Summary: All attorneys strive for success in their law firms and want more responsibility, complex work, and greater recognition. However, there is a price to pay for accomplishing your goals. The stress of law firm life may cause many health problems, including premature aging, disease, or even early death. This article discusses several ways the well-being of attorneys suffers from the constant demands of law firm life.

The Top 10 Ways Working as an Attorney in a Law Firm Ages (and Kills You) Prematurely

I’ve been a legal recruiter for twenty years now, and I follow up with candidates I have worked with and placed generally about once a year. I worked with many of these candidates for the first time when they were in their mid-20s. Only a few years later, I started noticing that several of these candidates were dying—often in their late 30s and early 40s–most often, from heart attacks and cancer. For some reason, several died when they were on vacation—as if their body needed a break from their law firms before they would allow themselves to die. When I could no longer find their law firm bios, a Google search would lead to their obituaries.
 
A. Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes

Most of these obituaries talked about the attorney’s personal life, like how they enjoyed spending time with their children, hiking outdoors and other hobbies—all pursuits that I doubted the attorney participated in all that much while they were practicing law because I knew they must have been working all the time. For whatever reason, most of these obituaries were for attorneys who lived in New York or another large city. There were a few attorneys who died early in smaller markets, but it seemed to be less common.

See the following articles for more information:
 
One of the least understood things about working inside of a law firm is that it can age and kill you prematurely—almost drastically. I regularly run into many of my colleagues from when I was practicing law, and many have issues with their weight, teeth, skin and a look of stress and dread seems to permeate their faces. They could be making millions of dollars a year; however, the stress from their jobs is palpable. They do not look healthy at all. In some cases, if I have not seen them for a few years, I no longer even recognize them. This is not always the case; however, it happens enough that it is clear to me there is really something going on. It goes beyond normal aging …
 

How could they look healthy? It is not healthy
   
You cannot win it all. An associate can “win” by getting a few thousand dollars more in bonus for billing more hours than a colleague. A partner can win by bringing in lucrative clients, or billing more hours than their peers. You cannot win your family—because if you provide for them well enough financially, they are still going to be dissatisfied with you for not spending enough time with them. You can make all the money you want, but the health problems, family problems and more will be the price you pay for being a successful attorney

There is not a lot of winning going on.

It is a life filled with exhaustion, dread, criticism and work that often signifies nothing.

Numerous attorneys that I have known throughout the years have died quite young–some in their late 30s and others in their 40s—from heart attacks, cancer and other maladies that I honestly do not believe would have killed them had they not been so motivated, eager to please their superiors and clients, good at their jobs and committed to practicing law in a law firm.

See the following articles for more information:
   
None of this may make sense for you. If you do not get the perspective and understand what is important and not important for you, then you may die and find yourself living a life that has little meaning and which you do not enjoy. Every day that goes by that you are participating in this nonsense—if it is nonsense for you—is one you cannot get back. There are many fun and enjoyable things out there in the world that you can do if you choose. You just need to stop doing what you are doing, or giving so much of yourself—if you want to.

If you stay with the program and do what others expect of you, try to please others and continually put forth the effort that they expect of you, the odds are that you will age very prematurely–and you may also die quite young. The human body and mind are both amazingly resilient and can bounce back from the abuse of a law office—most of the time—but it cannot always.

Here are some of the ways working in a law office as an attorney ages you prematurely:
 
  1. Sitting Long Hours is Not Good for Attorneys, and Most of them Sit a Lot
 
As an attorney, you are rewarded for how much you sit at a desk and work. Attorneys inside of large law firms spend most of their time sitting. The more you sit, the better. You are expected to sit all the time.

I was talking to an attorney with his own firm last night. He has a 50-person law firm in Orange County and was calling me at 7:30 p.m. to talk to me about doing some legal work for one of my companies on an ongoing basis. He started telling me how everyone at his firm loves the work they do, and they are committed to it. He said he is there seven days a week and most of his partners and associates like what they do so much that it is not uncommon to find more than half of them there on a Friday night after 9:00 p.m. I have never heard of firms like that! That is a lot of sitting. Maybe they are all spending so much time sitting at work they can no longer stand up!

