Overburdened by Partner’s Demands, Making Errors, No Support

I am a relatively recently admitted attorney (2 years). I used to work for a collection firm but for the past year, I have been employed in a small firm. I work for a Partner that I personally like very much but he is extremely demanding of me. In addition, he often expects me to handle matters that are completely outside of my expertise. He expects to be able to give me these matters and handle them soup to nuts. He also gets annoyed when I ask him questions and often offers nothing in the way of guidance because the matters I’m working on are “relatively small, simple matters”. He also doesn’t feel that I have a lot on my plate. In fact, I have well over 100 active, different cases in greatly different areas of the law. Recently, I have gotten so bogged down that I cannot get out of my own way. I have angry clients calling me and I often cannot get to their cases for a very long time. He is aware of this but continues to pile more work on. He sometimes asks for a status report on my cases but all he wants to know is what stage the case is in. I tell him, what’s going on and the deadlines, etc. He never asks beyond that. He almost never reviews things like pretrial memos, etc. Recently, my caseload has caused me to make mistakes on a couple of cases which are set for trial this month. These are simple but potentially costly mistakes that I would not have made if I had the time to devote to my cases that they deserve. I tried to obtain continuances but opposing counsel and the Court refused. I am totally beyond burned out. I can think of nothing but the growing pile of work on my desk. It is the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about when I go to bed. I have started having chest pains. My doctor says they’re just anxiety attacks. It has gotten to the point that I sit at my desk literally crippled with fear. I cannot pick up an old file. I cannot pick up a new file for fear that I’ll do something wrong due to the rushed way I have to do things. I am contemplating a career change. How do I get help?

Unfortunately, we have heard what sounds like your story many times, relating to firms of all sizes – attorneys with limited experience who find themselves awash in expectations with minimal support/guidance. We hope that it does not typify all law firms (since we would not usually be contacted by lawyers with no complaints), but clearly it is all too common. Perhaps it is related to the billable-hour culture, in which the partner may not be inclined to provide services (i.e., guidance) that do not in themselves generate income, or maybe it has more to do with the partner’s own workload.

You are correct to conclude that it would be unhealthy for you to maintain the status quo in which you are obsessed with worries, almost crippled by anxiety, and trying to assume responsibilities that are beyond your current knowledge or skills. This unacceptable situation can be addressed both internally and externally. Internally, probably with the assistance of a therapist, you could look at your own reactive patterns – for example, are you unassertive, or would you actually be able to handle many of these cases well if you could achieve a more relaxed/optimistic stance? Externally, the primary options would be to (a) respectfully but assertively confront the partner (and/or another partner with the power to change things) with the fact that you are being asked to measure up to an unworkable set of expectations and that this arrangement must be modified, and (b) if that does not or cannot work, prepare to leave the firm (in a manner that is most constructive for your own needs and future). Given the level of your current anxiety, you may also need a brief medical leave. If you continue to make errors on cases, you could be jeopardizing your career. While tranquilizers would temporarily relax you, they are not an ideal ongoing tool, given the potential for dependence/addiction. Modern antidepressants, which often reduce anxiety as well as depression, may be something to consider over time, especially if you find yourself tending toward much anxiety and worry in future jobs as well.

Many lawyers do contemplate career changes, enough to have led the Massachusetts Bar Association to plan a conference “300 Ways to Use Your Law Degree.” [This was held 5/03.] We often see lawyers over-reacting, that is, concluding that they need to abandon the entire field when, in some cases, a change of setting and approach will allow them to feel more satisfied with a career within the field of law. As usual, our suggestion is that you arrange a confidential, more detailed assessment at our office. We can then help with referrals, in this case to a therapist and/or career counselor or coach.

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