Stress in the City

A Lawyer 2B survey shows stress is a huge part of being a City lawyer. But instead of trying to fight it, you can make it work for you. Becky Waller-Davies discovers the best way to navigate a highly pressured environment

All jobs come with a certain amount of pressure. But it’s fair to say that lawyers, especially in the City, experience more than most, with long working hours, demanding senior management and clients, and ever-present billing targets all contributing to on-the-job pressure.

While saying this will always invite comparisons with open-heart surgeons or front-line soldiers, the City is an incredibly stressful place to work. Although there is little chance of this changing soon, it is possible to change the way you deal with operating in such a world.

“There is no doubt the City is a highly pressured environment,” says Hilary Tilby, chief executive of charity LawCare. “People get paid a lot of money and firms expect their pound of flesh.”

Tilby adds a disclaimer, though, saying new joiners should not be scared off from the profession. “Law is a great profession,” she states. “I would not have practised for over 30 years – 10 as a barrister and 20 as a solicitor – if it was not a good career.

“The vast majority of people have rewarding, worthwhile careers and are happy. We at LawCare only see the people who are unhappy.”

Of course, if you are experiencing too much stress, knowing that most people are relatively happy is not a particularly comforting thought. Feeling stressed can make you feel isolated – a major problem for junior lawyers encountering stress is the perception that if you talk about being stressed, you’re deemed not to be coping.

Tilby says: “There is a perception that if you talk about being stressed, you can’t cope. People from older generations often don’t understand the pressures of being a young lawyer now, which are much greater than they experienced in the past.”

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Under pressure

“In law, more than in other industries, stress is a problem,” asserts Husnara Begum, founder of Begum Consulting and a former magic circle associate.

“The general assumption is that you choose law as a career because it is well-paid and fast-paced,” she continues. “If you are the type of person who gets stressed when perhaps others would not, many in the profession might wonder why you became a lawyer.

“That is unfair, though, because no one can predict how stressful a job is from the outside.”

Of course, many high-powered City professionals are proud of their ability to handle stress. So to admit to themselves, let alone others, that they are stressed is the first step in dealing with the issue.

Knowing you are not infallible and stress can be targeted with coping mechanisms or harnessed for a useful purpose, is important.

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Harnessing stress

To see stress as only a harmful force is to miss a key point. Stress helps us to get up in the morning. It is what keeps our jobs interesting and challenging. In short, without it there is zero motivation.

“The notion that stress is bad probably needs to be tackled,” says Andrew Kinder of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. “I would use the term ‘distressed’ to describe a problem. That is when your coping resources are overwhelmed by pressure.”

Recognising that stress will play some part in your career is helpful. Knowing that you can harness that stress and use it as motivation is equally important.

Workload

The main cause of stress among young lawyers is workload. It is a key concern, so much so that in a Lawyer 2B survey on stress in the legal profession, 78.5 per cent of trainees listed “too much work, too little time” as a chief cause.

Of the trainees we surveyed, 78 per cent work between 35 and 55 hours a week on average. A further 13 per cent work between 56 and 65 hours, while 7.5 per cent work more than 66 hours every week.

Breaking down the figures reveals 57 per cent of magic circle trainees surveyed work more than 55 hours per week, compared with 46 per cent of trainees at other large London firms and 25 per cent at US firms in London.

There is no doubt that trainees have a lot of work to cope with. But having a lot of work to do is not, in itself, always the chief problem.

It is certainly not pleasant having to regularly arrive at the office early and leave late. But junior lawyers are well-paid for their time, and those who go into the profession know that a late-hours culture is inevitable.

But when it comes to it, they get much more stressed than they had anticipated, which causes them to worry that they cannot cope.

This is because wading through mountains of work is not the problem. The problem is the lack of control that young lawyers have over their work.

The good news is that the higher up they go, the less of an issue this becomes. In Lawyer 2B’s survey, only 55 per cent of partners cited “too much work, too little time” as the chief cause of stress.

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Control

“When you are a young lawyer you have very little control over your life,” Tilby acknowledges. “You have to do what you’re told, when you’re told and how you’re told and that can get very frustrating.”

Not being in control of your workload is stressful. You feel like it is getting on top of you. But not getting into that situation in the first place is key.

