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The Crisis In The Legal Profession, Toxicity In The Legal Industry With Julian Sarafian
This episode is part two of Toxicity in the Legal Industry with Julian Sarafian. In part one, Julian told his story related to being a Harvard grad until he got into his legal profession and contemplated suicide. He had to leave. As we look at part two, we’re going to be examining Julian’s perspective on the current state of the legal industry and, further, what are some things that we need to be examining in that industry, including workloads, burnout, and various other aspects to ensure that we can root out toxicity for good. Let’s get to it.
Let’s pick up where we left off. In our last conversation, we dived into how you got into the legal industry. We’re talking about you coming from Harvard and going into the industry which you experienced. I want to use this conversation to dive into the industry itself and hear more about some of the norms that you faced. More importantly, what was the impact on you? What do you see that that is having on others? How does that sound?
That sounds wonderful.
You graduated from college. You left college and applied. How was your application process? What does that look like?
In law school, they take care of it for you. When you go to the higher-tier law schools, you have a lot of the big law firms. Big law tends to be one of the primary places where law students want to go because you get paid a lot of money, and you get good training. They come on campus and you have a week of 30-something interviews, 20 minutes each, where you do screeners and it’s more of a personality fit. It’s also for them to get your grades and feel out if you’re going to be a good fit for the firm. If those go well, you do a callback interview. You go back to the firm’s headquarters and do a 2.5-hour session again. If those go well, that’s when you get the summer associate offer.
The summer associate offer is more or less a full-time offer because the idea is that when you go to be a summer associate, the firm wants you to come back as a full-time. Unless you do something very egregious, you will get the offer and it will be fine. That was the process for me. It was fairly standard. There was the rat race mentality of, “What rank law firm did you get an interview at? What rank law firm did you get interviewed for? Did you get an interview with this firm? Wow.” The rat race ranking mentality certainly does not end, even at law schools like Harvard, where we’re ranked number four.
The big law firm rankings are the next thing. There are a lot of students who go in and they’re like, “I don’t know what to do next, but I know it has rankings for the best law firms, so let me target the top 10 because all I know is aim for the top.” That competitive atmosphere, even when it may not be what’s best generally for folks and what they actually want in their career.
One of the things that I do as a researcher, especially in the workplace, is nerd out on statistics. One of the major statistics you’ll see with MDs as well as lawyers is suicide rates and poor mental health. You’ll see the correlation there. How were you prepped as it relates to what you were getting yourself into?Lawyers lead in addiction rates, and it’s already seated in the culture of law when you’re a law student. Click To Tweet
There was none. In a conversation like this, you’ll hear it every now and then in the ether. All there is a problem. Absent that discussion throughout the regular conversation realm. There’s close to nothing else by way of formal structure in law school to help you understand what anxiety is, catch the signs, prepare you, and tell you, “When you go into this industry, this is what you should expect to see. The number one rate of alcoholism and addiction. 1 out of 3 attorneys showed signs of clinical depression. Forty-three percent of law students reporting anxiety.” Nobody talks about those things.
I think part of it is law schools trying to protect their brand. A large part of it is plain ignorance and the inability of these institutions to understand how to have the conversation. I don’t want to assume malice, so to speak, because I don’t think that’s really the case here. I do think there’s a lot of ignorance. I learned the helplessness of institutions on, like, “What do we do? We don’t know how to deal with it. Let’s just sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist.”
It’s so big of a problem. We don’t do anything about it because it seems massive. I think lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than non-lawyers as it relates to the workplace. Lawyers overall were about the fifth most depressed job category as it relates to workplace, which then correlates with the suicide rates that we talked about before. One of the things that come to mind is like, “Is it selection bias? Do certain personalities go to these jobs?” It’s that chicken or egg, nature versus nurture. Regardless of what the cause is, this is not victim-blaming. When I think about what’s missing in our system, what did you need?
