Why Are Lawyers So Unpopular and Stressed?

Photo by Stuart Richards (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Editor’s Note: The author of this post is the founder and CEO of Legal Mosaic, a strategic consulting firm and a regular contributor to Big Law Business.

By Mark A. Cohen, Chief Executive Officer, Legalmosaic

The title suggests a work of epic length —War and Peace comes to mind. There are so many reasons why lawyers are unpopular and stressed.

So why bother attempting to discuss them, even in “greatest hits” fashion? Because things can — should — get better. But it will require some changes.


Lawyers Are Unpopular—They Just Are

Lawyers are unpopular for several reasons, many of which they can control, and some —like the inherent uncertainty of outcome — they cannot. There is a widely held view lawyers are difficult and create problems, not solutions. John Grisham nailed it in The Client: “You advised him not to get a lawyer, giving as one of your reasons the opinion that lawyers are a pain in the ass.  Gentlemen, the pain is here.”

Contrast lawyers with plumbers. When a toilet gets clogged, it’s an immediate and real problem. The plumber provides an estimate, a solution, and a predictable bill. The customer is generally more than willing to pay because the cost to result value is high. How often do lawyers achieve that?

Lawyers are generally viewed as costing too much and loathing budgets. Though alternative fee arrangements are increasingly common, legal bills remain a sore point. Clients don’t like billing surprises, and lawyers don’t enjoy client grousing. There is a misalignment of interest between and among the three stakeholders in the legal delivery system: Lawyers who do work, law firms that bundle it, and clients who pay for it that must be realigned.

Cost and perceived lack of value are common complaints leveled against lawyers in both the corporate and retail segments of the market. Lawyers suffer from a distribution problem: too many lawyers vie for “high-end” corporate work and too few provide affordable services to the millions of potential clients who need them. Meanwhile, a vast number of lawyers are unemployed or under-employed.

Lawyers’ use of language plays a big role, too–ironic since attorneys are in the persuasion business. Why do so few attorneys write and talk in plain-speak, choosing instead to communicate in “legal speak?” This only reinforces the lawyer/non-lawyer divide that attorneys have so purposefully constructed.

Will Rogers summed it up: “The minute you read something you can’t understand, you can almost be sure that it was drawn up by a lawyer.”

Lawyers are also unpopular because they frequently raise issues rather than solve them. They are, of course, trained to spot issues and to find reasons why things don’t work rather than to identify ways that they might. Clients come to lawyers with problems — not unlike the person with the clogged toilet. They want sensible, clear remedies, not reasons why the toilet is malfunctioning.

There is a widespread perception that lawyers unnecessarily complicate issues and “reinvent the wheel” with each new matter. They tend to complicate rather than crystallize concepts and issues.  As Einstein noted, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Photo by Ricardo Diaz (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Many lawyers are not good at “bedside manner” as well as keeping clients apprised of progress. This is one of the principal causes for legal malpractice claims as well as a basis for billing surprises. The problem is compounded when “phantom” lawyers appear on bills performing tasks that, in part because of poor lawyer-client communication, are deemed unnecessary. If the billing needle is moving, then there is activity to report to clients — same with substantive aspects of the matter.


The Trend Line Points South

Literature is rife with lawyer bashing dating back hundreds of years. But the numbers suggest that their unpopularity has grown in recent years.

A 1973 Harris survey found that 24 percent of respondents had high confidence in lawyers-a low percentage. Two decades later, that figure cratered to 7 percent. And a 2013 Pew survey found lawyers last among ten professional categories for “contributions to society.” Attorneys garnered an 18% affirmative response. By contrast, the military was 78 percent, teachers 72 percent, and doctors 66 percent.

Lawyers are often perceived as self-serving. It does not help that law is self-regulated and that lawyers are the arbiters of their own conduct. So too do lawyers write most of society’s laws and regulations that they are trained to construe — and paid handsomely and often to do so.  Add to that the dismal public view of elected officials, a disproportionate percentage of whom are lawyers.