There are several ways to avoid feeling out of control. These include time management (see page 58), being honest with yourself and your supervisor, trying to be more assertive, and developing your resilience to stressful circumstances.

Having the confidence to say no is important, even if it is an unpalatable prospect. Saying no to a partner can be terrifying and sometimes you do just need to jump when they say so. But exercising judgement when someone asks something of you can be helpful rather than harmful.

“Trainees sometimes feel that they have to say yes to every piece of work that is delegated,” says Begum. “That if you don’t agree to take on every piece of work you’re given you are a trouble-maker or less committed.”

Situations when it is best to just get stuck in and get through it include the closing of a deal. If everyone in the office is expected to help out, then being unwilling to muck in will not come across well.

In other situations, however, there can be some leeway. “There are some situations where it is perfectly fine to say no and it is something that becomes easier with practice,” Begum affirms.

An example of a situation where saying no really is an option is when you reach the end of the day on Friday, have plans to go out, and an associate or partner walks over to you and tells you that some documents need turning around.

Instead of saying yes without question and spending the rest of Friday night begrudgingly working your way through documents, it is better to emphasise that you really want to help out, check the deadline and ask if you could perhaps work on the documents over the weekend, or if they could wait until Monday morning.

Simply put, there are other ways of coming across as enthusiastic than just saying yes all the time.

Just say no

If your supervisor is unreasonable, though, all the enthusiasm in the world could fail to impress.

If you find yourself in a situation where a nightmare boss controls your working – or worse, waking – hours, you need to decide just how bad a boss they are.

Does their behaviour amount to bullying? It might be explicit or insidious, but if their behaviour is deliberately designed to intimidate or upset you, you need to consider taking action (see box, left).

However, if your boss is the more common variety of difficult – unpredictable, unclear with direction, grudging when it comes to any approval or praise – then there are ways to combat this.

One idea is to develop a network of contacts at a firm. If you get on with friendly partners or senior associates then a word in their ear about how difficult your supervisor is being can work wonders, even if it is just to offer some reassurance that you are doing a good job.

Do not disregard your fellow trainees, either. Someone who was in your seat previously could prove to be a lifeline.

Being honest with supervisors is also important. Speak up if work directions lack clarity. Be assertive and if you do not understand exactly what you are meant to be doing, ask. Doing something incorrectly, presenting it to a superior and then being asked to re-do it will not do you any favours.

You also need to keep people up to date, especially if you are worried you are taking more time than expected to complete a task. If this is the case, say so. Sending an email explaining why the task has been prolonged is better than panicking at your desk while your boss wonders what’s keeping the document waiting.

Stress may be an inevitable part of a legal career, but managing that stress is crucial. Crack stress management and life will become a lot easier.

Bullying

We get an awful lot of calls about bullying. It staggers me that in the 21st century, among apparently intelligent people, there is still a big issue with this.

Bullying varies enormously, both in who is being bullied and what type of bullying is taking place. Lawyers bully secretaries; secretaries sometimes bully lawyers. It can be people ganging up or one person acting alone.

I have had a consultant at a firm being bullied by a managing partner; I have had a trainee telling me that she shared a room with her supervisor and when he was telling her off he used to bounce a really small but really hard rubber ball off the wall above her head. It sounds funny but it’s not – it’s incredibly intimidating and very inappropriate.

We have had people who have been on compassionate leave because they have had a death in the family being harassed at home, people on sick leave being harassed. Sometimes everything is about “nose to the grindstone, can’t have time off”.

Considering these people are lawyers and know what constructive or unfair dismissal is, they should know better. But sadly, we sometimes just have to say to people, you are going to either have to toughen up or you are going to have to go.

If the person who is the bully is a rainmaker [someone who brings in a lot of business], and is more valuable to the firm than the person being bullied, frequently the firm will not have the willpower to do anything about it. Realistically, the only thing people can sometimes do is to vote with their feet. It is sad, but self-protection is important.

I suspect – although it is no more than a suspicion – that bullying has become institutionalised at some firms. I think some firms are struggling so much at the moment to survive, that the care for their staff goes out the window. This is actually very short-sighted because their staff are their most valuable asset.

Hilary Tilby, chief executive, LawCare 

See the full results of Lawyer 2B’s stress in law survey