How Law Firms Avoid All Responsibility for Toxic Environments with Kelcey Baker [TFLP230]

Today’s podcast episode features a returning guest, Kelcey Baker, talking to Sarah. There is a content warning because they are discussing a recent story about a junior Biglaw partner in the UK passing away during an acute mental health episode. They discuss mental health issues and suicide. The story is important because it highlights some of the issues seen within the legal profession and helps others feel seen, so let’s dive in.

Mental Health Struggles Brushed Off by Law Firm Leaders

Kelcey and Sarah wanted to talk about this most recent story on the podcast because change needs to happen, and there needs to be engagement and conversation about the topics. The story that caught their attention was about Vanessa Ford. A coroner’s court ruled that her death in September 2023 was the result of being struck by a train after having consumed a significant amount of alcohol while going through a mental health crisis. It’s an absolute tragedy. 

The article from that shared the ruling also highlighted how the idea of lawyers struggling is discussed or not discussed. The section of the article called Colleagues Saw Few Signs quotes the head of the finance and restructuring group saying that Ford had shown no signs of stress or struggling with work/life balance. He also said he noticed no changes in Ford, while others said she had lost weight. He referred to a deal she worked on right before she passed as a “once-in-a-few-years transaction.” Working long hours was not unheard of in these situations.

This witness also noted that the firm provided mental health support and access to a 24-hour helpline. He claimed that Ford was proud of the recent transaction and that she had described it as “the best work she’d ever done.” 

The Firm Takes Zero Responsibility

After reading that testimony, Kelcey’s initial reaction was that, of course, she didn’t raise any issues with her manager or other leaders. In these types of environments, you’re not allowed to raise these kinds of issues. It’s not easy to say that you’re having mental health challenges or any stress. There are unspoken rules in place, and you’re just not supposed to talk about your struggles. 

The most important thing for the firm is that you’re contributing to it. The firm isn’t concerned about your life balance, time with family, stress levels, or general holistic well-being. Sarah felt rage when reading this because the implication, while not said, is that the onus is on the person who raised their concerns. These “once-in-a-decade” transactions frequently happen, and you realize that once you’ve been around long enough to see the constant flow. 

The Biglaw system is so unhealthy in terms of mental wellness that people are just expected to work 18-hour days, and the leadership can still say out loud that there were no signs of stress. Burnout is a feature of the system, not a bug. It is how the system is designed. 

There is no responsibility put on the employer for creating an environment where people struggle so much and cannot speak up without fear of retribution. For Ford, it was likely implicitly stated that she worked crazy hours for this deal, even if it wasn’t explicitly stated. And then, they can turn around and say that she did not explicitly say that she was suffering. Lawyers are often put in situations that are not good for them, but everyone must pretend everything is fine and continue. 

It’s the white-collar version of terrible working conditions. There are days when people work so much they don’t see any daylight and get very little sleep. It’s inhumane, but somehow, employers can justify it because people are making a lot of money. It’s even worse for anyone outside of the norm in these situations because they feel they need to overcome the assumption of weakness.

Sadly, Vanessa Ford isn’t the only time this has happened, but the firms always claim they had no idea that people were struggling. Firms claim that they value work-life balance, but there is no evidence. Having a helpline is important, but it seems like the bare minimum when it comes to caring about your employees and giving them tools to help. 

It’s a Feature of the System, Not a Bug

Many people hear this and feel like lawyers know what they are getting themselves into. It’s common knowledge that they work and get paid a lot. The problem is that the organizations themselves deny it. When it comes to owning the responsibility for what the environment does to people, there’s no willingness to acknowledge that the system is toxic. If they did admit any of this, it would require extensive changes and costs. Summer internships come with lots of fun happy hours, and easy assignments, but then the golden handcuffs come out when you sign on full-time. 

People in these systems who are struggling feel like they aren’t able to tell anyone that they are struggling. It’s an impossible situation. The quotes in the article make it seem like the level of anguish is significantly outside the norm and not to be expected. That conversation is precisely why many people in this situation find it extremely isolating. 

People in these environments are having similar experiences to Vanessa Ford, and they think they’re being dramatic and weak. It’s a product of the systems, but it’s difficult to see that when you’re in the middle of an unsupportive environment. The system is meant to make you feel like you are the problem. 

