday at noon, where a lawyer-yogi will lead us through guided breathing, relaxation and mindfulness exercises. You will be amazed by how much better you will feel after connecting with yourself!
  • Physical and Social: our Wednesday yoga class, taught by lawyer/judge yogis, can be attended in-person in Calgary on online from wherever you are. All levels are welcome—especially newbies!
  • Emotional, Social, Intellectual, Physical and Spiritual: CBA-AB, Assist’s partner in Lawyer Well-Being Week—is presenting Re-Setting the Wellness Connection Between Mind and Body - Are you feeling exhausted, anxious or stressed out? Join us for this one-hour virtual session to “re-set” the wellness connection between your mind and your body. You’ll learn simple, easy mental techniques and physical exercises that will help you reframe your mind, refresh your body and renew your life. This session will be both active and interactive.
  • And while it is incredibly difficult to follow Dr. Krieger, here is what we have for you on Friday at noon:The Dire Straits of Legal Practice: Overcoming Industrial Disease with Psychological Detachment and Assertiveness Loraine Champion will moderate a discussion featuring Dr. Brian Forbes, head of professional counselling services provider, who will teach us about psychological detachment and assertiveness, two key skills identified in the National Study as having protective value, and Cal Johnson, KC, Counsel at BD&P, Bencher, and everyone’s favourite senior lawyer-counsellor to weigh on how junior (and other lawyers) can apply these skills while effectively practicing law.

Law can be a big, cold, overwhelming profession where we feel insignificant and alone, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
I am going to give the last word to Mark Knopfler about why he left Dire Straits because it may also explain why many lawyers leave law:

"I put the thing to bed because I wanted to get back to some kind of reality. It's self-protection, a survival thing. That kind of scale is dehumanizing."
Please join us for Well-Being Week,