It’s a multi-layered issue, of course. The first thing that I preach about is education. I’m the star student. If you had given me a class on anxiety in undergrad, I would have got an A-plus. I would have learned all the signs and the flashcards, done, but we don’t have classes on that. We have a seminar for an hour during orientation. At least I did. That was my whole mental health lesson at Berkeley. The first thing is education. You get people aware of what we’re dealing with here. This isn’t talked about enough, in my opinion. It goes for any service industry in general.
I can say for the lawyer specifically, the job is not well suited to managing stress. You, as an advocate for somebody else, have that implicit emotional pressure on your shoulders of not just performing for your career, doing your job well, and building yourself, but also someone else’s stake on the line depending on your performance. When I interned at this domestic violence agency, the ability of the attorney I worked for to advocate for this mother would determine whether she would have custody over her child for the next five years. That’s a heavy component of legal work in the legal field, but this broadly applies.
I was doing financing for a company. You have the pressure of someone else’s body, energy, or whatever it is, resting on your shoulders. I think that makes it that much more stressful for lawyers in general. You combine that with the profession that doesn’t talk about it and sweep the problem under the rug. It’s a recipe for disaster, whereas I think exactly why, in part, we are where we are.
One of the things I did research is how employees cope with toxicity or these types of stressors in the workplace. One over-utilized coping mechanism in society is substance abuse and utilizing substances, whatever that might be, to cope with those stressors to wake up the next day and do it all over again. Talk to me about that and, in particular, how it shows up in the industry from your perspective?
Lawyers lead in addiction rates, and it’s already seated in the culture of law when you’re a law student. Having fun equals, for the most part, associating it with not being sober, AKA alcohol. You have regular happy hour events. It’s fun and I get it. To some extent, it is grad school. I have fun and all of that. That’s all fine. Right now, we should probably earn the side of, “Maybe let’s just have some puppies on campus for a couple of times a month instead of the booth.” Let’s get a little more balanced. In any event, it continues in the workplace when the primary way that I saw people socializing in the firm with other attorneys as a group is at happy hour. That’s it.
It’s easy, but more likely because leadership here again is lacking and it’s the easy Band-Aid solution. Throw a bunch of alcohol in a room and get the attorneys. There’s nothing inherently wrong with drinking with your friends. That’s fine, but it seems the beginning of what has become dangerous habits. I’ve had friends of mine, we’re three and a half years out of law school, that are already alcoholics. They’ve descended into that habit because they’re so miserable. They don’t feel like they have a choice and it’s the only way that they can, in some ways, numb themselves to continue to survive in the profession. Their bosses, these partners, will down a bottle of whiskey a night or wine every other day.
It’s casual in the profession, and it’s everywhere. That’s just alcohol. I’m not even touching on marijuana use. I’m sure it’s rampant in the East Coast law firms. Cocaine is everywhere. You also have opioid use in some of the darker corners of our profession. We had a partner at my old firm, I wasn’t there at the time, who overdosed a couple of years ago. The New York Times did a whole investigative article about it. He was addicted to it and eventually overdosed. It painted the whole picture of how this is something that’s happening everywhere. It’s certainly there.
I’m sorry to hear that. There’s more we can do. One of the things with substance abuse of any kind, we tend to blame people for the substances that they are on, or what have you, to use for coping. We don’t even try to look at the root cause. You have to understand that your workplace is your workplace. You’re not a social work organization. There is something more we can do as it relates to leadership in these positions to take care of their employees by at least finding out what’s going on with them so that we can find out before the overdoses or before things transpire or get worse.
I fully agree. This is exactly what we’re talking about. It needs to come from leadership. You can’t do it from the bottom. That’s not how power structures work in the human world. In any structure, you’re going to have power that grows. The newcomers are maybe not going to have as much, and the people who have built the power are going to have more. That’s fine. As you’re saying, the important thing is the ability of the folks at the top to listen and be in touch with those at every other level of the structure. In the legal field, it is certainly missing. It’s definitely more of a hierarchical culture and system in our profession.
A lot of leaders become leaders because they’re good at the task. They’re not necessarily adept at the people at all. They coast in their career because they’re able to manage tasks, the numbers, or whatever that might be, which is important in a business. At that same time, the people are also important in the business. It’s an imbalance.
