In-house

Human lawyers: building a mindful culture in the legal profession

Following past experiences, Megan Elizabeth Gray, associate counsel at Condé Nast, explains how she is encouraging more positive work practices in her new role and the importance of cultural change in the profession.

Stressed woman working from home

A few Friday afternoons ago, an associate at a law firm emailed offering to get a piece of work back to me over the weekend.

“Yes!” I thought. Followed quickly by: “No!”

Yes, because this was the moment I had been waiting for; no, because there was no way I was accepting this offer.

Since moving in-house a few months ago, I had been waiting for the moment to tell a private practice lawyer not to work over the weekend – to be mindful of, and therefore not impede on, someone’s family, relaxing or any other time. 

It was a moment the inverse of which I recognised well after nearly 10 years in the corporate department at a magic circle firm. It was a moment I also recognised as one in which I could model the legal profession (and the world) I wish to live in: one where we consider each other, first, as fellow humans.

Law firm culture, particularly across the top firms, can be notoriously brutal. As I look back, my overwhelming feeling is that there was a degree of humanity missing: an acknowledgement of lawyers as whole beings, that we have relationships and commitments and joys and passions and needs outside of work.

I never thought to question this. I never thought to question eating dinner at my desk for months on end – three meals a day, in fact. Or the expectation that evenings and weekends were all fair game for work. Or that “getting something back overnight” was doable. The list goes on.

Overworking seemed to be, in some ways, a badge of honour. There were phrases I remember hearing to describe the state of things at times. Things like “death spiral” and “transaction of doom”. They were, of course, hyperbole, but what strikes me is what I perceived as the pride sometimes attached to them.

I have memories of trying to get a few hours of sleep in a chair – while pregnant – since no one on the deal team dared leave. I will also never forget an associate being applauded by a partner as a “hardcore hero” for being ready to work from his hospital bed after an emergency surgery three days after Christmas.

I’ve heard the viewpoint that that is why law firm associates are compensated as they are. Can you ever be compensated sufficiently for the cost of your wellbeing?

When I went in-house, I accepted the pay cut. It is with acknowledgement of my privilege when I say that there are things I value more than that extra money, things you cannot put a price on. Things like my self-respect, the time I am a present mom with my daughter, the ability to plan (and actually take) weekends away with my husband.

And so, in that moment when the associate offered to work over the weekend, I knew I would not be part of or contribute to the culture of unnecessary overworking. What you’re not changing, you’re choosing, and I choose a different way. I told her the following week was fine.

The next day, as I strolled my daughter to the park, I typed out a quick LinkedIn post about what happened. To date, the post has 5,500 likes, and received more than 100 comments in support and celebration of its simple yet powerful message. One favourite: “Thanks for being a role model for other in-house counsel and for using your power to give out work with generosity and mindfulness.”

Seeing how deeply the post resonated with other lawyers (and non-lawyers), it made me feel how much we are all crying out for change and how ripe the legal profession is for it. Ending the perpetuation of unnecessary overworking and, more broadly, encouraging a mindful culture in the legal profession would be transformative and is desperately needed.

Lawyers are a law firm’s (and many companies’) greatest assets, and lawyers’ greatest assets are their mental capacities. It follows that preserving, protecting and nourishing those mental capacities is of critical importance.

We can each be the change we wish to see, starting in this very moment. Reflecting on how I will be the change I wish to see, I’ve identified the following five commitments:

  1. I will set only responsible deadlines, meaning it can be met without sacrifice and is when I actually need it
  2. I will ask law firms what initiatives they have to manage workloads / work-life balance, as well as monitor wellbeing
  3. I will model self-care and that I am worthy of rest and downtime outside of work
  4. I will encourage others to take their holidays and, during their holidays, to be out of communication
  5. I will be guided by kindness and compassion, for myself and for others

Never will I ask a fellow lawyer to be anything different.

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