Magic Circle, United Kingdom / Great Britain

Former Freshfields Barrister Wonders If Your Biglaw Job Is Making You Sick

From time to time we have the opportunity to talk about how massively unhealthy Biglaw jobs can be. Lawyers don’t get enough sleep. They take drugs to stay awake. Sometimes they even have panic attacks when they find themselves back at work right after a holiday.

Work/Life balance is not something they teach in law school.

That’s a reality that novelist Jonathan Lee knows all too well. The author of the critically acclaimed Who is Mr Satoshi? used to be a lawyer with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in the U.K.

Now, Lee is writing on the Huffington Post, and he’s sharing some of the details from his “Magic Circle” lifestyle to make a point about professional environments that are damaging to your health.

Lee might be fighting the good fight, but working a Biglaw job is kind of like smoking cigarettes: everybody who has one knows it’s bad for them, but they just don’t care at the moment….

One interesting note is that Freshfields apparently has an in-house doctor. That sounds like something we should have in the states. But given the way American firms work, they’d probably put the doctor’s office right next to the managing partners office so he could keep an eye on the associates who didn’t have the immune system needed to make partner.

In any event, Lee went to the in-house GP and had a conversation that I imagine most Biglaw attorneys have had with their physician:

“Do you have any…” He raised his eyebrows in anticipation of the next word. “Symptoms?”

“Um,” I said, “I’m not, I suppose, sleeping that well?”


“But I’m tired.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Why of course?”

“People who don’t sleep well – they tend to get tired.”

I nodded. He frowned.

“Any recent changes to routine?” he asked.

“Not really,” I said. “I don’t really have a routine. I work upstairs; I’m one of the commercial solicitors. Some weeks I do next to nothing. Then the next week I do ninety hours. Not that I’m complaining, it’s just…”

I watched him write down “90 hours.”

“This week’s been a bad one,” I explained. “I’ve been in the office until three or four a.m. every day since Saturday, then back in at eight. This morning the job I was doing finished, so I have the afternoon off, but I can’t sleep. I have a new case starting Monday.”

The doctor later asks Lee if he “likes” his job, which evidently sent Lee into some kind of existential crisis. But I think the point is that you just haven’t had a big-time legal job if you haven’t had to pull a week like the one described multiple times in a row.

And if you have done consecutive weeks like that, periodically, over the course of years, how could it not make you sick? Rock stars don’t party like that… unless they are on all kinds of drugs, which is kind of the point.

Thinking about it, associates don’t need an in-house doctor so much as they need an in-house shrink who specializes in slapping them upside the head to try to tap into their self-preservation instincts.

Biglaw jobs are terrible for your health, that’s why they pay you so much to do it. People are getting freaking hazard pay. And Lee came to realize that inescapable fact:

I felt lucky to be well-paid, and I’d always associated workplace illness with jobs that were badly paid, where staff were not ‘looked after’ in any traditional sense. Jobs like staying at home writing, now I come to think of it. I didn’t deserve anyone’s sympathy – it was my own responsibility to weigh up the rewards of the job against the less pleasant aspects, and I was free to leave at any time. But it did interest me, the more I thought about it, that a portion of my salary consisted of a kind of ‘risk money’. All of us in the office were putting ourselves at risk; we were risking our physical health, our mental health. We were frequently wandering into work in a daze, exhausted and fractious, bug-eyed on two hours sleep, hoping that we’d get the next weekend off, and in the meantime popping pills to address our various ailments.

The only people who don’t know that are summer associates and kids who weren’t able to score a Biglaw job out of law school.

But the money is good. It’s more than most of these people can make doing anything else. And so, much like porn stars or proctologists, Biglaw associates stay in the jobs where they have maximized their earning potential. If Biglaw required people to wear a wife-beaters and grow facial hair, the Discovery Channel would make a reality series out of them. “Ice Road Associates” or “Deadliest Doc Reviews” or some such nonsense.

Is your job making you sick? Undoubtedly. Do you care? Probably not as much as you care about paying your rent.

Is Your Office Making You Ill? [Huffington Post]

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