Here is what the Mayo Clinic says about the dangers of sitting at your desk for a long period of time:
 

When you sit, you use less energy than you do when you stand or move. Research has linked sitting for long periods of time with a number of health concerns. They include obesity and a cluster of conditions — increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels — that make up metabolic syndrome. Too much sitting overall and prolonged periods of sitting also seem to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.[i]


This might explain why so many attorneys I know have died of heart attacks and cancer at young ages. Sitting is not good for you.

The study further noted that:
 

An analysis of 13 studies of sitting time and activity levels found that those who sat for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity had a risk of dying similar to the risks of dying posed by obesity and smoking.[ii]



What attorney does not spend 8 hours a day behind a desk? This seems almost a requirement for being an attorney—and very few attorneys have time to exercise. So working as an attorney is just as dangerous as being obese and smoking. I was amazed by all of the studies that have been conducted about the negative effects of sitting on your body.
 
  1. Lack of Sleep is Not Good for Attorneys and Many of them Do Not Sleep Enough
 
Attorneys in New York with families take the train a lot. Some get up at 4:30 in the morning to catch trains and then stay at work late at night. When you do the calculations, it would be almost impossible for many of them to sleep eight hours a night during the week. In Los Angeles and other large cities, many attorneys commute by car a few hours per day. They work long hours. While working long hours is necessary when clients have deadlines, the long hours seem to never end. Attorneys run from one fire drill to another. They are also judged by how many hours they work. If an attorney does not work enough hours, they may lose their jobs, not earn a bonus, or jeopoardize their status at the firm in other ways.

I have not worked in a law firm in over two decades. Nevertheless, I have a recurring dream which I awake from in terror in the middle of the night. The dream is always the same: I am in a law firm and days, or weeks have gone by, and I have not billed enough hours. I find myself walking around the law firm feeling paranoid and looking at my superiors to see if their faces betray their anger with me for not working enough hours. I am terrified that I am going to lose my job in these dreams. I’m sure other attorneys have had similar nightmares on an ongoing basis. Attorneys are programmed to believe that staying alive and succeeding means billing as many hours as possible, and it can never stop. The byproduct of this is lack of sleep, and this health risk seems less damaging than than not billing enough hours.

Some of the other effects of lack of sleep include:
 
  • Lack of sleep causes accidents. I once knew of an attorney who flipped his car after a few all-nighters and was in the hospital for several weeks with a broken collarbone and other injuries. One attorney I know well had a blood vessel in one of her eyes explode after being in the office for several days without any sleep.
  • Lack of sleep causes serious health problems. Lack of sleep can make you prone to heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes.[iii] Lack of sleep also increases the risk of stroke.[iv]
  • Lack of sleep causes depression and anxiety. If you do not sleep enough, you may develop mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and more.[v]
  • Lack of sleep can make you gain weight. People who do not sleep enough are much more likely to gain weight. In addition, lack of sleep stimulates appetite and cravings for foods that are high in fat and carbohydrates.[vi]
  • Lack of sleep kills your sex drive.[vii]
  • Lack of Sleep Ages Your Skin. One of the reasons that many of the attorneys I have encountered may look so old is due to the fact that lack of sleep can really mess with your skin and how you look.  

Most people have experienced sallow skin and puffy eyes after a few nights of missed sleep. But it turns out that chronic sleep loss can lead to lacklustre skin, fine lines, and dark circles under the eyes. When you don’t get enough sleep, your body releases more of the stress hormone cortisol. In excess amounts, cortisol can break down skin collagen, the protein that keeps skin smooth and elastic.

Sleep loss also causes the body to release too little human growth hormone. When we’re young, human growth hormone promotes growth. As we age, it helps increase muscle mass, thicken skin, and strengthen bones.

“It’s during deep sleep – what we call slow-wave sleep – that growth hormone is released,” says sleep expert Phil Gehrman, PhD. “It seems to be part of normal tissue repair – patching the wear and tear of the day.”[viii]

  • Lack of sleep doubles your risk of death. Researchers have found that a lack of sleep doubles the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and other factors.[ix]
 
Most attorneys have issues with lack of sleep. When there are deadlines, these attorneys may work for days at a time. I once went into work on a Thursday morning and did not return home until a Sunday morning. This sort of story is not uncommon. However, the ongoing effects of not sleeping enough are what tend to do the most damage.

