The Consequences of 24/7 Culture


By Joan Bibelhausen

The headline “You are online 24/7” recently flashed across the legal press. Drawn from an internal presentation at Paul Hastings, a top-50 law firm, associates were offered “non-negotiable expectations.” These expectations included that the client is always first and always right, no questions, and that everything must be done perfectly. There are no exceptions to being on-line 24/7 and no acceptable excuses. The reaction in the legal community? The presentation and approach may have been a little harsh, but there was little surprise. The firm is a signatory to the ABA Well-Being Pledge. Where is the disconnect — or is there one?

As someone who hears from our colleagues who are struggling, we see the distress caused by 24/7 thinking and the sometimes-tragic results. One heartfelt example is recounted in Big Law Killed my Husband, written by Joanna Litt (also an attorney) the widow of Los Angeles attorney Gabriel MacConaill, who died by suicide. She described the maladaptive perfectionism that drove her husband to perform beyond what anyone else would consider reasonable, coupled with internal hypercriticism for failing to meet impossible standards.Stressed, Lonely, and Overcommitted: Predictors of Lawyer Suicide Risk, published in February 2023, reported that those who identified as over-committed to work (including difficulty disconnecting from work) were twice as likely to consider suicide.

The danger is thinking this is the new normal, or that it should be normal in the first place. 

As we consider the meaning of what is now being called an over-enthusiastic senior associate’s inappropriate tone, what can we learn? The first thing is to recognize that sometimes this is the reality. There is no question that many areas of law will sometimes require attention above and beyond. Trial lawyers know this. Transactional lawyers know this. When it’s necessary, we step up. The danger is thinking this is the new normal, or that it should be normal in the first place. If there is a time for 24/7, there must be times that aren’t 24/7. This story is a great chance for leaders to start a conversation about the importance of asking for support and building a workload that allows colleagues to offer their best thinking. Without a buffer, your ability to see and recognize options and offer your best advice is increasingly limited.

Second, we can look at the well-being movement in our profession. When the ABA Well-Being Pledge was first announced in 2018, firms, including Paul Hastings, quickly signed on. The goal of the pledge is to reduce mental health distress and substance use in the legal community. The pledge’s seven-point framework includes education about mental health issues, changes in the way alcohol is centered in social spaces, increased relationships with organizations like Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, access to mental health resources, policies to support those who need help for mental health concerns, support programs to improve well-being, and use of these principles to attract and retain talent. This is a start. The pledge and related resources and initiatives can and should serve as a launchpad to the next level.

Third, let’s look at the lawyer client relationship — the always first, always right client, no questions asked. When one of those really important clients wants something, do they want the lawyer’s best thinking or their burned-out thinking? Good ideas cannot happen without attention to burnout.  Can there be a dialogue about urgency so that every piece of work that comes in is not treated as an emergency? Can there be a dialogue about providing the best service, which does not always mean the fastest?

A lawyer may feel that they are letting their team down if they engage in self-care, ask for help, or challenge a toxic environment. 

Fourth, let’s consider the warrior and champion mindsets. One commentator noted that for some in elite law firms, it’s like competing in a tournament each and every day. Where is the cooldown period, the scheduled maintenance that systems require? It may be hard to justify in law, especially if there is a warrior mentality. A lawyer may feel that they are letting their team down if they engage in self-care, ask for help, or challenge a toxic environment. Of course, this is not just big law firms. Every environment runs the risk of burnout and flameout. In the public sector and public interest world, because there is always a need, a victory may be dismissed as not enough. We lose sight of what has been accomplished, the difference that was made today. In any area of practice, we may lose sight of justice, seeing a big win as the only victory. Problem solving courts have taught us that there are other ways, and that the best deal may not be “everything you can get.”

This and similar stories provide an opportunity to look at ourselves and our organizations. In People, Professionals, and Profit Centers: The Connection between Lawyer Well-Being and Employer Values, the authors found that people who felt most valued for their professionalism and skills were least likely to feel their workplace contributed to maladaptive behaviors (higher levels of drinking, etc.) and least likely to leave. Those who felt most valued for their financial worth and availability had higher levels of distress and were more likely to leave. This overcommitment to work was also tied to the higher suicide risk noted earlier in this article. In considering return on investment, a healthier workplace is clearly tied to retention. It’s time to take the next steps so we can all do our best work.

JoanBibelhausen 120Joan Bibelhausen is executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers where 24/7 is a good thing. You may speak to a counselor 24/7 for in-the-moment support and receive up to four free counseling sessions state-wide on any issue that causes stress or distress. LCL provides these and other free and confidential services to legal organizations and to legal professionals and their families throughout Minnesota.


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