I speak with lots of lawyers – several hundred in any given week – about mental health, substance use and personal wellbeing, especially in law firms. As you might imagine, I get a lot of feedback and answer many questions, the bulk of which tend to focus on getting at the root causes of the poor mental health and overall lack of wellbeing experienced by many.
This past week however, one comment stood out, so much so that I thought we should all take a minute and talk about it. The comment involved a phrase often associated with feats of endurance, which might seem harmless enough on the surface: “Just make it happen.”
As a mantra, “Just make it happen” (also known as “just do it”, “whatever it takes”, or “git ’er done”, depending on style, preference and perhaps level of sophistication) might seem like a pronouncement of faith in someone’s ability to complete a task – an affirmation of your trust in their competence, dedication and reliability.
And in many ways, it is. After all, you wouldn’t say, “just make it happen”, to someone who you knew or believed could not, under any circumstances, be relied upon to do so. (For example, I’ve never once dropped a stack of forms on my pug at tax time and said: “Just make it happen.”)
When clients, faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem and in search of a favourable outcome, turn to their lawyer and say, “just make it happen”, it would seem, in a sense, like they are simply signalling their confidence and bestowing their praise. The same thing could be said for law firm partners who then turn to an associate with a similar request. They’ve got an important deadline to meet and you are the person they are turning to in their moment of need. Pretty sweet, right?
In reality, the timeline may be disastrously unreasonable, the expectations inhumane, and the assignment itself utterly unclear but, damn it, they know you’ll come through. You’re a superstar, or at least this is your chance to show you could be. Now go back to your cave and, like they said, just make it happen.
The problem with this attitude, aside from its tendency to produce a large volume of organic matter that rolls directly and unmistakably downhill in a work environment, is that it often tears through and disregards all boundaries and reasonableness, leaving someone else’s weekend plans or basic human needs cast aside more thoughtlessly than wrapping paper on an eager child’s gift. Self-care, already a mythical concept for many, goes out the window, displaced instead by stress, isolation, sleep deprivation, substance misuse or a litany of other less-than-ideal outcomes.
So yes, those people saying, “make it happen”, are signalling confidence in your ability, but they simultaneously are signalling that you don’t matter all that much. The same way they don’t ask their SUV if it minds carting a load of groceries, they don’t ask if their demands of you are in any way problematic. To them, you’re a machine, and perhaps an expensive one at that. You had better start when they push the button and go when they push the gas. That’s the deal, and if you don’t like it, they’ve got time and money to trade you in.
Except, of course, you’re not two tons of metal and glass bolted together on an assembly line in Toledo or Stuttgart. You’re a human being, and you have needs, hopes, dreams and above all, inherent worth.
Of course, this type of behaviour and mentality – that lawyers are essentially commodities with on-demand availability – is not new. Clients have always had time-sensitive needs and lawyers have long wanted to promise excellent results at any cost, something widely seen as necessary in an ultra-competitive service profession with high billing rates. The problem though – again keeping in mind how many lawyers I hear from – is that the unacknowledged and significant costs of “just make it happen” are rising, and our boundaries of what’s acceptable are slipping.
The pace of life and business are increasing, while our available downtime seems to be shrinking exponentially with every iteration of the iPhone. Any reasonable and candid person would acknowledge that it feels like an unsustainable path. And it feels that way because it is.
As a result, and in response, I’m suggesting that we all need to – even just incrementally – start pushing back on the unreasonable and start reclaiming our humanity. If that sounds unrealistic and out of touch to you, your rote critique of change is noted, but check back with me in 10 years when it will sound, in hindsight, a lot more like urgent prescience.
So, what am I proposing as tangible steps we could be taking to improve the situation? There are dozens, but I’ll start with two, one for the organisations that employ lawyers and one for the lawyers themselves.
For the organisations, they need to recognise and invest in the fact that lawyers need training, education and encouragement to become better and more empathetic managers. The producer-manager dilemma has long plagued many law firms and, as a result, teams and matters are frequently being run by people with little or no skills to manage workflow, time or people.
Good lawyers, bad managers: this is a source of unnecessary stress in many work environments, prompting trickle-down toxicity, downward-flowing distress and an unchecked proliferation of “just make it happen” moments. It is also, at least by comparison, one of the easier problems to tackle.
The more important and more difficult step requires lawyers themselves to have better boundaries. Sometimes that will mean working to overcome your powerful and perhaps Pavlovian need for approval and external validation, and sometimes it will mean drawing upon a skillset that you, as a lifetime high achiever, don’t have a lot of experience with: saying no.
In my years of counselling lawyers to overcome addiction, one of the most important things I could do was help them learn how to develop and enforce boundaries. If they didn’t, their recovery would likely be tenuous and shortlived, because old behaviours would return and everything else would ultimately come before their own wellbeing and sanity.
If they did learn how to draw boundaries, they would stand a far better chance of flourishing. As a population, lawyers suck at boundaries, often seeing them as some sort of restraint on their potential or a sign of weakness. In reality, they are neither, but lawyers tend to need some convincing of that.
Until we all take some greater level of ownership of our own distress, recognising that our own choices, personalities and priorities have often led us to the precipice of breakdown, the problems will not abate. Our situation can be improved, but it’s up to each one of us to just make it happen.
Patrick Krill is the founder of Krill Strategies, a behavioural health consulting firm focused exclusively on the legal industry. Go to www.prkrill.com for more information.