Our Law Day luncheon on May 1 focused on this year’s theme: “Separation of Powers; Framework for Freedom.” We had the opportunity to hear eloquent remarks from our honorees, Jill Paperno for the Foundation of the Monroe County Bar’s Humanitarian Award, Sharon Stiller and David MacKnight for the William E. MacKnight Volunteer Services Awards, Hon. Evelyn Frazee for the Outstanding Jurist Award, and Carolyn Nussbaum for the Adolph G. Rodenbeck Award. (Bryan Oathout received the James R. Boyle Award, but did not speak.)
I particularly noted Judge Frazee’s remarks about her service on the MCBA Health and Well-Being Committee, and its efforts to improve the overall health and wellbeing of attorneys in Rochester. She mentioned the recent national study on loneliness, which found that 61 percent of lawyers ranked above average on the loneliness scale, higher than any other profession. I also had read about this study a few weeks ago, and I had already decided that I would write about it and some of the work-life balance issues facing attorneys for this, my penultimate MCBA President’s column.
The ABA Journal published an article about the 2018 loneliness study and quoted lawyer Scott Rothenberg as saying that loneliness and isolation may be the root cause of many lawyer issues, like depression, suicide and substance abuse. So why are we lonely? We all have our opinions, but here are some of my personal observations (none of which have been scientifically tested or proven) from nearly 35 years of practicing law.
As large and medium-sized law firms transitioned to bottom-line oriented businesses, the pressure on partners and associates to produce revenue increased, billable hour requirements rose, and the time for family, friends, recreation, hobbies and volunteer work decreased. All these non-work activities are important sources of satisfaction, relaxation and joy, and provide opportunities for us to make and deepen connections with others. If we have less time for them, our relationships with others become more superficial, and even strained. Instead of engaging in activities that connect us to people who can support us in difficult times, our lack of time for our friends and family becomes an additional source of stress. In addition, if an attorney is now expected to work late and on weekends, he or she is also less likely to take the time to socialize with or get to know other lawyers at the firm or in the community, because this time does not count toward billable hours goals and further reduces the time available for family and other personal commitments. With limited hours in the day, attorneys have to make choices about their priorities, and something has to give. So an opportunity to make connections with others who might actually understand the stresses of legal practice is lost, and we feel even more isolated.
Attorneys in small or solo practice face different problems — trying to generate business, manage the practice and produce good work, but often with far fewer resources, training and revenue. Solo attorneys and those in small firms often serve as their own human resources executive, information technology expert, billing coordinator and marketing professional, while serving clients and practicing law. Some of us had the benefit of beginning our careers with large firms that offered training and mentoring before we decided to make the leap to solo practice. But since the recession of 2008, which had a severe impact on legal hiring and employment, far more newly-minted attorneys have found themselves in solo practice not by choice, but by necessity. They face all the challenges noted above while learning how to practice law, often without the benefit of mentors or other resources.
In addition, while advancing technology has revolutionized our capabilities for serving clients and producing better legal work, few would argue that it has not been a double-edged sword. It increases our capabilities, but it has also burdened us with escalating client expectations that we will be accessible at all hours through email and cell phones, further reducing our time “away” from work. In addition, the ability to work remotely and in smaller offices means we have fewer colleagues in our immediate work environment with whom we can discuss problems and talk through issues. I would also argue that our youngest attorneys are so used to communicating by text, email and social media that some of them have underdeveloped interpersonal skills and may not know how to ask for help when they need it.
Bar associations across the country have felt the impact of these trends. Not only does the MCBA now have a Health and Well-Being Committee, formed out of concern for our fellow lawyers who are in crisis, but we also face declining membership as many attorneys decide that networking with other attorneys and activities of bar associations are not a priority in their stressed and harried lives. Despite the many columns in which I have touted the benefits of bar membership, some remain unconvinced. And who can blame them when they feel they simply cannot add one more thing to an already full plate, and when what I have described as an opportunity simply feels like another obligation?
So let me simply say, again, that active membership in the MCBA can help you develop leadership skills, network for referrals and new business, provide opportunities to make a meaningful difference in our legal community and the broader Rochester community, develop friendships, both personal and professional, and develop a supporting network of colleagues who understand the joys and challenges of practicing law, and who will be there to assist if you need them. I would be willing to bet that all of these benefits will help in reducing your score on the UCLA Loneliness Scale.
Jill M. Cicero is President of the Monroe County Bar Association and is the Managing Partner of The Cicero Law Firm LLP. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.