See the following articles for more information:
   
  1. Not Exercising Enough is Not Good for Your Body and Most Attorneys Do Not Exercise Enough
 
Most attorneys do not exercise enough because they simply do not have the time. Exercise is the sort of luxury reserved for people who are not a slave to the billable hour. If an attorney is not working, they are likely trying to spend time with their family, or (more often than not) relieve some stress by drinking or abusing other substances.

Not exercising enough can cause the following health problems:
 
  • Obesity
  • Heart diseases, including coronary artery disease and heart attack
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Stroke
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Certain cancers, including colon, breast, and uterine cancers
  • Osteoporosis and falls
  • Increased feelings of depression and anxiety[x]
 
In fact, some studies find that lack of exercise is just as bad for you as smoking.[xi]
 
  1. Not Eating Healthy Food (or Overeating or Undereating) is Bad for You and Many Attorneys Have Very Unhealthy Diets
 
Because attorneys are often eating carryout food, or ordering food to the office, their diets are frequently quite unhealthy. In addition, because they often have little time at home, they may order food for delivery there, too. While there are multiple types of eating issues that attorneys face, not eating a good diet can create stress, weariness and contribute to numerous potential health issues, including:
 
  • being overweight or obese
  • tooth decay
  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • heart disease and stroke
  • type-2 diabetes
  • osteoporosis
  • some cancers
  • depression
  • eating disorders.[xii]
 
  1. An Attorney’s Family is Often Perpetually Disappointed in them Because their Family Feels Neglected and this Creates Stress
 
An attorney often misses childrens’ events, is not home for dinner, leaves before their children get up in the mornings, is gone on weekends and spends way more time at the office than at home. Because of this, they are unable to form healthy ongoing relationships with their families. Their significant others often feel neglected and uncared for. The attorneys constantly feel guilty, and like they cannot please their families. Because their families are angry and upset with them, the attorney may withdraw even more from their family and immerse themselves further into work. Marriages can become unhealthy. Children may experience problems in school, feel neglected, use drugs or act out in other ways.

The problem is that if an attorney is not home enough, regardless of the money they may be bringing in, they are not making their family happy, and their family will not feel supported. This creates numerous problems for the attorney and may lead to more stress and other issues.

See the following articles for more information:
   
  1. The Best Attorneys are Often the Least Vulnerable, and This Leads to a Lack of Connection with Others, and More Health Problems
 
Attorneys are taught that it is bad to be vulnerable. If an attorney projects weakness at work, it is used against them. If an attorney makes their client look vulnerable, this is also used against their clients. Attorneys are taught, generally, not to be vulnerable or project any weakness.

The problem with not being vulnerable is that if you are not vulnerable, you will have difficulty connecting with people. If you cannot connect with others, this will lead you to feel emotionally isolated. People who are unable to connect with others often feel quite depressed. Being disconnected from others can also cause a great deal of stress and leads to feelings of loneliness. People are fundamentally social animals, and without the sort of connection, we are not ourselves. In the book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses that people who live in connected communities are far less likely to experience health problems than those who are more isolated. Being connected to others is important in order to be healthy. It is difficult to manage stress, for example, when we do not have others to talk to about our feelings, provide us with comfort and give us love.

People who are unable to connect with others often find themselves abusing substances in order to manage their feelings or feel a connection with something. Many people self-medicate with substances in order to manage negative feelings that they may be having.
 
  1. Attorneys Often Drink Far Too Much Alcohol or Abuse Other Substances With Over 20% Having Alcohol-Related Issues
 
It should be no surprise, with all of the above, that many attorneys drink far too much alcohol and abuse other substances. In fact, even if attorneys wanted to stop abusing substances, how on earth would they be expected to spend the time going to AA meetings and getting help for their addictions? Articles regularly appear in the New York Times and other major publications about attorneys who die from abusing substances and burning the candle at both ends. Here’s one about an attorney from Cooley Godward.[xiii]

According to one article in Psychology Today:
 

Lawyers start facing very heavy workloads and conflicts with their value systems right when they enter law school, and they may use alcohol or drugs to cope. They also suffer from disproportionately higher rates of mental health issues, which may provide access to prescription medication that could be addictive. As per a 2016 study more than 1 in 5 lawyers reported that they felt that their use of alcohol or other drugs was problematic at some point in their lives, and, of these, nearly 3 of 4 reported that their problematic use started after they joined law school.

