So you've had many less-than-stellar experiences as an associate at your law firm. You've spent countless all-nighters on a two-month document review in the basement of a chemical plant located 300 miles outside of Boise, Idaho. You've woken up in the middle of the night with cold sweats, realizing you forgot to put a comma in a brief filed the previous day. You've gotten yelled at the next day for forgetting to put that comma in the brief. You've debated whether taking a weekend stroll in the park with your loved one justified passing up three billable hours. At times, you've felt as if your entire self-worth as a person hinged on whether a partner was pleased with your work (i.e., nice comments from a partner = you're on top of the world; negative comments from a partner = you're molded whitefish). You've questioned whether the admissions counselor at your law school must have been intoxicated when deciding to admit you. You were blindsided by an unexpected layoff that was allegedly based on poor performance, although you question whether that was the entire reason.
What is BAS?
BAS is a tongue-in-cheek acronym for "Battered Associate Syndrome." Is this a formal diagnosis recognized by mental health professionals? Of course not (or given the number of attorneys suffering from it, perhaps it is more apt to say "not yet"). But having worked with attorneys that have had to deal with highly stressful law firm experiences, I can say that the residual effects of these situations are very real and can severely undermine one's legal career.
Before discussing BAS any further, it is important to acknowledge the obvious fact that essentially all legal jobs carry an inherent level of stress. Practicing law is, by its very nature, challenging, difficult, complex, and not for the faint of heart. An important distinction, however, should be made. Feeling stressed out and working hard are normal and par for the course. On the other hand, experiencing a loss of self-esteem, burnout, and loss of control over your life is not par for the course and can be indicative of BAS.
There are three types of BAS: (1) current-job BAS, (2) recently-laid-off-but-still-working BAS, and (3) post-job BAS. If you are still with your current job, you may be thinking, "Yeah, Dan, I can relate to some of the examples you mentioned above and think maybe this whole BAS thing makes some sense in theory, but isn't this just a part of putting in my time and becoming partner? I mean, it's just like this, or worse, at other firms as well. I chose to be an attorney, worked hard, got a great job making lots of money to pay off my loans, so this is what I signed up for. If I leave, I'm a quitter and failure. If I can stick it out, I'll be okay in the long run."
This type of response is a common symptom of BAS because you are aware that your situation is unhealthy-probably both emotionally and physically-but you believe that you are locked into it or that it is the best or only job you can get. And maybe, if you are like most attorneys and have read about all the unemployed lawyers, you believe you were lucky to land your job and should be grateful that you have not been laid off. The danger with the above type of thinking (and why it is a symptom of BAS) is that you are intellectually aware of your unhealthy situation, but continue to justify staying in this harmful environment for any number of reasons.
If you have made an affirmative decision to find a new job or have been asked to leave your current job with a set period for finding a new job (recently-laid-off BAS) or have already left your job (post-job BAS), you will likely experience a temporary euphoria because a huge burden is lifted when one realizes that the BAS-causing situation has or will shortly end. It is absolutely crucial, however, to realize that the BAS symptoms and the residual effects can still linger and hinder your future legal opportunities.
How BAS Can Undermine Your Career
The most common symptom of BAS is a loss of self-esteem, with anger following closely behind. The loss of self-esteem comes from any number of causes, such as a high amount of criticism with little or no praise, feeling that you do not deserve a better job or believing that you could not get a better job. Experiencing a loss in self-esteem will directly undermine your ability to practice law to the best of your ability. For starters, you lose faith in your instincts, doubt your judgment, and avoid asking necessary questions due to your fear of being perceived as "not knowing something I should know." These self-doubts will harm your best interests and those of your firm and clients. If you have decided to interview for a new job, having feelings of low self-esteem and self-doubt will be glaringly obvious to a potential new employer and will send the message that you are not confident with yourself or your legal abilities. Furthermore, you may be so downtrodden in your current situation that you may be willing to jump at the first job offer that comes along, even if it does not serve your best short- or long-term career interests.
Anger comes from the resentment you feel towards those persons or factors that you believe have caused or contributed to your unhealthy work situation. You could feel anger towards bosses who have unjustly criticized or humiliated you (often due to their own insecurities and feelings of inadequacy), unreasonable billable hour requirements, not receiving an appropriate or promised raise or bonus, etc. Anger can impede your ability to stay calm and collected during stressful work situations and can also cause you to unintentionally be hostile or resentful towards co-workers and even clients. If you have been recently asked to leave and given a period of time to find a new job, remember that your current employer wants to help you as much as possible and you should hopefully still be able to find some references from your current practice group. However, if you are hostile and negative towards those in your practice group, you can jeopardize potential new job leads, networking opportunities, and references. And on interviews for a next job, your anger towards your existing or previous employer (no matter how much you try to conceal it), will likely rear its ugly head. Nothing-I repeat, NOTHING-will turn off a potential new employer so much as a candidate who is carrying anger and negativity. Potential firms will assume that if you are speaking negatively about your prior or existing firm, you will do the same to them. Remember, a firm's reputation and goodwill is its most valuable asset, and firms steer clear of those candidates who may jeopardize it.
Making a Positive Personal and Professional Change
As the above shows, you can see how BAS can directly harm your career on several fronts. But if you think you are suffering from some form of BAS, you are definitely not alone. And the fact that you are still reading this article shows that you are likely the type of person willing to assess your current situation and not just continue practicing law with your head in the sand. That says something positive about your willingness to consider possible positive changes in your career and life.
If you are feeling symptoms of BAS, but must stay in your current job situation, you should consider drawing on many available resources for help. There are many highly qualified legal-career counselors (try your law school career services office or independent legal career coaches), lawyer support services with your local bar association, personal life coaches, therapists, and doctors that can help you deal with and gain control over your situation. You're not the first lawyer dealing with BAS, and you definitely won't be the last.
But if you are open to considering making a positive job change or have already decided to do so, good for you. Although every situation is different, and it sometimes may not be a good idea to change jobs at a given time, there are countless stories of lawyers who were initially hesitant about considering career transitions, but were thrilled to learn that the grass can actually be greener on the other side. The same applies to attorneys who were laid-off and had the blessing-in-disguise opportunity to find their dream jobs.
If you are able to be represented by a recruiter while you wind down at your current job and look for a new one, a professional recruiter will be very aware of any potential BAS symptoms and help you identify and manage them during the job-transition process. Frustrations about your prior job and fears about the possible new one are common and normal during the job-search process. The problem is that if left unchecked or unexpressed, these emotions will almost always slip out during interviews and can severely hinder your chances of getting your dream job. A good recruiter should serve as a confidential sounding board with whom you feel comfortable venting your frustrations, fears, and apprehensions, as well as your desires, dreams, and professional and personal goals. Having a recruiter listen to you and provide coaching throughout your job transition will undoubtedly give you an advantage in your job search. If you cannot work with a recruiter, I suggest contacting a career counselor at your law school or an independent legal-career coach.
As you probably know, so much of landing your dream job is based on the personal impression you make. Thus, keeping all of the unavoidable emotional issues in check is imperative to helping make that good impression. Having a trusting and open relationship with your recruiter (or another career advisor) is crucial for helping you handle the inescapable, behind-the-scenes emotional stuff that can be just as influential, if not more, than your law school, your grades, and your work experience.
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