When Being a Lawyer is Miserable: Leaving the Law for Your Mental Health

It’s no secret that being a lawyer is miserable for many people. If you’re considering leaving the law for your mental health, you are not alone.

Lawyer mental health is notoriously terrible. In a recent study, 1 in 4 women lawyers reported considering leaving law because of their mental health. A 2016 study of 13,000 lawyers found that 21% qualified as problem drinkers, 28% suffered from clinical depression, and 19% suffered from clinical anxiety.

Anecdotally, many of my clients who are looking to leave the law for an alternative career choose to do so, in part, because of the negative effects that legal practice has had on their mental health. And my own experience with Generalized Anxiety Disorder is one of the many things that contributed to my decision to leave the law.

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Why is being a lawyer so miserable?

But why is the legal profession so terrible for mental health? There are so many factors, but here are a few:

Being a lawyer is miserable because misery is normalized in the legal profession.

So many lawyers are absolutely miserable in their jobs. But, because everyone around them is just as miserable, they don’t think that their misery matters. Lawyers are trained to accept being miserable, and often come to believe that every adult with a job feels essentially the same way. In fact, many lawyers believe that if they’re not suffering, they’re not working hard enough.

Extreme emotional distress is commonplace in the legal profession.

Did you know that your job should not make you cry? Unfortunately, for many lawyers, crying at their jobs or because of their jobs, or other forms of nervous system overwhelm, like panic attacks or dorsal vagal collapse, are commonplace and treated as simply par for the course.

Lawyers are expected to be perfect, but we’re all human.

No matter how hard you work or how much you are paid, you are still human. And, because you are human, you will make mistakes. However, lawyers often feel incredible pressure to never make mistakes. This expectation of perfection is exhausting and wearing, and ultimately is an impossible expectation that sets lawyers up to fail.

Want to explore the possibility of pursuing an alternative career?

Grab my free guide, First Steps to Leaving the Law!

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Many lawyers are suffering from unresolved trauma which is exacerbated by their experiences in the legal profession.

Many lawyers are suffering from unresolved trauma, which affects their performance in the workplace in various ways. On top of that, many legal workplaces are themselves toxic and traumatizing, with even high-ranking lawyers having little control over their workflow.

Burnout is treated as an individual problem only, instead of the result of an unhealthy environment.

Burnout is the result of a problematic environment, but it is rarely treated as a systemic problem in the law. Instead, all of the responsibility to avoid burnout is placed on the individual lawyer. Thus, lawyers are generally not being given what they actually need to avoid burnout, while at the same time, receiving the implicit message that if they are experiencing burnout, it’s their fault. And, burnout can both exacerbate and trigger mental health issues.

These are just some of the reasons that working as a lawyer can be destructive for your mental health.

Why Biglaw is ruining lawyers’ mental health

I’d be remiss if I also didn’t address an area of particular concern for me, which is the mental health of Biglaw lawyers. Biglaw on the whole is particularly bad for lawyers’ mental health, for several reasons.

Burnout in Biglaw is a feature, not a bug.

The way work is structured in Biglaw inherently leads to burnout. Chronic under-staffing, cycles of hiring and (secret mass) firings, ever-increasing hours expectations, and the constant drive towards higher and higher profits per partner creates a situation with virtually zero tolerance towards the human needs of its workforce. Burnout isn’t a bug in the otherwise operational system that is Biglaw; burnout is a feature.

The culture of Biglaw is particularly toxic.

In most Biglaw firms, you don’t technically work for any one partner, and therefore there is no one who is personally responsible for overseeing your professional development and well-being. As a result, those higher up the chain (of screaming) than you can demand things from you without any investment in you and without regard to what else you may be working on or who else you may be working with.

Want to explore the possibility of pursuing an alternative career?

Grab my free guide, First Steps to Leaving the Law!

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Lack of empathy and narcissism in Biglaw leadership.

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the structure of Biglaw lends itself to promoting leaders who lack empathy and have highly narcissistic patterns of behavior. This leads to frequent gaslighting and mistreatment which in turn leads to people experiencing intense amounts of isolation and shame, degrading their mental and emotional health.

Should you consider leaving the law for your mental health?

Probably unsurprisingly, the answer to this question is “it depends”, and is a personal decision that each person needs to make. If you’re looking for stories of lawyers who have left the law because of their mental health, you’ll find many on the podcast, including people who quit law without another job lined up and quit law school right before graduation. Above all, know that you are not alone in thinking about this option, and you deserve to take good care of your mental and emotional health.