One thing Kelcey points out is the parallels between the legal profession and cults. Cults isolate people from their family and friends. They starve them, deprive them of sleep, and cut them off from other sources of income. It’s all to control them. That sounds a lot like Biglaw. It’s similar to abusive relationships as well. People feel isolated and struggle to be honest about their struggles.

Vanessa Ford’s story is devastating. Knowing dynamics are feeding into this toxic cycle is hard, but it’s why conversations are important. It’s important to know you’re not alone if you’re struggling in a toxic environment like Biglaw. For these systems to remain intact, they have to keep people feeling isolated. The system is designed to be this way for control and profitability. 

Final Thoughts

There’s no shame in feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Seeking validation from others can be helpful. Kelcey credits the Former Lawyer Collab with helping her find others who had similar experiences. You can deprogram yourself with help. If you would like to learn more, download the free guide, First Steps to Leaving the Law.

Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.

Kelcey Baker is a client of mine who's been on the podcast before. She shared her story and we also had a conversation several months back about narcissism and narcissistic systems and the relationship between that and the legal profession working as a lawyer, etc.

I asked Kelcey to come back on the podcast because there was a recent article, series of articles about the results of an inquest after a junior Biglaw partner in the UK passed away during an acute mental health episode.

First of all, content warning for this episode, we do talk about severe mental health issues and distress and suicide. If any of those topics are problematic for you or not going to be for you today, that is one million percent fine. Feel free to pass on this episode and listen in again next week.

But Kelcey and I wanted to talk about this topic for a lot of different reasons, but primarily because this story and some of the issues that it highlights really demonstrate some of the most insidious issues that we see in our profession, in the legal profession, and we thought it would be really important to have this conversation so that you, who are listening, if you're experiencing these things, you understand that you are not alone. You're not the only one. And that you, as I said last week, are more important than any job. Here is my conversation with Kelcey.

Hey, it's Sarah. I want to remind you that I am now working with a very limited number of lawyers one-on-one who are trying to figure out what it is that they want to do that isn't practicing law. What we'll do when we work together one-on-one is we will meet for 12 weeks and you and I will walk through the framework that I've created to help lawyers do exactly that. On top of personalizing that and making individualized choices about which pieces of that you need to focus on, spend more time on, spend less time on, I also have the capacity to lend my brain to your situation.

When we're working together one-on-one, I'm able to look at cover letters, resumes, and other things that you may be putting together, cold outreach emails, figuring out who you might want to reach out to, figuring out, “Okay, I have all this information about who I am, values, personality, strengths, etc., from these various assessments, but how do I put that together into a picture of what it is that I actually want to be doing? How do I figure out what I actually want my life and career to look like?” all of those things.

If that sounds like something that would be helpful to you, I would love to talk with you about whether or not working with me one-on-one is the right fit for you. Go to the website, the Work With Me drop-down, there's a link to information about working with me one-on-one. You can see more details and the price as well as the button to book a free consult with me so that we can talk through whether working with me in this capacity would be the right fit for you. I onboard one new one-on-one client per month so if this is something that you're interested in, definitely schedule that call as soon as you can because I fill the spots on a first-come-first-served basis. I look forward to talking with you about whether working together one-on-one could be a good fit.

Hey, Kelcey, welcome back to The Former Lawyer Podcast.

Kelcey Baker: Hey, Sarah, it's very good to be back. Kelcey is here because we were talking on Voxer a couple of weeks ago about a story that was in the news and some of the things that this story highlights about the culture of the legal profession we both think are very important and something that's worth talking about.

Before we get into this conversation, I just want to give a content warning for anyone who's listening. We'll be talking about and potentially touching on, among other things, acute mental health crises, suicide, and some other things surrounding that. If that is something that would not be helpful for you to listen to, then please feel free to pass on this episode. I'll see you in the next episode.

But this is something that I think is really important to talk about. Honestly, part of why is that stories like this come up with such frequency, and yet, every time they come up, the same things are said. I literally almost don't have words because there are things that need to change.

Kelcey, before I just give a brief intro to what we're talking about, do you have anything that you want to say on the front end?

Kelcey Baker: Yeah, I think you and I ended up having this conversation because it was so indicative and illustrative of other circumstances that happen. Not necessarily that either you or I or someone we know has gone through something like this, but that it's just such a horribly similar set of experiences and systems that lead to this kind of thing, and I agree, it's beyond words.

