Thank you for indulging me by reading my email. I have been a lawyer for the last almost 13 years and been at the firm where I am for the last 5. I was so happy to get this job as I have worked in other firms where my desperation to qualify as a lawyer was ruthlessly exploited in the form of terrible pay, or where I was the only person in the firm doing the area of law I do when I was still in the period where the law required me to be supervised, meaning that I had no-one to discuss cases with and was forbidden from having my own stapler or printer and had to walk down 4 floors to pick up printing, which was massively disruptive. For the first 4 years everything was great. I started the job on the same day as an older lawyer called “Jacob”, and we did the same job ie Big Deal Files With Lots of Money Involved That The Other Side are Fighting and the Court is Involved Which Have Massive Consequences If You Mess Up. Two things happened in 2015 – poor Jacob had a breakdown and messed up a lot of his files and left just after Christmas last year, and also I was ill for a few months with terrible ladies’ problems that caused me to bleed non stop, all over the office, for 4 months. I didn’t take any time off work apart from the day I was actually operated on because I had so many Big Deal Files with deadlines, and if I hadn’t done them they would all have gone to poor Jacob who was already struggling with his own work. So I messed up 2 files by not filing documents in time, because I was distracted by bleeding and/or dazed from meds. Unfortunately, “bleeding all over the office” isn’t a legitimate reason not to file documents in the eyes of the court, I should have made sure someone else did it (although if I’d been well enough to think “this, this and this needs done” rather than “aaaaagh stop bleeding” I would just have done it myself) and the cases got thrown out of court, costing the firm money.
After Jacob had a breakdown and left, I inherited all his files. I am now the only lawyer here who does this type of work (we are a very small firm). For the last 5 months or so, my own mental health has been getting worse and worse. More mistakes are happening, the bosses are reminding me constantly that I am costing the firm money, which makes me more nervous, so more mistakes. I am having multiple panic attacks daily, my hair is falling out, I end up being sick from nerves and I have started cutting myself after over a decade of not doing that. I have been having suicidal ideation since the summer but don’t really want to do it, yet find myself planning how I would. I have seen my doctor and been referred to a psychologist (referral came through last week, one session so far) so I am getting attended to by professionals. My husband and friends think I need to quit and get a new job, or at least have some time off. I don’t know how to get that though – Jacob’s “stress” was met with incredulity (“What does he have to be stressed about? We’re a very lenient firm”) and I can’t even articulate why I am finding everything so difficult that I need time off. My doctor has been trying to sign me off for the last 2 months but I have been fighting him off because I have too much to do. If I wasn’t here nobody else knows how to do this kind of work. The bosses know that my mental health is on a downward slide as I told them in the summer after an embarrassing sobfest in the office, and last week I had a file review where I was found to have not worked on some files and I broke down again, sobbing that I wasn’t well. The bosses squirmed awkwardly at the hysterical woman and said that they were a very lenient firm, and that in other firms I would have been fired after the bleeding disasters. I am worried that they are right and that I am just too useless to be a solicitor. I am also worried that I could make a mistake that causes the firm to be shut down.
One of the bosses, “Adrian” has a tendency to nitpick, and once a mistake is made, goes on and on about it, and will call me in to tell me to do something right away even if I am in the middle of something else. The other two are less inclined to lecture, but I still feel guilty for messing up their business. I am not messing up all my cases, just a tiny proportion, but any mistake on cases like this has massive consequences, in the way that the cases that the bosses and the one other lawyer here deal with don’t.
TL, DR version: I am very depressed and anxious and making mistakes which get me into trouble, then I get more depressed and anxious. Am I unreasonable when the bosses are trying to run a business to want some time off? I already had a week off in September to go away with my husband but the day I came back I was already panicking by 10am. I don’t want to stop being a lawyer, I used to be able to do this job. I don’t hate working here either, it is a nice place to work compared to everywhere else I have been, I just hate that this has spiraled out of control to this point.
Thank you again for reading, sorry so rambling
A once-competent lawyer
Dear Once-And-Future-Competent Lawyer,
I’m not an expert on your industry or your office or their policies or anything to do with your legal rights here, so it’s time for you to do some investigating into your HR policies & programs and put that awesome lawyer training to work for yourself. You might also want to send this to Ask A Manager for her take on it. Some starter questions that come to mind for me:
- Does your firm have a confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP)?
- What short-term or long-term disability insurance coverage do they offer (that you’ve probably been paying into all this time), if any?
- What is involved in having your doctor document the need for a medical leave/short-term disability leave/unpaid FMLA-leave? Would your doctor still help you out with documenting & requesting this?