Law School Tests Their Mettle

For many students, the excitement of getting into law school ends when they start school. Excessive workloads and intense competition with like-minded perfectionists leads to long hours of study and creates an enormous amount of stress. Additionally, the emphasis on analysis makes many students lose their connection to their original reason for joining law school – passion for the law or helping people. Students, therefore, turn to alcohol or drugs to relieve tension and relax.

Work – Not As Noble Anymore

In addition to creating conflicts with their own value system, the pressure at work can be excruciating. Lawyers are unique in that they are not only required to work long hours to satisfy existing clients, but also generate new business, and they find themselves constantly working in order to climb the corporate ladder and be named a partner in a law firm. This work schedule oftentimes ruptures relations at home, leaving them with no one to turn to. In such circumstances, lawyers may lean on alcohol or drugs for support.[xiv]


Various studies have shown that the rate of alcohol addiction among lawyers is between 15 and 24 percent.[xv] This number does not take into account the rates of addiction to other substances and use of drugs like Oxycontin, Ritalin, crystal meth, cocaine, heroin, Valium and other substances that lawyers use to cope.

Without getting too much into it, abusing alcohol alone can lead to numerous health problems, including:
 
  • Cancer.
  • Anemia.
  • Heart disease.
  • Liver damage.
  • Digestive problems.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Pancreatitis.
  • Immune system dysfunction.
  • Depression and mental problems.
  • Heart disease.
 
In fact, alcohol abuse is so dangerous that it is the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States.[xvi]

Accidents and other issues are common with alcohol abuse. On top of this, alcohol and other substances can cause issues for the attorney at work when they are recovering the next day (or days) because their productivity may be severely reduced—further creating issues for them at work.

By the time they were in their late 30s and early 40s, I knew of several attorneys who had gotten cancer, and one received a liver transplant, and a few others died of heart attacks. These attorneys drank just about every night and probably could not have gotten to sleep without alcohol. I am assuming that this is what killed them.[xvii] The stress of this job is not normal. It is not something that most people experience, and it causes people to use more substances than the general population.

See the following articles for more information:
   
  1. Law Firm Billing Practices Encourage Many Attorneys to Be Dishonest
 
When I was practicing law, I saw many instances of partners, associates and others padding their time and over billing. At least a few attorneys I knew of never wrote down their time and then just estimated it at the end of the week when they turned their hours in. One day I walked by a senior associate’s office to get an assignment and I sat there while he listened to a series of at least 15 voicemails.

“What are you doing?” I asked him.

“I’m ‘reconstructing’ my hours,” he told me. “I never write them down and just estimate them at the end of the month. It works great. I also add a few hours here and there for the time I spend thinking about matters while driving to work, when I am going to sleep and more.”

One associate I knew worked an entire weekend on a brief. He went by a partner’s office on Monday morning to show it to the partner and saw the partner’s timesheet. The timesheet showed the partner had spent 20+ hours reviewing and revising the associate’s brief over the weekend. This would be great, but the associate was showing the partner the brief for the first time. That means the partner was stealing $20,000 or so from the client. When I used to clerk for a federal judge, I saw people get sentenced to 15+ years in prison for holding up a bank with a note and running away with $1200 in cash that was later recovered! Something is wrong here. I’m not saying the entire profession is dishonest, but I would estimate that more than half of attorneys I know have padded hours and engaged in dishonest billing practices.