I thought about this for a long time. So I'm really glad that you and I had this conversation and that we're able to have this conversation today and hopefully engage with others to be able to further this conversation.

Sarah Cottrell: Me too. What prompted this conversation that Kelcey and I had originally was an article that was published at this point when we were recording probably a month ago or more about a Biglaw partner in the UK.

Her name is Vanessa Ford and a coroner's court ruled that her death this past September, September 2023, was the result of being struck by a train after having consumed a significant amount of alcohol while undergoing an acute mental health crisis, which, of course, in and of itself is just horrible and tragic.

But one of the things about this article talking about the inquest around this ruling, one of the things it highlighted was the ways that lawyers who are struggling or the idea of struggling as a lawyer, especially in a context like a Biglaw firm, the way that it is talked about or not talked about, and honestly, what I see is some disingenuousness around that.

In particular, this particular article, I'm going to read a brief section of it for people who are listening so they have some context. This is from an article on about the inquest. Specifically, this is under a section that is titled, Colleagues Saw Few Signs.

I'm going to read a little bit, and then Kelcey and I will go back and discuss. Here's what the article says. The article says, "When asked by the coroner about whether Ford had ever raised concerns about stress or about striking the right work life balance, the head of the finance and restructuring group said she had not.

“This person who was giving evidence of the inquest, the head of this group, also said he had not noticed any change in Ford, though others had indicated that she may have ‘lost some weight’. However, the court also heard that Ford liked to walk and keep her step count up, which the coroner attributed the possible weight loss to.”

This head of the group, who referred to the deal that Vanessa was working on right before she passed, he referred to the deal as a “once-in-a-few-years transaction.” He said that working such long hours was not “unheard of” in these situations but that people would generally not be working under this kind of pressure “non-stop”.

“He also noted that the firm had provisions for mental health support, including access to a 24 hour mental health helpline, and also emphasized the firm’s commitment to promoting a healthy work-life balance.

“He spoke of the pride that Ford felt over the recent transaction, saying that she described it to a colleague as ‘the best work she’d ever done’ and that she had expressed her desire to do more work in the sports space,” which is the space that this particular transaction was in.

When I read this article, especially this part, it is hard to put into words the feelings that I had. But let's start with the first piece of this description of the testimony, Kelcey.

It says that when this head of the group was asked by the coroner about whether Vanessa had ever raised concerns about stress or about striking the right workplace-life balance, he testified that she had not. What is your response when I read that?

Kelcey Baker: My initial reaction is, of course, she didn't. That makes perfect sense that, of course, she didn't raise any issues with her manager or with other leadership members of the firm because as people who have worked in these types of environments know, you're not allowed to raise these kinds of issues.

It's not easy or allowed really to say that you might be having some sort of mental health issue or even just stress. I think that's part of the issue. If you have been in any of these environments, you know that there are these unspoken rules in place, and touching on past conversations we've had about something like a narcissistic system, based on these rules, you are not allowed to complain.

You are not allowed to say that you are stressed. Everything must be very positive and said and given in a very positive light. I believe that her manager had even said in a quote that she was very positive. My response is, of course, she was.

I think we all know somebody who has worked in law, if not ourselves, who may have been struggling very deeply under the surface, whether it was stress, work-life balance, or additional personal struggles that they were going through and still felt an immense amount of pressure to project nothing but positivity.

Even if the work was hard, even if the hours are grueling, even if you're not seeing your family, you're not sleeping, and you're not eating well, the whole idea is “I'm doing good work for the firm.” That is the most important part of all of it to the firm is what you are contributing to the firm and not the effects that has on you, on your health, on your family, or just on your general holistic well-being of you and your immediate community.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think for me, one of the things about this when I read this sentence of when asked if she raised concerns, this guy said she had not, and again, as we said earlier, this conversation is not intended to villainize this particular person or this particular firm, this is not unique. Sadly, this is not unique. This is not special. This is true I can very confidently say essentially across the board.

The reality is that when I read this, one of the first things I felt was just rage because the implication, while not said, is that the onus is on the person who raised their concerns.

But here's the thing. First of all, I, as well as most lawyers, have worked on many things, whether it's a case or a transaction, whatever, where people said, "Oh, this is a once in a lifetime or it's once in a few years. It's normally not like this," and eventually you're around enough that you realize like, “I mean, it is more or less this all the time. It ebbs and flows, but that's basically how it is.”

