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Overworking might make you rich, but at what cost?

Outwardly, Vanessa Ford, who was known professionally as Vanessa Heap, had it all. She was a wife, a mother, and an equity partner at a leading law firm. Vanessa died in September 2023. The coroner investigating pointed to an acute mental health crisis. He spoke of the pressures of her work; in the run-up to her death, she was working 18-hour days on a mega-deal that was the highlight of her career. Her death has highlighted the impact of overworking on our mental health.  It provides the most tragic example of why something needs to change.

What’s going on in legal?

The impact of the legal profession on lawyers' mental health is not new. A recent study by Clio showed that 92% of lawyers have experienced stress or burnout due to their jobs. A study by the IBA in 2021 showed that 1 in 10 lawyers under 30 was experiencing suicidal thoughts. Studies by LawCare have shown that legal professionals are at high risk of burnout, with 69% having experienced mental ill-health.

Mental health is something that is now openly discussed. However, is this enough?

What are firms doing to care for their lawyers?

Firms have a responsibility to look after the mental health of their employees. A duty of care. Now, equity partners are also owners of the firms they work in. I have not undertaken a review of the law, but I would imagine that the duty extends to them nevertheless. Morally it should!

How do firms discharge their responsibility? They put in a provision for employees to access mental health support. Many have helplines that employees can call 24/7. In addition, firms will support employees by having well-being days, these might include office yoga and mindfulness. They may offer some the opportunity to take ad hoc mental health days. They might even have policies in place.  The bulk of these measures are to catch people when they fall.

These measures are necessary and I do not advocate that they be dispensed with. However, they do not challenge the model that leads to overworking, burnout, and mental health crises.

Pinsent Masons, the firm where Vanessa worked, was one of the key signatories of the Mindful Business Charter. This is a charter that does much of what I advocate for – it brings together the system (client and law firm). However, what happened to Vanessa shows that overworking is embedded in the system. Words in Charters are not enough. More action is what is needed. A rethinking of the model.

The ideal worker

I qualified as a corporate lawyer. I followed my heart and left the UK (and therefore my legal career behind). ‘Would I have made it?’ was a niggling internal narrative that led me to undertake research to understand why we see such a split between the women coming into the profession and those who 'make it' to the partnership. You can read my research here. There are layers of complexity of course, but two reasons stand out:

1.       The expectation to be always-on

2.       The construct of the ideal worker

Both of these reasons combine to make women reject the progression that is open to them. This is compounded by models of choice and when balance comes into focus for women.

Men, on the other hand, find it harder to say no. Stereotypes and societal pressure work in reverse. They have to step forward. They are also unable to challenge the status quo when they get there. They lead as others before them have led.

The result of this is that we see gender imbalance at the top of the legal profession. This in itself is wrong. Our leaders should reflect those they lead. However, there is a bigger problem. The status quo isn’t challenged. The culture and the model remain untouched. Burnout and mental health affect men and women. However, this self-deselection might give some insight into the solution.

What if the women who have chosen to say no are hiding a secret that might just burst the bubble that has sustained the profession for so long?

Working long hours might make you rich, but it will also make you poor. In my study, I found that non-partners had better well-being than partners. I suspect those findings would be shown to be true in other cohorts too.

Overworking leads to burnout. Burnout can lead to depression and, at the extreme end, suicide. Yes, this is triggering. Yes, this is hard to read. It is also true.

Trying to be an ideal worker can leave professionals wondering if they are enough for those around them. There is research about the overlap between guilt and the concept of the ideal worker which is higher for working carers. I see it again and again in the coaching room. Professionals who on paper have it all. Behind closed doors, they question whether they are enough.

The ideal worker? Time for a rethink

The ideal worker is someone who is dedicated to their work, unconstrained by family or other responsibilities. This societal construct helps to hold up the legal sector’s organisational norm of overwork. This is compounded by the BigLaw model. What is rewarded is input not output. The billable hour will be a concept known to every lawyer.  It is the elephant in the room.

Research on work-life balance, as well as on gender and leadership, points to a new construct (The New Ideal Worker, Mireia Las Heras, Nuria Chinchilla, and Marc Grau). The authors of the aforementioned work, propose a new form of ideal worker: someone who can achieve a better work-life balance and reconcile work, family, and private aspects of their life, thus contributing more to all of them.

This new ideal worker would reject overworking and would stand firm against deals that require 18-hour days. This new ideal worker would look very different from the partners we see in BigLaw today.

To shift the model there needs to be outrage, there needs to be a desire to change. Vanessa's death has had a profound impact on the legal sector. I hope that her death is not in vain. Let's make this the wake-up call that BigLaw needs to take overworking seriously and question the model that, whilst profitable, doesn’t enable professionals to thrive. Given the intellectual capability that exists, given the technology that now exists, given the overwhelming body of academic literature that exists, this cannot be unattainable. Surely we can build a model which is not only profitable, but also enables lawyers to thrive.

If you have been affected by this article, please find someone to talk to. LawCare is a fantastic charity that supports the sector and they can be contacted here. If you want to explore a different way, then join us as we look to redesign leadership.


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