Lawyers Are Not A Happy Bunch

A 1990 study by Johns Hopkins found that of 28 occupations studied, lawyers were the most likely to suffer depression — 3.6 times more likely than the surveyed average. Some reports suggest that nearly 40 percent of law students deal with depression. Why? The unholy Trinity of crushing student debt, dismal job prospects, and a marketplace that says “you are not practice ready” is a ready explanation.

Depression is not the only sign of widespread lawyer stress and melancholy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that lawyers have among the highest rates for suicide as well as drug and alcohol abuse. Lawyers also rank high in divorce rate as well as illnesses exacerbated by stress.

Law is no longer the safe passage to a comfortable life that it was even two decades ago. This is particularly so for recent graduates and those in mid-career who have seen a tectonic shift in the profession in recent years — something very different from what they were trained for and had anticipated. Globalization, technology, encroachment into “legal” matters by other professions —notably consultants, accountants, and technologists — and, until recently, the ever increasing number of new law school graduates have contributed to lawyer uncertainty and instability.

Legal practice is not the glamor profession so often portrayed in television and movies. For many lawyers, it more closely resembles the desultory existence of the Dickensian bookkeeper in Tale of Two Cities. The appellate decisions and lofty philosophical arguments of law school give way to more repetitive, mundane tasks for most lawyers, much of which is now done by legal service providers. And those fortunate enough to escape that drudgery are often servants to demanding golden handcuff masters that all but destroy work-life balance.

Long hours, billing demands, the pressure to generate business, and a rapidly changing legal landscape also contribute to lawyer stress. This is not the case for all lawyers, of course, but the grim statistics on stress-related illness, alcohol/drug dependency, and suicide point to a profession under great stress. Add to that diminished prestige as well as economic uncertainty and one has a toxic mix of psychically debilitating elements. How often have you heard that “The happiest lawyers are the ones who no longer practice?”


Can Things Get Better?

 They certainly can. Law is lurching towards interdisciplinary practice — especially in other developed nations such as the UK and Australia where it is permitted — and this will create a different dynamic. So too is technology presenting new opportunities for lawyers — even as it is increasingly substituting legal products for what were once legal services. Law is now intersecting with business and technology as never before and, in the process, redefining what it means to be a lawyer. And for lawyer/entrepreneurs of all age and experience levels, it is an exciting time because the global legal market has plenty of room for effective new models of delivery.

Law presents financial and psychic rewards for lawyers who can more efficiently and cost-effectively deliver services and products to the millions for whom legal services have become unaffordable as well as to a corporate segment increasingly receptive to alternative delivery systems. The retail segment has millions of potential new paying clients. And when those clients are represented, the public perception of lawyers will improve. Lawyers have affordable technological tools to align themselves in ways not previously possible, enabling them to tap into mentors, colleagues, and, potentially, clients as never before. They are no longer “trapped” by the traditional law firm model.

Most lawyers would benefit from recalibrating their expectations — and practice law because they enjoy it, not to maximize economic return. My happiest years of practice were when I was an Assistant United States Attorney earning a fraction of what I did in private practice.

But to be able to work for joy, not for money, brings up the cost and delivery of legal education: It must be reduced, compressed, make better use of technology, and train lawyers to be practice ready in today’s legal environment. That should include practical insight into client relations, the “business” of law, and its increasing intersection with technology and a global marketplace. That requires a hard look at faculty composition — why not a mix of “academics” with practitioners, especially those with a hand on the pulse of the contemporary global legal marketplace? There should be more connectivity with other disciplines-notably business and technology but also others.

Lawyers will have new opportunities to ply their skills beyond the traditional law firm structure but must be (re) trained to do so effectively. And perhaps there should be a two-track law school curriculum: one for those engaged in client practice and another for leveraging a legal background in other fields.

Lawyers will be happier when they restore public trust. Delivering more value, speaking plainly, being more transparent, embracing innovation, responding to the needs of the marketplace, providing affordable service for all who need it, focusing on delivering solutions, utilizing tools available to deliver legal services more efficiently and collaboratively, and recognizing that “just being a lawyer” doesn’t often cut it anymore would go a long way towards making lawyers more popular and happier.