To have a system, an organization that is so inherently unhealthy in terms of emotional and mental wellness where you are expected to be working 18-hour days, and you are expected to be working in a way that is not good for humans, and then to be like, “Oh, well, this person never told us,” I've talked before about, especially in Biglaw, burnout is a feature, not a bug.

If you feel burnt out, if you get burnt out in Biglaw, it's not because you're not doing something right, it's literally the system, the way it's designed. That is the product. For that to be the case, and then for it to be like, “Well, but they never told us,” it's stupefying.

Kelcey Baker: Yeah. I think the point you raised earlier was a really good one, that the onus of protecting one's safety and mental health is completely put on the lawyer. Not on the employer, not on the environment who is forcing these kinds of conditions onto this individual.

I say forcing because we know that if the woman had said no to this deal and had not been working these long hours, there would have been really severe consequences to her career, I would assume.

Even if nobody said, "You better be working 18-plus hours a day," it was implicitly stated, even if not explicitly stated. So then to put the onus on someone to say, “Well, you did not explicitly state to us that you are suffering in any way, shape, or form,” feels cruel honestly.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes. To me, it's almost sadistic. We know we are putting you in situations—and to be clear, I'm not just talking about this particular person, I'm talking about everyone, everyone who is on this transaction, everyone who is in these environments—we are putting you in situations that are not good for you but everyone is going to pretend it's fine because that's what you do in order to continue.

Certainly, that's what you do if you want to, for example, make partner. Then basically we want you to pretend that it is not causing you the harm that everyone knows is being caused by this type of environment.

Kelcey Baker: Yeah, this type of environment is not healthy for human beings. How many of us have experienced not seeing the sun for days on end because we have commuted to an office in the dark and commute home from an office in the dark?

If you said, “Oh, as a human, I don't see the sun five, six days a week,” how would somebody react to that? How would somebody react to saying, “Oh, I don't get more than four hours of sleep and I don't get to see my family. I don't get to eat square nutritious meals or to fully rest my body and my mind”?

I mean, these are, to a large degree, inhumane conditions. It's the white-collar version of when we hear about these terrible working conditions for people who do physical labor and we think, “Oh, they're not allowed to rest. They're working these long hours. They're not allowed to stop. They're not allowed to take breaks.” We would say, “Oh, well, these people working in fields or factories are in these really inhumane conditions.”

But I think because it's a white-collar environment and people are getting paid so much, it's really easy to have these employers justify these types of inhumane conditions that human beings are being put through.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think to your point, and just to expand on this a bit, not only is there in general an expectation in these environments that you're just going to suck it up and do what needs to be done regardless of how horrendous the conditions are or how much you're being asked to give up in terms of your personal life. But especially, if you are any sort of minority, woman, or anything outside the “norm,” especially in that situation, there's this added level of you cannot show weakness because there is already an assumption.

Kelcey Baker: There's already an assumption of weakness.

Sarah Cottrell: The system assumes weakness and you're having to overcome that. Again, to your point, the cruelty of we know that this is how it is, and yet, for the response to be like, “Oh, well, this person didn't say, this person didn't admit that they were being crushed, by the way.”

Kelcey Baker: Yeah, we couldn't have possibly known because it was not explicitly stated to us.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. This happens all the time. This is by far not the only situation where we know that this has happened, but there are multiple situations that have been in the news in the last years about people ending up in these types of circumstances in Biglaw. Yet, every time, there's some combination of “We didn't know,” “We really care about work-life balance,” and “Oh, but we have this hotline.”

Look, I think having a helpline, a mental health helpline is great. If that's something that you have access to, and you are struggling, by all means, I'm not trying to say that that is not a resource. However, to respond to this type of event, pointing to that as like, “Oh, but we've got it covered, this is unexpected,” I don't know, it's just the worst kind of disingenuousness.

Kelcey Baker: Yeah, the hotline is the barest of minimums that they could meet to cover their butts in these types of circumstances. It's to say, “We do have this resource available, technically, and someone could call this hotline if they need to.”

But I think for a lot of us, we know the reality of the situation is that if you are calling the hotline, even if you are not, and maybe even especially if you are not at a really intense mental health crisis point, but really you're just dealing with very intense stress, very intense burnout, exhaustion, or whatever it is, what is that hotline going to do for you?

