The Simple Yet Unacceptable Answer to the Mental Health Crisis in the Legal Profession

By Murray Gottheil | March 13, 2024

By the time that I figured out that I could no longer cope with the pressures of the legal profession and that something had to give, I had been practicing business law for 33 years. What can I say… I am a slow learner. It took me almost another seven years to get out. I escaped with my health intact, but just barely.

The most stressful part of my professional practice was transactional work.

Recently, there was a tragedy in the news. An experienced Big Law partner in the United Kingdom and mother of three suffered a mental health crisis and then died under circumstances which likely related to her mental health. She also did transactional work.

Coincidentally, I was recently speaking to a lawyer who is in her early years of practice and finding the demands of transactional work to be overwhelming. She is learning that transactions take on a life of their own and that law firms and clients expect the life of the transaction to take precedence over the life of the lawyer. Every lawyer who does deals knows what I am talking about: late evenings and weekend work for weeks on end, with everything else subordinated, including family, friends, and fitness. In addition, there is often an expectation to be ‘on call’ during the few non-working hours.

My young friend knows that she is still learning and that the lengthy hours cannot be avoided at this stage of her career. She accepts that. But at the same time, she asked me when it will end and whether she can expect to have a ‘normal’ life at some point. I find myself struggling to answer that question.

On the one hand, we all know lawyers who are well beyond their early years of practice and are still living life on the basis that the deal always comes first. Some of them seem to enjoy the thrill of the deal, and, if they are choosing to work that way because it achieves their personal goals, all power to them.

On the other hand,  it seems that there are many others who have been swept into that way of life without consciously choosing it. Despite being unhappy with the impact of that lifestyle on their physical and mental health or their relationships, they continue trudging down that path. I used to be one of those. I cannot recall how many times I answered the question, “Do you like being a lawyer?”  by saying, “I love what I do, but I hate the stress that I do it under,” and then just kept on doing it without much thought as to how to change things.

So back to my young friend. She looks to me as the wise, old, experienced, retired guy who can tell her how to think about the path that she is on. And although she is at least partially correct (I am old and retired), I cannot come up with cogent advice.

I started by giving her the traditional advice:

  1. It is too early for you to decide whether or not this is for you. You  have to get to the point where you have developed  your skills and you are good at what you do. When you are no longer dealing with the stress of learning the basics on the  job, you will be in a better position to decide if you like it;
  2. If you are going to keep doing transactional work, you have to accept that there will be times that the deal takes precedence over everything else. You need to make up for the stressful times by taking it easier when things slow down; and 
  3. If you can hold on for a number of years, eventually you will no longer be the most junior person on the team and you can have people more junior than you do the evening and weekend work.

But I know that even when I was an experienced lawyer, sometimes those deals came in one after the other and I did not get the breaks that I needed to be healthy. Later, when I supervised a team, it was quite a bit better, but I still had plenty of evening and weekend work. I cannot describe my mental state at that time as even coming close to ‘chill’.

No, the answer has to lie elsewhere. Enter the coaches, mentors, and mental health experts, talking about things like setting boundaries, saying no, meditation, relaxation techniques, and a whole bunch of other things which are valuable but still somehow strike me as bandages applied to a more pervasive problem. In this regard, I understand that the Big Law firm at which the unfortunate partner I have been reading about worked had a mental health line for its lawyers. I am sure that did not look like a solution to her.

The legal profession can dance around this issue for eons and eons, and I have no doubt that they will, because big money demands that they do, but the answer is really quite simple. The demands on lawyers, and in particular on those who are trying to balance the practice of law with family obligations, are simply too high. They are required to work too many hours. They are expected to be on call too many evenings and weekends. It is simply unhealthy.

There are only two solutions, of course, and before someone says ‘technology’, that is not one of them. Legal technology has its place and I am all for it, but forty years of practice has convinced me that improvements in technology have not typically resulted in lawyers working less. They should, and implemented wisely, they can. However, that  is not how law firms think. They simply use technology to take on more and more work.

One theoretical solution is that the industry as a whole has to reset client expectations. I don’t see that happening.

The other solution, of course, is to decrease the workload of lawyers. Fewer files. Fewer hours. Hire more lawyers to do the work. Of course, that comes with less income, especially for the people at the top (who, ironically, are usually not the people working the ridiculous hours). Few law firms seem to choose this approach.

Which brings me back, once again, to my young friend for whom I have so few answers. The very best that I can suggest is that she focus on developing a client base and having the leverage to decide how hard she wants to work, whether in a firm, or on her own. Say no to clients if she has too much work. Hire juniors to help with the files. Earn less money. Don’t get caught up in the lifestyle. Don’t buy a huge house, drive a fancy car, and send the kids to private schools. She nods along with me until I get to the “earn less money” part. She seems to be unenthusiastic about that aspect of my solution.

It seems to me that the basic problem with the legal profession is that we lawyers feel entitled to earn more than we are worth. With the exception of a few entrepreneurial lawyers who are businesspeople first and lawyers second, the vast majority of us are trying to earn most of our money by spending our time working for clients or up-charging time spent by others at our firm. Our capacity for work is limited. We look at our clients who take risks and sell products at vast multiples of their cost of producing them, and we think that we should be able to live in the same neighbourhoods, drive the same cars, take the same trips, and send our children to the same schools. And then we set about trying to generate enough money from our legal practices to do that. The math simply does not work. And then people break down. Some of them get sick. Some of them get divorced. And some of them die.

If any of you have figured this out, let me know. I have a young friend who is searching for the answer and I do not seem to be able to help her.

Murray is a happily retired lawyer who lives in the country, drives a pick-up truck, writes, teaches and mentors. You can reach him at [email protected] or see what he is up to at


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