On top of that, in many of these industries, you have a self-selection bias. Folks like me who are in these firms are actively yelling to make a change. I yelled at the firm leadership to get us emotional coaching after the pandemic, and we got it. I’m glad. The firm is awesome for doing that. Eventually, I’m not there anymore. All that leadership and potential, I am like, “I’ve had enough. I’m going to go do other things because it’s not worth my time anymore.” I’m not alone. There are twenty people on my head who the industry as a whole has just lost out on. The folks that stay are not necessarily going to be like me, who are going to be pushing for these things as passionately. It does not help the system as a whole.We are all living in a system that’s broken, and that is not well-suited for folks with mental health conditions. Click To Tweet
One thing I tell people is you didn’t change your system because you have passionate people. Passionate people alone thriving you to change is not really changing. We have to want to change the system. Leaders have to want to change innately. What that could look like is being proactive and setting up systems to be accountable. If I see somebody working a certain amount of hours or what have you, we’re going to call that out and say, “What’s going on? How are you doing?” That doesn’t happen. We wait until you have mental breakdowns or it’s too late.
I don’t even think that they wait until that count. I think that when someone communicates it, there will be some empathy. I’m starting to hear that. “It is unfortunate and we’re here for you.” Actions over words, and the actions every time, at least in big law, the same answer, like “Bill more, and we’ll pay you more.”
Band-Aid fixes are easy.
They are, and they’re also the least effective.
I’m an executive coach and I coach a lot of folks. In a lot of industries, mental well-being and mental health carry a stigma like, “I’m not going to disclose because they might put me back in my career.” How does that relate to the law industry?
There are a lot of things to unpack here. First of all, as far as stigma, it’s deeply stigmatized in the legal profession to be open to mental health issues. I get these comments all the time on TikTok. The idea’s out there in the world of, “I would never want an attorney with mental illness or a mental health condition.” My response is, “You’re out of luck. There’s 98% of us in that camp.”
Not only on the client-side but it’s also on the lawyer’s side. More than that, it’s institutional, too, in a lot of states. I did a video on this recently and it got a lot of people talking. In the moral character and fitness requirements to be licensed as an attorney, you have to disclose, in some states, whether you’ve received a mental health treatment in the past or you have a mental health condition and what the status is.
The Federal Law, to be very clear, prohibits a law association and the State Bar from saying, “You have anxiety, Julian? We’re not going to bar you.” However, what happens in the industries out there in these States is when someone discloses these things, there are delays or sometimes, magically, applications fall through the cracks, and approvals are not garnered. On top of that, attorneys know that bar associations are watching and are aware to somewhat entitled to this knowledge of mental health. Because of that, many of them don’t seek out the help that they need.
Forty-two percent of attorneys who don’t seek mental health treatment, even though they need it, do not seek it because they’re afraid of retaliation from their State bar association. The bigger danger here isn’t necessarily the disclosure itself and what that’s creating. The subculture of fear that exists amongst attorneys already for mental health stigma and how that plays into their willingness to go and get treated.
It systemically creates these legal loopholes to discriminate against people at the same time. Tell me your story about you getting in. Did you ever have to disclose it? How did it manifest with you?
Ironically for me, I was not managing my mental health at all when I applied to the state bar so I answered honestly. It didn’t become a big issue and I’m grateful for that. I received a ton of questions these days from that video, primarily about, “What do I do now? If I’m in law school and I see a therapist, and I have anxiety, do I disclose it or not?”
It’s this weird dance of like, “I’m not going tell you to lie.” That’s breaking the law, to be clear. I verify everything is true and factual at the same time. We are all living in a system that’s broken and that is not well-suited for folks with mental health conditions. The question then becomes, on the individual’s side, you got to use your judgment on what you think is going to happen based on checking that box or not. It’s ultimately up to the person.
We’re in this state of like, “Don’t tell.” We’re in this limbo state where it’s still harmful. From what I know, a lot of law schools have implemented continuing education on mental health. You know what continuing ed is like. It isn’t mandatory.