I think a lot of us know because we have had to navigate again just these implicitly-stated rules that we might suffer consequences actually if we are reporting on ourselves that we are dealing with this, that there is a good probability that in saying, "Hey, I am really struggling with the amount of work that's being given to me," or, "I'm dealing with a personal crisis outside of work that necessitates I focus on that more than my billable hours at this point in time," that that will not only be not taking into consideration but any aspect of humanness that we might show can get weaponized against us.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think anyone who's worked in law, but especially anyone who's worked in Biglaw, can identify specific things, stories, or experiences that they know that people have had.

For example, I know I've talked about this in the podcast before but I know of someone who was a partner at a Biglaw firm and they were told that they really needed to be careful to make sure that the firm didn't think that their kids and their family was a priority over the firm.

This person was also a female partner so there's that added assumption that, “Oh, we suspect that maybe you do care more about your family than this job.” Any time I've talked about that with someone who's not a lawyer, they're just flabbergasted because, in a lot of contexts, it's like, “Well, of course, of course, your personal relationships take priority over your job.” But in fact, no.

People get very explicit messages that in order to succeed, this is what they need to do. It's so gross to be a work environment, to have a work environment where that is the case, and then to turn around and be like, “We don't know why this person,” or “It's so surprising that this person was struggling with finding a balance or being able to have a balance.” That is the expectation.

Kelcey Baker: Right. If you've created a system, if you've set up a system where you're not even allowed to question aspects of the system, including why certain things might be done a certain way or why certain clients need to be treated a certain way, why these long hours are necessarily needed, why a deal suddenly becomes an emergency, if all of these things can't even be asked about, how are you possibly going to find the space or support from an employer like that to be able to say, "Hey, because I'm a human being, this is really tough, and I might be struggling with a variety of things, and I'm not going to be able to give you 18 to 20 hours of my 24 hours a day"?

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Here's the thing. I'm sure many people would say to me/have said to me, “Well, but you know what you're getting into when you go into a situation like this, and that's why they pay the big bucks and blah, blah, blah, blah.” To me, the problem with that kind of response is not that that's how it is, because I agree, that's part of why this podcast exists. That is how these environments are.

But what is so twisted about it is that that is how they are, and yet it is constantly denied that that is how they are. Maybe then there's a little bit of like, "Oh, well, but yeah, that's just part of the job," or whatever. But ultimately, when it comes to owning the responsibility for what that environment does to people, there's no willingness to acknowledge that the system, the environment, as it is, is toxic.

I realized this is all theoretical because in the sense of for an organization to admit that there's a problem and do something about it of this magnitude would require extensive changes and cost a lot, including monetarily. So I understand the forces that push back and that create the problem.

My concern is always for the people who are in those systems who are experiencing it and then are seeing this and are seeing someone say, "Well, this person didn't tell us," and who feel like, "Oh, it's on me. I'm struggling. I'm suffering, but I shouldn't be, because apparently suffering and struggling is not the norm. In fact, I shouldn't be talking about it because I can see that I will be penalized."

It puts people in an impossible situation that I think is so hard to understand if you have not been in an environment like that.

Kelcey Baker: Yeah, yeah. I want to respond to several things because I thought you brought up such good points. The first being, yeah, it's just the lack of accountability by the "leaders" in this profession in terms of saying, “Well, we weren't explicitly told, so how could we possibly know?” I think everybody does know. Like you said, Sarah, they're just not saying it.

To the point of “Well, you should know what you're getting into,” I think that there's a general sense of like, “Yeah, you might have to work long hours. It might be pretty grueling, it can be a little intense sometimes, but the money will make it all worth it,” that's the most intense, or we'll say the most honest that the messaging gets.

If you think back to people's summer associate experiences when they're considering going into Biglaw, that's not the experience that you're given, softball assignments and you're taken out for drinks and fun outings and events and you're wined and dined and made to feel like, “This is a fun, cool environment, and I'm getting paid bank.”

I think that there's a weird insidious purpose to even being so nice, I think, to summers anyway, because it can just magic wand away any reality of, “Oh, once you're here and we've got you, then you're in it. Now you can't leave us. Now we can do whatever we want to you.” Then the concept of golden handcuffs really begins.

