Articling Under Pressure

  • June 01, 2022

Dear Advy, 

A short time ago, my law school sent a communication by email to all students notifying us of the recent suicide of a colleague of ours who had completed the admission course last April. We were not given any further details, but from what I gather from comments and discussions with my colleagues, psychological distress among junior and soon-to-be lawyers seems alarmingly widespread. We know the profession is high pressure and well-paid articling positions are scarce. This often leads to a great deal of competition, pitting debt-ridden law students against each other. Many believe the investment may not have been worth it but that they may have dug themselves into a hole too deep to get out of. It doesn’t look like the academic-to-market process will be changing soon, so how does one deal with the pressure of finding a position while not crumbling under stress…and debt?  

Articling Under Pressure

Dear Articling Under Pressure,

You've raised several issues that could be called "systemic" – pressure to excel, competition for positions, student debt related to the high cost of a legal education and others. I won't address those in this column, but not because they don't need to be addressed. They do. I will address how you can cope because your question is how one person can deal with those pressures.  

If you are experiencing trauma from learning of your colleague's suicide, get individual professional support through your local lawyer's assistance program. Don't wait until you notice if that aspect of what happened is bothering you. Those programs are there to help you regardless of what you are going through. You might as well make use of them. If you are having thoughts of harming yourself, contact a local distress centre or any number of national resources.

I take it that the main effect of your colleague's suicide is that it has brought focus to the pressure you are experiencing at this stage in your own life. This is not a new problem. Generations of lawyers and indeed generations of people, in general, have experienced the problem of how to cope with the particular mix of stressors that you face as you go – or try to go - from being a student to being part of the workforce. Former Chief Justice Brian Dickson famously could not find an articling position after graduating as his class's gold medalist. This has been a hard transition for a long time.

That is not, by the way, to dismiss it as unimportant just because it happens over and over again. The fact it has happened before doesn't make it any less serious. However, it does mean that (a) this isn't your fault, and (b) we can probably get some coping ideas by looking at what has worked for other people in the past. Faced with intense early-career pressures of his own, Dante began his Divine Comedy with what was probably the most autobiographical passage he ever wrote:  

Midway upon the journey of our life, 
I found myself lost in a dark forest 
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Talk to more senior lawyers about what they did to manage their early-career "dark forests ." Yes, there are differences between your experience and theirs. Student debt is markedly more serious now than it once was, for example. Yes, you will almost certainly get advice that is coloured by a nostalgic view of how they got through it. Even so, this kind of conversation achieves a few things, including:

  1. It will provide you with some good ideas, even if you have to think critically about the advice you get.
  2. It helps bring their minds around to the realities you and people in your position face. Not only does that help you build a relationship with someone who may be able to help you over the long run, but it helps raise their awareness too.

Another group of people to connect with is your peers. It can be very easy to let relationships with your classmates or work peers atrophy, but sharing stories with people going through the same thing is invaluable. They may even be able to pass on job opportunities. Of course, it's also valuable to maintain and build relationships with people outside of the profession. Humans are social animals. Studies of resilience have shown that while we tend to think of the ability to "bounce back" from stress as an individual trait, it is more often a factor of the community and environment you find yourself in or make for yourself. Having other people around can make the difference between thriving and barely surviving.

Stress is something you will experience at all stages of your career. If you develop the skills now to prevent that stress from becoming distress, those skills will serve you well over the entirety of your career.  

Here are some specific ideas to help you through this:  

  • Find something you can do that allows you to disconnect from the world of career and law. A sport, a hobby, or even just a regular habit of going for a walk can go a long way to helping you manage your stress.
  • Don't let the something you do to disconnect be alcohol or drugs. Those can be very tempting in the moment, especially when you are surrounded by others who may be leaning on that kind of crutch. This might feel good in the moment, but they will ultimately cause the problems you are facing to cascade into much bigger ones.
  • Compartmentalize your search for articles or a post-articling job. Mark out some part of your day for scanning job boards, submitting applications, networking, cold-calling or whatever else you may be doing. Once you have done those things, stop and give yourself a break. Employers' decisions about candidates for jobs are largely out of your control, and after a certain amount of effort, you can't really change them. Ruminating on why you haven't had a call-back will not help you and will likely do you some harm.  
  • If you feel like you need to use the legal skills you have learned, find ways of engaging with those skills in a way that is not dependent on actually getting employment. Work is a form of self-expression, and it can be frustrating when your ability to engage in that activity is dependent on someone else's decision to hire you or not. Write an article, make a Tik Tok video, and volunteer with an agency that provides pro bono services. Find a way of "doing law" that doesn't involve waiting by the phone for a call from a law firm with an offer bearing in mind, of course, your jurisdiction's restrictions on practice by non-lawyers. Exercising your "law muscle" can help you with the sunk-cost phenomenon you are experiencing. No, the worth of your studies and effort is not measured by the job you get or don't get. Whether you end up practicing law for the rest of your career or doing something altogether different, learning is never a waste. It's not using that learning that is a waste.

Remember that legal employment markets vary widely across the country, across practice areas, and even within the same city or region. As a result, you will find even more differences over time. A "hot" job market can go "cold" very quickly, but the opposite is also true. That may feel like small comfort right now, but whatever you may have found in terms of job prospects, this too shall pass.  

Be well,

See for example the work of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University

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