The results of this research will determine when you leave and how you leave and how long you leave for and on what terms you leave. I suggest that you take advantage of every leave policy and insurance program that might be in place to help you maintain employment status, insurance coverage, and/or income. Do not feel guilty or like you’re taking advantage of those programs – If they are in place at your firm, they exist for you, to take care of you, in case of illness, in situations exactly like this.
As to whether you leave, YOU GOTTA GET OUT OF THERE.
Here’s what’s happening:
Your firm is severely understaffed in your practice area, and when Jacob left, management piled all his work on you with no plan for how you’d get it all done, no long-term plan for your department, and (it sounds like) no additional paralegal or clerical support. This is bad management!
When you had serious medical issues, they expected you to carry on the workload of two people with no real time off, no additional support (or money, I’m guessing). Even when you started making mistakes that cost the firm money, it sounds like they they still made no plans to hire someone else in your area of law or get you additional clerical support that would let you delegate more and help you catch those errors before they happen. This is bad management!
If they won’t adequately staff your practice area and won’t give you adequate support [like time off to recover from illness] then whatever errors arise from having overworked stressed out person handle things sound like a normal, routine cost of doing business that they’ve decided to absorb for now. They have ample information that says that things are not working and are choosing to make it all about you instead of all about the team structure and workload. This is bad management!
Let’s unpack the whole “Other firms wouldn’t be so lenient, they would have fired you after xyz mistakes” from your boss. That may be true? My question is, who the fuck cares what goes on at other firms? Does this firm want this work done and done well or not? Do they want to help you do your job successfully (given that it sounds like a huge chunk of billable work as well as settlement fees) or not? If this area of law is important for them, they need to apply more resources to it. Right now you are thinking of yourself as the weak link in the chain when in reality you are the *only person there who lets them be competitive in this area of law.*
People have limits. Even brilliant lawyers. You’ve been thrown up against yours. Your industry & your firm would make this out to be a crime, some grave personal failing that proves you are unworthy. But, people have limits! It’s okay to have limits! You can still be a great person and a great employee and a great lawyer, even with limits!
I don’t know everything about your situation or how you time all of this – a lot depends on your finances and what you find out from your HR policy investigations – so I’m gonna operate with the assumption that you’d like the option of keeping your job at least for now and advise accordingly (even though every part of me is screaming “RUN AWAY!”):
- Take some time off as soon as you can. At least two weeks. More if medical leave/short-term disability can be arranged. Get your doctors to support this with whatever documentation they can. Your mental health and possibly your survival depends on it.
- Take that time with no access to work emails or availability by phone. I know this panics you (OMG, what will happen to all my clients/cases? IDK, your employer will have to figure it out!) but you need to be really away from there. If your bosses can’t think of anyone who could fill your shoes, a) that’s a telling detail and b) that’s not actually your problem if you are not in any kind of management role.
- Listen to your doctors. Get allllllllll the mental health support you can. And, with your mental health support pro of choice, work on resisting the narrative that this is all somehow your fault.
- Shore up your self-care routines around sleep, food, exercise, grooming, connecting (or re-connecting) with friends and family who love you. Be really nice to yourself.
- Figure out how much money your cases bring into the firm annually. I bet it’s A LOT. Your bosses speak numbers, so make sure you learn that language and can use it confidently to describe your own value.
- When you go back to work/before you take your break, slow down your pace of working. Double-check your work. If in the past you’ve prided yourself on being self-sufficient, stop that – lean hard on any available clerical or paralegal support. Make a realistic, sustainable workload for yourself and push back any deadlines you possibly can.
- Work will pile up, yes? So talk to your bosses about the workload without necessarily referencing any of your medical issues. Talk about numbers. “My area of law brings in $$$ annually to the firm, and 2017 will be no different. The truth is that if you see this practice area growing in the future, it’s time to think seriously about adding more staff.” If they give you the “Well, if you can’t handle it…” talk or the “At another firm, someone would be glad to handle this all by themselves…” show again, smile and say, “Well, I’m glad I am at this firm and not those firms! I want to make sure our clients are getting the service we’re famous for, and part of that is knowing when to respect my own limits and when I need another set of hands on board to make this work. I took on Jacob’s workload as a short-term solution more than a year ago, and it’s just not sustainable, especially with Y billable hours and Z number of cases.” You negotiate for your clients all the time. Time to negotiate for yourself.
- The above suggestion is more about you leaving on your own terms & your own schedule than it is about fixing this job to suit you long-term. Hence, I know this is probably the last thing you want to do, but it’s time to dust off your resume and work your contact list and see what else is out there.
- Pour as much money as you can into savings and take a look at your budget. You need your eff off fund in case you decide you gotta leave, like, now.
- Maybe you gotta leave, like, now. You are not allowed to hurt yourself over this job or your crap collection of sexist & ableist bosses, okay?
All the love and support and good wishes to you.