I told myself, when I started writing again, that I wouldn’t revisit the specifics of what led to the collapse of my legal career. I really didn’t want to relive any emotions, incidents and memories in what I consider to be a closed chapter.
But then time went on, I gained distance and perspective, and the pain of the past became less intolerable to revisit.
Last night, I read Erin Durant’s new book, “It Burned Me All Down”, in one fell swoop. I don’t know Erin, and I only became familiar with her recently, probably because I was completely cut off from the outside world and mired in the depths of my own depression hell spiral roughly a year ago, when Erin very publicly and courageously started talking about mental health and burn out in Canadian Big Law.
If you are a lawyer or someone intimate in a lawyer’s life, please get a copy of her book. It is candid. It is heartbreaking. It is hopeful. It is full of ideas that could actually work to make this profession a viable option for the incredible, bright, caring minds who continue to choose it as their life’s work.
So many of those people have already left big firms, private practice, or law altogether. So many more potential lawyers will stay away. Unless it is fixed.
I don’t practice law anymore and have no intention of ever doing so again. It was clearly not my life’s work.
But a year ago next week, I almost died as a direct result of being a lawyer. I could not go on living another day. It was unbearable. It was the crash and burn end of an ascent and disintegration. It was preventable at many turns. So many of the things Erin wrote about in her book are things that actually happened to me, and to people I know, some of whom I care about deeply. The discussion is starting to change, but these things are still happening to people right now.
To real human beings. And that’s what Erin’s book really drove home for me.
Basic humanity is what really seems to have evaporated from the legal profession, particularly at its more corporatized echelons.
It’s encouraging to see people talking.
As a young, overworked associate, I used to fantasize about what the moment I would find out I was a partner at my law firm would feel like.
I imagined I would feel some kind of victorious inner peace at the achievement.
That was my end game. When I became a partner, I rationalized, things would get better. I would have more control over my workload, and the kinds of files I worked on. I could try to develop some semblance of work life balance. All of the suffering now, it was so I could build something I wanted from it later.
So in December 2018, when I picked up the phone from my kitchen table (where I was working remotely at the time, part of the week), to find the managing partner of my office on the other line, I knew it was time for a conversation I had over-anticipated for years.
Until he congratulated me and extended an offer to the join the partnership, until I heard those words, I was not actually sure that he was calling me to congratulate me. I had no reason to think that he was calling to tell me I had not made it, based on any performance review I ever received, but I was as unconfident in my own abilities as a lawyer as I had ever been. I was just completing an incredibly trying fall full of difficult files, difficult clients, and difficult lawyers (inside and outside my own firm). I wasn’t sure I was actually cut out for this shit.
I was also freshly returned from my first maternity leave, and despite the assurances of a few partners discreetly questioned and the firm’s written partnership admission policy, I was irrationally convinced that I wasn’t going to be made partner in a year I wasn’t present for a full billing cycle. I was so irrationally convinced of this that I decided that I really had to go gangbusters when I got back from maternity leave. So, in May 2018, I left my 6 month old baby at daycare for the first time and put in about 180 actual billable hours in my first month back at work. Unfortunately, at this crucial point in my career, the partner I relied on most heavily for workflow also happened to go on a long medical leave, leaving me with their entire practice. I was under-resourced, under-qualified, and overwhelmed. The work tap was gushing, and I couldn’t turn it off. I also thought that if I did anything to try to turn it off, I would ruin my chances of becoming partner. It was an insurmountable problem. I was burned out. I was incredibly cynical about the purpose of a lot the work I was doing. One transaction I was working on became so personally distressing for me that I was reduced to tears every time I would get off the phone with opposing counsel or the client. Things had to get very bad for me to start waving a flag. They eventually did, and I waved a flag, but I did a terrible job handling my attempts to deal with the situation. I was not in a good place.
So, when I got that call from the managing partner, I was desperately hoping for the news that I had made it because it would mean I would finally get to change something. I didn’t feel the fantasized victorious inner peace. I felt relief, the kind you feel when you heave yourself across the finish line after a long race that you don’t think you’ll finish. I was exhausted.
But I had made it. I had done it. The sacrifices had paid off. Not quitting the countless times I had thought about it over the years to go work somewhere else, even though I was being terrorized by my immediate superior. Keeping quiet about that terror. Bitting my lip when I and the associates around me continued to be underpaid, year after year. I would just swallow it even though I was devastatingly disappointed when I failed to make as much money as I thought I should be making every year (not because I ever aspired to make boatloads of money, but I was just incensed at the injustice of law firm economics and what I perceived as lack of recognition for dedicated hard work).
And of course, the biggest sacrifices of all came after I had returned from maternity leave. All of those moments away from my young daughter, nights and bedtimes missed, at my desk wondering if she was wondering where I was, staring into the darkness of her room. She had my whole heart at the time, and it took everything I had to hold it together when I left her to go to work, both generally and every morning, and then eventually every Monday morning when I was actually commuting 500km to work following a move closer to family designed to largely so they could help raise her. For me, early motherhood was a very unexpectedly tender, special experience, and I was really distraught to let that go.
I had missed out on so much other stuff over the years, too. Fun weekends cancelled or cut short. Any semblance of a carefree life. I was pretty much 300% devoted to work, and to have it play out the way I had planned gave me a feeling of reprieve.
That feeling would be brief.
Even though I didn’t know it yet, part of the reason I was so exhausted is because when I picked up the phone that December morning, I was already pregnant with my second daughter.
The pregnancy was stressful from the beginning. We were told at one point early on not to expect her to make it. By early January 2019, I was a wreck about it, and also at points bedridden with nausea. I chose to disclose my pregnancy to certain people I worked with because I was literally not able to function. I felt like a failure. This was supposed to be the high point of my career, and I couldn’t even do my job. I got back to it. The reality is that I didn’t want to. My workload felt like an interminable hole. It was not unusual for me to curl up in a ball in a corner of my closet and not move for hours during this time. It was following one of the worst of these episodes that I first began to take antidepressants. I was 7 months pregnant. I had waited far too long to get help.
At no point did I feel like I was in a position to reveal anything that was happening with my mental health to anyone I worked with.
In my mind, that would have been the end of my career. So I didn’t. I more or less held it together.
Needless to say, my second daughter’s healthy arrival brought a flood of relief bigger than the partnership invitation.