Surviving the Grind

  • January 13, 2023

Dear Advy,

I am a young lawyer in a large firm based in Ontario. I had no illusions that the first few years of my career would be tough, but I was excited to prove myself. Sadly, I had not anticipated the overwhelming grind mentality promoted by the senior members of the firm. I will often hear “this is how it is” or “if you don’t like it, don’t be a lawyer.”

There is this overall right of passage premise that everyone just seems to accept. I have even avoided speaking to my peers about this issue, as I am afraid it will be used against me. I understand that this is a competitive field (it is one of the things I love about being a lawyer), but I had just hoped that we had moved away from the mentality of “I suffered, so you need to suffer through this too.”  I do not just want to survive my first few years and I certainly do not want to burn out. Any suggestions?

Surviving the Grind

Dear Surviving the Grind,

As happens so often, because I am answering your question, I am telling you what you can do to help yourself. It’s easy to read that as telling you that it should be entirely up to you to solve this problem. It’s not. This is a problem that the entire profession needs to address. The recent National Study on Lawyer Wellness tells us that the burnout you are trying to avoid is widespread in our profession. You have a very valid concern here and you’re not alone in raising it.  However, since you’re the one asking, I will confine my advice to what you can do for yourself.

The good news is that you have already done the most important thing:  You have not accepted as a given that you have to go through the kinds of exploitative rites of passage that your seniors tell you are inherently part of the process of becoming a lawyer. Becoming a lawyer involves hard work, yes. Succeeding as a lawyer involves hard work, yes. There is a difference, though, between hard work and the kind of overwhelming pressure and arbitrary infringement on your personal life that firms can put you through. When you receive an assignment on Friday afternoon that’s due Monday morning, but it’s already sat on the partner’s desk since Tuesday while she or he has put off assigning it to anyone that’s not about hard work; it’s about taking junior lawyers’ availability for granted.

You haven’t said what exactly the “grind mentality” in your firm consists of. I will make a few assumptions here so forgive me if I am not describing your practice situation perfectly. When many people talk about “the grind” they mean long hours spent pursuing billable hours. It may also refer to accepting cases, files, and clients that require an exhausting level of emotional investment. Usually, senior lawyers will promote this “grind mentality” among juniors because they believe that “grinding” will result in higher billings and income for themselves.

As I mentioned, its good that you have had the self-awareness to realize you disagree with the grind-mentality culture of your workplace. Let’s take that capacity for self-awareness and put it to work for you.

Find a way to discuss this with one or more of these senior lawyers. I’m not suggesting that you sit them down and talk about how they overwork you – or at least not in your first conversation. I’m talking about laying the basic groundwork in any negotiation. Solving your problem is going to involve negotiation with the lawyers you report to. By the way it may eventually also require negotiation with support staff and perhaps with the peers you mention, but let’s stick with the senior lawyers for the moment. Begin by asking questions in as non-judgmental a way as possible to find out what these senior lawyers really want when they talk about billing targets or whatever else it is that you worry is putting your health in jeopardy.

Remember that gathering information like this provides you with power in the relationship regardless of the formal hierarchy. Remember also that what the senior lawyers tell you is just that – information. They may tell you things that are wrong or exaggerated (e.g., the number of hours they put in as juniors). They may give you opinions about you or your work that are less than pleasant to hear.

You don’t have to accept as true everything your negotiation partner tells you. What it informs you of is how that person sees the world.  When you read a novel, you may learn things about the characters in the story you strongly disagree with. That doesn’t change the fact that you can enjoy the experience of inhabiting someone else’s worldview for a period of time and learn from it. You can understand what difficult characters like Humbert Humbert, or Rodion Raskolnikov, or heck even Batman believe about their world without believing it yourself. Treat what your boss(es) tells you in much the same way. When one of those senior lawyers tells you “I worked 14-hour days, 7 days a week and it made me a better lawyer” you don’t have to believe that assessment. What you do know is that the lawyer saying it believes it. Try digging deeper and find out what interest they think they are fulfilling by clinging to this self-story of the happy over-worked lawyer. At this stage remind yourself that the ratio of your ears to your mouth is two-to one and you should apply the same ratio to how much you use them. Listen more than talk.  Perhaps, as I suggested earlier, the senior lawyer thinks “the grind” is the key to higher income. Perhaps they’ve told themselves this story to help manage the guilt they feel for not having been available to their children when they were growing up. Perhaps they don’t even know. There are many possible explanations for this workplace culture that the senior lawyers of your firm hold onto.

Now, you may be telling yourself that it’s unrealistic for you to negotiate your way to a healthier situation at work. You may be thinking that it’s easy for me to say you can do that but, the leverage you have with your employer is so insignificant that you really just have to take what they dish out to you. No, I’m not telling you that you will achieve nirvana in one discussion. You might seem to make no progress at all in your first conversation with the senior lawyer. Workplace culture, like any culture, is a tapestry of habits stitched together over time among a group of people. Remember that word “habit”. You don’t change that tapestry of habits in one day with one new thread. However, by having a conversation with your senior lawyers about how you do your work you have the beginnings of what could become a new habit you can weave into that workplace culture. The grind culture at your firm isn’t some immutable thing that exists outside of the people you work with. It can be changed a bit at a time even if you feel you are at the bottom of the hierarchy.

You might also be asking yourself “Hey, I could listen to the senior lawyers’ stories all day long but when do I get to tell them what I want out of my work?  When do I get to set the boundaries I need to protect me?”    Here’s where all that listening comes in handy. Keep in mind what it is that motivates the partner who comes to you with one of those assignments that make you hate being a lawyer. Remember also what your own needs are. Is it your anniversary and you and your significant other have dinner plans?  Do you have a weekend ski pass and want to enjoy it?  Is your child’s soccer game this weekend?  Are you exhausted and just need a little bit of down time? 

Now comes the creative part. How can you meet that partner’s needs and at the same time fulfil your own?  This is not an exercise in relenting and just doing as you’ve been told. The partner who has asked you to do something has a purpose in making that request. When the request comes, you have an opportunity to engage that partner in generating ideas of how to get this task done. When is the due date for what you are working on, really?  How much of the project can you delegate to others?  What does the client need from the firm in terms of an outcome?  No matter how little power you believe you have in this relationship, you can improve your position by focusing on underlying needs, not the demand the partner has made of you.

You also express concern that if you speak up about how the firm culture is affecting your mental health it will affect your prospects in the firm. Do you have every right to protect your mental well-being? Yes.  Is talking about your mental health important?  Yes, it is. Should your firm leaders be open to discussing what you need to be a mentally healthy member of the team?  Yes, they should. Are the leaders at your firm ready?  Maybe not, based on what you say.

For the time being, compartmentalize your efforts to protect your well-being. Find a professional counsellor to help you with your mental health. Talk to members of your firm about how best to get the work done while leaving you with a life outside of work. By continuing to talk to the senior lawyers about the how of getting legal work done, you are helping them become more receptive, eventually, to talking about how challenges to your mental health may affect work outcomes. There may be a time when you can be more candid about your mental health concerns with your peers and your boss(es), but you will probably recognise when they reach that point.

Be well,

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