So I think to say, “Oh, we really value work-life balance. We work hard, play hard,” everybody knows that that's largely not the case for any law firm, Biglaw or otherwise, but any law firm that's really trying to have that kind of Biglaw feel to it and Biglaw profitability, regardless of the size of the actual firm.

The other point that I wanted to touch on, well, actually, let me pause and see if you wanted to respond to that.

Sarah Cottrell: I was just going to say that as you were talking, to go back again to the podcast episode that we did where we talked about narcissism and narcissistic systems, as you were talking about summer programs, I was thinking like, “Oh, yeah, it's the classic, in the literature about romantic relationships with narcissists--

Kelcey Baker: Yes, love bombing.

Sarah Cottrell: It's a classic love bombing, which is like you're being made to feel you're so special and amazing and the partner or the potential partner is so into you and thinks you're so wonderful. Then once you're drawn into the relationship, you are constantly trying to get back to that state as the narcissist treats you very differently than they did in that initial stage.

Anyway, as you were talking, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, it's very disturbing.” Because there is this element of like, “We will lure you in with a promise of what it will be like,” and it will never be like that.

Kelcey Baker: No, you'll never have the same experience that you did when you summered, or even when you first start. I came in as a lateral entry, and the way that I was treated when I started was very different than the way I was treated before I left.

Again, to your point how we've talked about this before in our other episode, it is a relationship. I think it's hard for people to make those connections immediately because it feels like, “Well, it's work, right? It's my boss,” but it is still very much a relationship, and all of the toxic dynamics that can happen in an interpersonal relationship can still happen in an employer-employee relationship and do.

But I think because there's that added power of a paycheck and especially in Biglaw of a very fat paycheck with some potentially fat bonuses, it's a little harder to identify. Again, like we talk about with golden handcuffs, it is a lot harder for people to be able to feel they can extricate themselves from that situation.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, for sure. Did you have something else you wanted to say?

Kelcey Baker: Well, I think to your other point that I had wanted to address, and I feel like I’m having so many reactions as we're talking about all of this.

Sarah Cottrell: Same, same.

Kelcey Baker: But I think to the other point just this, the idea again of the onus just being put on people is so sad and it's so difficult. It's just not inherently a fair thing. I know that that feels like such a basic way to say it, but I think that when we were talking about having a reaction of rage in response to some of the quotes that were in this article, I think that was what made me feel that kind of rage was like, “That's not fair. It wasn't fair to this person to say that she didn't say anything.” What a ridiculous response to have.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, and I think too, if you are someone who is working in that system as an environment like this, it is so easy to feel like, “I am in incredible anguish, but I must just be dramatic.” This kind of thing people saying, “Oh, well they didn't tell us," as though feeling that level of anguish is significantly outside the norm and not to be expected, is itself extremely isolating.

Once again, to go back to the parallels, for people who are in relationships with narcissists, one of often the hallmarks of that experience is feeling like the mistreatment that you're experiencing must not be as bad as you think it is, that you're being dramatic, that it's not that bad, that compared to what other people are experiencing in life, it should be “okay.”

I think one of the things that I just felt so strongly about after I read this article was we know there are people in these environments having very similar experiences and they think that they're being dramatic, they think that they're the problem, they think that they're weak, and they think that they can't hack it.

None of that is true, but that is the product of these systems. It is not a coincidence that people feel that way. We're not just talking about having done the podcast now for what, four years, almost five years, and running the Collab, I mean, there are people in the Collab in the US, in Canada, in Australia, in Germany, in the UK, in Malaysia, in Singapore, it is not unique in the sense of like, “You are not the one person who feels this way and somehow it's your fault.”

Literally, statistically, that is not possible given the circumstances. Given the factual circumstances, you are not the problem.

Kelcey Baker: Right. The system is meant to make you feel like you are the problem, that you are feeling this way because there's something wrong with you. You're not happy with this because you're a failure in some aspect.

I've said this before but I'll say it again, there are so many parallels between the intensity of the legal profession and cults. If we think about, "What are the hallmarks of some cults?" We isolate people from their friends and family. They starve them. They deprive them of sleep. They cut off their other sources of income to be able to support themselves, and then they have a very secure control over people and their lives.

Now, that sounds a lot to me like Biglaw, personally. You're not sleeping, you're not eating. It's your only form of income. You're being isolated from your friends and family because you're not able to spend any time or quality time with people other than your coworkers. It's a kind of similar environment.