It is for lawyers, though. Every three years, unfortunately.Everyone knew everyone else was miserable. The conversations are ignored because the priority is to work. Click To Tweet
It’s not as core as the regular classes you go to. What is the next step for the disclosure piece? What do you think that looks like?
A lot of states have moved away from this disclosure requirement of moral character and fitness entirely. California and New York, being two prominent states of the legislative bodies, have said, “We don’t need this anymore. We’re striking it.” It’s gone. That’s what needs to happen everywhere. It’s almost a HIPAA violation. This isn’t just in law or medicine in keeping mechanism. I have spoken to folks who are doing the same advocacy in that field, and it’s similar.
One place to start is continuing education. The good thing about continuing education, a lot of it is total noise like, “Watch this lecture for an hour about contracts, then call it a day and get your credit.” What I have noticed is a lot of companies are innovating in what courses they actually offer. Some of those have been more focused on mental health. Wellness has an attorney, maintaining your focus, and a lot of things that are important for you developmentally as an individual are important for the legal industry. Now you’re getting credit for it too. One bright spot in all of this, amongst others, is companies are taking note and innovating where we can provide value to attorneys.
When you think about your transition into the big law, you realize what you face mentally and try to balance everything. When did your downward spiral start? Do you recall?
Looking back now, 20/20 hindsight, it was not possible for me to ever improve my mental while I was in big law because the job was frankly so demanding and didn’t give me enough space. I didn’t have time. I struggled to make time to see my family enough and see my girlfriend, now fiance enough, let alone my close friends. All of that was by the wayside. I was trying to stay healthy by going to the gym.
There was no time to work on mental if I wanted to. The pandemic is when things turn very dark. In big law especially, you had dual problems here. First, in big law, you’re always on-call in general. That’s the culture that is very bad for mental. It’s worse than medicine. In medicine, when you’re on-call, you know you’re on-call for 24 hours, so you can plan.
In law, that sucks for you. This is why you’re paid the big bucks, and I get it. That’s fair. It’s a transaction, so why quit? In any event, if you’re locked at home and the pandemic is hitting everybody, it is not a good time to suddenly not be able to unplug. On top of that, clients became more demanding because clients were also stuck at home.
Clients had nothing to do, and clients wanted to feel in control because, in the pandemic, everyone wants to feel in control. This is a scary, traumatic time. What do clients do if they want in control? They tell their attorney and boss them to turn around to do all sorts of things. Unreasonable or reasonable doesn’t matter. In big law, it doesn’t matter what the request is because you do it. It is because that’s the value out of big law.
You dance around because the client said so, also because we bill $800 an hour as a 25-year-old. That’s when things got dark for me. I was isolated from friends and family. I was at home for 6 to 8 months on end, seeing pretty much no one. There were three weeks when I didn’t leave the apartment. Groceries are delivered. I’m privileged to be able to work from home, but I wasn’t managing the anxiety. I tried to control everything I could and please some of the things in my apartment. Eventually, my thoughts themselves became depressed. Once the depression came, I hit a point where I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know how to fix it.
I knew I was miserable. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know where to go. I went to mental health services, and the rest is the rest. I answered the questions earnestly. I spoke to a psychiatrist. It was severe anxiety and mild depression. We do it so we can manage it. Months went by, I ended up going part-time at my firm to get myself more bandwidth to work on it. Eventually, I outright quit in July 2022 because I wanted to focus on it. It was more important to me than what the job was offering me at that time.
Was anybody aware of what you were going through at your workplace without you saying it, or did you put on a good facade?
It’s funny. I would speak broadly for big laws of all industries here during the pandemic, and still now, everyone knew everyone else was miserable. It was a matter of fact. It wasn’t something that we would concern ourselves over. This is the collective hopelessness that we’ve signed up for. There’s nothing else to say, so let’s just keep on going. I’m not going to say it’s group gaslighting because it’s not like these people aren’t trying to manipulate anyone. The conversations are ignored because the priority is to work. That’s fine, again, to itch their own.
