Easing the trials of a legal career

Rita Christopher January 29 1979

Easing the trials of a legal career

Rita Christopher January 29 1979

Easing the trials of a legal career


What? Perry Mason tense? Never! Only those unfortunate enough to be cross-examined by television’s top lawyer fall victim to sweaty palms and shaking hands. But, in real life, lawyers as well as witnesses regularly suffer the effects of the 20th century’s most pervasive malady—stress.

To be sure, tension itself is hardly a recent phenomenon in the legal profession. What has changed is the straitlaced bar’s willingness to acknowledge the problem. Exhibit 1 in the new legal consciousness: an article by San Fran-

cisco psychologist Barry Goodfield in Barrister, the magazine of the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association with the provocative title, Do Lawyers Have Problems Being Peo

ple? In an attempt to answer that question, the Canadian Bar Association, in co-operation with the American Bar Association, has scheduled a panel on stress for its May conference in Montreal. “To tell you the truth, I don’t think you would have found anyone discussing the subject 10 years ago,” admits Lois Dyer, director of professional services of the Canadian Bar Association.

Behavioral scientists studying the problems of lawyers and stress attribute the change in attitude to a new generation of attorneys, the survivors of

the campus revolts of the 1960s who now are wary of finding themselves trapped in the very system they had hoped to escape. "I think we are seeing a general concern with taking it easy. The

Protestant ethic doesn’t seem to have a strong hold anymore,” says University of Chicago assistant professor Dr. Suzanne Kobasa who is undertaking a survey on lawyers and stress for the Canadian Bar Association.

To compound the problem, many of this generation’s laid-back young lawyers are facing pressures which even older members of the profession admit are unprecedented. With law school enrolments growing astronomically, the competition to land a job at a prestigious firm has never been stiffer. No wonder, with starting salaries in New York as high as $30,000 for graduates fresh out of law school. And the competition intensifies as young attorneys vie with each other, logging up to 60 hours a week, for coveted invitations to become partners in major firms.

The problems of tension have even surfaced in the forum where lawyers have traditionally mustered their most impressive arguments—open court. In his defence of Mahlon Perkins, a partner in a major New York firm convicted of suppressing documents in a mammoth antitrust suit filed against Eastman Kodak, former U.S. federal judge Harold Tyler observed, “Those in our profession who know about this, if they are honest about it, would admit that there, but for the grace of God, go I, because of the pressure which comes upon men and women who practise law in big cases.”

While much of the stress in practising law undoubtedly stems from the dynamics of the profession, many attorneys believe the community as a whole is putting increasing pressure on the legal profession. “When other branches of government can’t solve problems, they tend to get dumped on the courts,” says Tyler. “A lot of issues, environmental ones for example, don’t belong in the adversarial system and this creates a lot of pressure for lawyers,” he explains.

For psychologists studying lawyers under stress, the size or nature of the case load is not the root of the problem but rather the hoary traditions of the law itself. “Lawyers are always trained for total victory,” says Kansas City, Missouri, psychologist Thomas Green. “It all begins in the ethos of law school, the competition and the intimidation. They learn to marshal their arguments to devastate an opponent and often they achieve so-called victories in other areas of their lives by the same techniques.”

David Chappell, chairman of the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association, knows whereof Green speaks.

“I was on a crash dive for divorce,” he recalls. “But with $3,000 worth of marriage counselling I’ve finally gotten over the idea that lawyers are omnipotent.”

After his close and expensive brush with personal disaster, Chappell has been the | guiding force behind a series of S seminars for his colleagues on g law and stress. Experimental three-day sessions have included such topics as “Law and the Practice of Life,” “Friends, Partners and Lovers,” and “Rolling with the Role—How Expectations Can Inhibit the Practice of Life.” Confesses Chappell, “At first I thought people would laugh at the idea but the response has been really encouraging. Young lawyers from 30 to 35 resent all the time they spend away from their families. That’s why the idea of stress is taking on so strongly.”

Not all lawyers, however, subscribe to Chappell’s notions with enthusiasm.

Some skeptics at ABA headquarters wonder whether significant numbers of lawyers will be willing to enroll for fees up to $250 in the Young Lawyers Division programs. And the staid ABA hierarchy remains unwilling to fund an indepth study of legal lifestyles that Chappell has advocated.

However, for some established firms, stress consciousness has become a reality. A few offer sabbaticals to take off the pressure and one innovative New York firm, Kramer, Lowenstein, Nessen, Kamin & Soll, actually retains a

psychiatrist who aids young associates with a critique of senior partners at the firm’s annual retreat. “What I do amounts to sensitivity training with lawyers,” says Dr. Samuel Klagsbrun of his role with the law firm. Senior partner Arthur Kramer proclaims himself pleased with the results. “I think our kind of atmosphere convinces a lot of young lawyers that this is the place where they want to practise,” he says.

Some young practitioners are finding ways to take the stress out of practising law on their own. In Kansas City, attorney Robert Mann’s standard office dress includes jeans and Frye boots. The bearded Mann claims neither his appearance nor his initial client conference in which he explains,“Law is part of my life, but not my whole existence,’’has hurt his business.

And while there appears to be no danger that all street lawyers will trade in their Brooks Brothers best for cowboy suits and abandon their hereinafters and heretofores for the language of love, there are some signs that, at long last, attorneys are beginning to realize that there is life beyond the three-button suit. Rita Christopher