Even if we take the cult thing out for a second, and we just talk about abusive relationships, that's what happens in an abusive relationship. You're isolated, you're made to feel like you're the crazy person for feeling this way or that you're a failure for not being happy or not be able to persevere and just be resilient through the treatment that you're getting, or you're being made to feel like you deserve the treatment that you're getting, that somehow you deserve this type of treatment.

Maybe you feel you deserve it because you're getting paid so much. But what kind of situation is it where you're getting paid to be abused? When we think about it in those terms, you're like, "That is messed up."

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, that's real twisted. There's really not much else to say about it, honestly. As I was reading this article, I was just thinking about how many people there are who are having this kind of experience.

Then also just to the point that you made very early on in our conversation, of course, this person felt like she could not tell people. In fact, I think a lot of us end up in a situation where we aren't even able to see for ourselves how bad it is, because it's protective like “I want to succeed, I want to do what I'm supposed to do, I want to reach the milestones that I'm being told I should reach. Therefore, I can't even see in myself that things are as bad as they are because I want to do what's right. I want to be the person who does the things.”

It's just devastating. It's completely devastating to be in a situation like this, to read a story like this, and to see how this happens and to know that there are these dynamics that are all feeding into it.

Kelcey Baker: Absolutely. Yeah. I want to say as someone who listened to this podcast for a very long time and then ended up joining the Collab and the Guided Track, I know that we've talked in a past episode when I was talking a little bit more about my experience but just something that felt so important was the validation that I wasn't alone and I wasn't the only one feeling this way because you're absolutely right, this is really common. This happens all the time.

But I think that in order to keep people in these systems, part of it includes making people feel very isolated in their experience. Nobody within that environment is going to talk to each other and be honest and say, “Hey, are we all unhappy here? Are we all feeling mistreated in some way, or are we all not getting enough sunlight, fresh air, and good food because we're living creatures?” and just that isolation can really make you feel like you're the only one feeling this, there's something wrong with you.

I think it's just so important to have these conversations because there is something inherently different about the legal profession. I think a lot of what we talk about can be applicable to businesses and corporations largely, but I think that there's some unique flavor in the legal profession and it's so helpful and so important I think for people who have been in the legal profession, who are in the legal profession, to be able to talk about this and to just say, “You're not alone in your experience. I have or I know someone who has experienced these types of things before and there's nothing wrong with you.”

To what you've said in previous episodes, it's a feature, not a bug. The system is designed to be this way because it means control and profitability. So for you to say, "Why does this feel wrong?" I would argue it's because it is wrong. I think that's why it feels that way. You're not wrong for feeling like something's wrong.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Okay, Kelcey, as we're getting to the end of our conversation, is there anything else that you want to share or that you think people should know about all of the things that we've talked about today?

Kelcey Baker: I think just re-emphasizing that it's okay for people to feel like, one, something's wrong, two, to feel the sense of feeling stuck, like, “How do I get out of this? How do I stop feeling this way? I can't be honest with my employer. I can't push back on some of this.”

I think to be able to seek validation in other sources is really important. Obviously, I know I'm a big convert of Former Lawyer, but just say that really there's something very important, I think, about the community that has been built in the Collab and in The Former Lawyer community because it is a way to help deprogram yourself in a sense of speaking, to say, "Oh, I'm not the only one who feels this way," and people who are totally different age and in a totally different location, in a totally different practice area, area of the world, or type of work environment, we know that it's inherent to Biglaw and law firms generally, but this happens in public interest, this happens in the government.

I think it's the profession that this just can happen to any lawyer because there's something particular about the profession of law that attracts these kinds of personalities, that enables these types of systems to be built, and therefore allows these types of situations to occur that can make it really, really hard to be able to thrive as a human being.

I think there is no shame in feeling this way and to be able to connect with other people who might be experiencing something similar to you I think is really important because the more isolated you feel, the harder it is to feel any sense of hope or relief.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, I really appreciate all of the things that you said. I think they're so true. Kelcey, thank you for coming on the podcast and talking with me about this. I really hope that this conversation is helpful for a lot of people who are listening, and listeners, we see you.

Kelcey Baker: We do. Thanks so much for having me back, Sarah.

Sarah Cottrell: Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven't yet, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law at Until next time, have a great week.