It was not just me, but two of my closest friends in my firm, amongst many others at other firms, who quit months before I did, they held on as long as they could. At a certain point, everyone has their limit for what they can handle. I’m still talking to attorneys who have either quit, are about to quit, or reaching out to me for advice on quitting. It has not changed at all since I left, nor will it, in my opinion, for the next couple of years at a minimum.
Was the rash of quitting not a sign or a red flag for anybody to be like, “People are leaving?”You need to put yourself first and never forget that you have a choice in saying yes or no to something that comes to the door. Click To Tweet
That’s what a smart business person would think, Kevin, but we’re in big law. Unfortunately, for you and me, of course, it is. I’ve written about this in the American Lawyer twice, calling out big law for like, “You guys are stupid. I get that you want a yacht. I’m all for that. Why don’t you be a smarter business person and treat your people better to have lower attrition?” It’s a basic business enterprise. We learned in the ‘90s, but the folks in big law, the incentive structure is the problem here.
You have folks in big law who are in charge. The six-year-old partners don’t care about innovating in a stock or the value of the company because they want their million-dollar paycheck at the end of the year. It’s a fortunate model for them because it’s like, “It worked last year. Why did it work last year? Because I got my yacht. We’re working on getting paid so much money.” Again, I get it. It’s fair. That lack of drive to innovative change is what’s causing the industry to not grow as quickly as it could. It will lead to its demise in the long-term. It already is in many ways.
I’m starting to see that. The things we’re going to talk about the next time we meet are what’s next for big law and where big law goes from here based on your observations. As we wrap up, what’s some advice you would give to a person that’s in this transition from university doing their internship going into big law?
Every single time, I tell them, “You need to put yourself first, and never forget that you have a choice in saying yes or no to something that comes to the door. No one is forcing you to do anything.” I think the culture itself in the industry as law students, I saw this too, this rat race mentality of being the best and most productive person in existence. Big law will never slow you down. It’s very important for folks to learn and internalize the freedom they have to decide, “I’m going to take 45 minutes and go to the gym. I’m going to not respond at 10:00 PM on a Wednesday because I’m going to bed. I’m going to set boundaries for myself.” That is the end of that.
Saying no, like anything else, is a muscle and you have to build it up. I urge people to do that. It was told to me a lot as a junior, and I’m very grateful for that. Even then, it was very hard for me. I said no, arguably more than anyone else I’ve met in big law but it was still very hard and still a work in progress. I would encourage people to work against that tie.
I want to thank you for this conversation. I’m excited to know your thoughts on where big law goes next because I don’t even work in the industry, and I already see it coming.
We will see, Kevin. Law is slow to change. You know I have many thoughts and it will be a good conversation. Thank you for your time.
- Julian Sarafian
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About Julian Sarafian
Julian Sarafian is a lawyer, mental health advocate, writer, content creator, and entrepreneur. After graduating from Harvard Law School Sarafian worked at law firm Wilson Sonsini practicing corporate law before quitting to focus and advocate for mental health. He has advocated for mental health on digital platforms including Tiktok, Twitch, Instagram, and LinkedIn, where his content focuses on the importance of mental health in the workplace and academic world. His advocacy has been covered by the New York Times, NewsWeek, and Bloomberg.
As of February 2022 his cumulative following across digital media is nearly 250,000. In addition to his advocacy work Sarafian is a co-founder and CEO of Nest.Mode, a startup focused on revolutionizing shower storage. The Nest Wall – Nest.Mode’s first flagship product – has been designed to upgrade shower storage everywhere with a proprietary design that includes magnetic-based refillable bottles, two storage holsters, and hooks for all of one’s shower accessories. His written work has been published in Bloomberg Law and The American Lawyer.
Show notes: You can reach Julian directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Discord community is a safe space to talk about mental health and get career advice, and he also creates content related to the legal profession and mental health on Tiktok and Instagram. All of the various links can be found in beacons.ai/juliansarafian.