Numerous studies have shown that a significant percentage of attorneys engage in overbilling.[xviii]

The problem with dishonesty is that it has a negative influence on people. People who are dishonest ae likely to suffer more health problems than those who do not. According to one study:
 

On the one hand, telling the truth, being altruistic, acting fairly and being generally oriented are virtues directly linked to a suite of positive health outcomes such as better health and physical wellness, lower stress, decreased cellular aging, increased psychological well-being and longevity of life. On the other hand, lying, being selfish, cheating, and engaging in infidelity are associated with a suite of negative health outcomes such as elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, vasoconstriction, elevated cortisol, and a significant depletion of the brain regions needed for appropriate emotional and physiological regulation. The direct downstream consequences from dishonesty on long-term damage to brain, body, and biology is unknown; however, a great deal of research exists already suggesting strongly that events causing bio-insult in the short term inevitably result in longer-term damage.[xix]

 
Incredibly, because many attorneys are lying and being dishonest on a daily and/or ongoing basis, they may be experiencing added health issues.[xx]

See the following articles for more information:
   
  1. Attorneys Suffer Mental Health Issues Far More Often than The General Population
 
While substance abuse may be an issue for many attorneys, many experience various mental health issues. Nearly 60 percent of attorneys with substance abuse issues, for example, are likely to have mental health issues. [xxi] Incredibly, nearly 40 percent of law students and criminal litigation attorneys suffer from depression.[xxii] In terms of law students, nearly 32% have major depression, 13.4% have anxiety disorders, and 14.6% have bipolar disorders.[xxiii]

Here are some findings from a study of 12,825 attorneys carried out by Hazelden and reported in the Journal of Addiction Medicine: Levels of depression, anxiety, and stress among attorneys were significant, with 28%, 19%, and 23% experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively. [xxiv] The same study found that lawyers are 3.6 times as likely to be depressed as people in other jobs.

I’ve known numerous attorneys with mental health issues. One attorney I know started imagining that he was a tycoon and on his free time started creating all of these fake websites that profiled him as an industrialist with huge companies all over the world. His need to feel important was not being fulfilled in his office environment. I’ve seen this sort of thing from numerous attorneys—they disassociate and have all sorts of issues coming to terms with reality. Their psychological issues often revolve around a need to feel important that they are not getting from the office. They seem to have these fantasies of greatness since they don’t feel successful at work.

Who could not experience mental health issues as an attorney? In many law firms, an attorney is often:
 
  • yelled at, criticized and put down by clients, superiors, judges and others,
  • constantly afraid of superiors’ disapproval or negative reactions to their work,
  • required to put in excessive face time at the office—late at night, on weekends, holidays and more—it is kind of like being a prisoner,
  • sleep deprived and with little free time out of the office,
  • required to do meaningless work that must be perfect or the world will end,
  • undermined by their own colleagues inside the firm looking to get an advantage or edge,
  • under threat of losing their job unless they are able to consistently bring in business,
  • required to cover their ass all the time for their work product, hours and more,
  • part of a system where they are often forced to be dishonest on a daily basis and overbill their time (“pad hours”), so they feel dishonest constantly,
  • required to constantly maintain a professional disposition,
  • worried their spouse is dissatisfied (and may be cheating), or scheming to divorce them, because they cannot spend enough time with their family or are unpleasant at home—even though they provide a nice house and cars,
 
See the following articles for more information:
   
  1. Attorneys May Suffer All Sorts of Maladies Due to a Lack of Sun
 
Attorneys spend most of their time indoors, under fluorescent lights, in large buildings and then emerge at night. Due to this, it is not uncommon for attorneys to suffer from an astonishing lack of sunlight. Lack of sun has been linked to all sorts of maladies:
 
  • Men who do not get enough sun and vitamin D are twice as likely to develop heart disease.
  • A deficiency of sun can lead to a vitamin D deficiency which can cause breast cancer, prostate cancer, loss of memory and can increase the risk of developing schizophrenia and dementia.
  • Not getting enough sun can negatively affect your metabolism and make you gain weight.
  • A lack of sunlight can create clinical depression, mood swings, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.[xxv]
 
Conclusions
 
Being an attorney is an extremely difficult job and something that is likely to age and kill many attorneys prematurely. Everywhere the attorney turns, they are assaulted by forces likely to cause premature aging, create health problems and more. The job can be exhausting and cruel to not only the mind of the attorney, but their body as well.
 


About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. His firm BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys. BCG Attorney Search works with attorneys to dramatically improve their careers by leaving no stone unturned in job searches and bringing out the very best in them. Harrison has placed the leaders of the nation’s top law firms, and countless associates who have gone on to lead the nation’s top law firms. There are very few firms Harrison has not made placements with. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placements attract millions of reads each year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

About BCG Attorney Search

BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit www.BCGSearch.com.