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Reasons Why Practicing Law Is Extremely Stressful

published April 05, 2022

By Author - LawCrossing

( 41 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)

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It is a well-known fact that practicing law, especially in big law firms, is extremely stressful. As a legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search and a former attorney myself, I know a lot about the legal profession and meet with many law firm attorneys daily. Many of the attorneys I have worked with have had heart issues caused by the stress in their forties, and some even died from them. Other lawyers turn to substances to help them deal with the stress, which disrupts their work performance and personal life; and can lead them to situations no one would expect lawyers to get into.
Reasons Why Practicing Law Is Extremely Stressful

I recently talked with an attorney who served in the military and was tortured in a POW camp. Even though he must have gone through hell in the combat and the camp, it was practicing law in a competitive firm that led him to being hospitalized and on the verge of a breakdown. The stress was just too much for him, even after being exposed to torture.

This got me thinking that being an attorney in any major American law firm is truly one of the most stressful professions. Here are the main reasons why.

There Is No Light at the End of the Law Firm Tunnel

Reasons Why Practicing Law Is Extremely Stressful

Most lawyers try to ignore or forget about this, but there is usually nothing to look forward to in a legal career in a law firm. Working hard and sacrificing all your free time to work does not secure your advancement in the firm. It is quite common for attorneys to spend years working themselves to death for a firm to be let go based on some vague reasoning that does not even make sense. The chance of attorneys who have found a job in a large law firm as recent law school graduates to make it to equity partners there is minimal (if any). Attorneys are always under the threat of losing their job, and working in these conditions is extremely stressful. Seeing those who have invested their best years to work for these firms being let go does not help either.

And this is not only the problem for associates. Most associates never get to the partner level anyway; however, even if they do, the law practice does not suddenly change for them. Their job is at risk, just like when they were still associates. Many partners are asked to find another position because firms need a constant stream of new faces, excited and willing to work themselves to death for less money. I have also seen partners being stripped of their "equity" title just so that the firm could use the money for different purposes.

Even though we would like to think that the more senior a lawyer gets, the more respect they have in a firm. In big prestigious law firms, it is the exact opposite. The more senior an attorney gets, the less marketable they are and the more difficult it gets for them to find a decent legal job. Law firms do not want senior attorneys with more than five years of experience because their billing rates are comparable to those of partners, and it is just not that profitable for the firms.

The legal industry is one of the few that spits out used attorneys after only a few years, so attorneys rarely have anything to look forward to.

Law Firms Are Full of Enemies, Not Friends

Reasons Why Practicing Law Is Extremely Stressful

The legal environment is not the best ground for making friends. Almost everyone you come into contact with as a practicing lawyer in a law firm is your enemy.

Law firms might like to persuade you that collaboration is important and needed for success; however, your colleagues are just waiting for you to fail because it means that they can succeed and advance. You also have to be constantly wary of anything personal you say, as it may be quickly used against you.

But it is not only other associates who are against you in a law firm. Partners who are giving you work are not your friends either. You are constantly under their watch, and they will sink you when you make a mistake. Their demands are often extremely high, and they may never even give you credit or praise for the hard work you are doing for them.

The clients that attorneys represent might want attorneys to be their advocates; however, they are not on the side of their attorneys. They are often dissatisfied with the amount of money they have to pay. They believe you should be doing more for less. You should win them more money or have better results. The list could be endless.

If you are in the litigation practice area, you also have the added enemies of the court and the opposing counsel. Everyone knows that the opposing counsel is out to get you and destroy you, but you should also be aware that the court is not on your side either. They might not be okay with your approach, want to sanction you, or even lean toward the opposing side. These are all realities you have to be aware of and be prepared for.

In a Law Firm, You Are a Product That Can Be Replaced

Reasons Why Practicing Law Is Extremely Stressful

There are almost endless reserves of attorneys law firms can employ. There is a queue of qualified legal professionals just waiting for a call and an opportunity for every position. Almost any law firm position can be filled in within a day. The positions for less marketable attorneys, such as senior associates without enough business, can be filled almost instantly regardless of the day or the hour.

It does not matter where a firm is; there is always at least one attorney willing to relocate to get the position. Even if it is in the middle of nowhere, there is always someone out of work waiting for an opportunity.

That is why attorneys can rarely dictate any conditions, even when they deserve more. In firms in big markets, such as a New York law firm, attorneys sometimes cannot even open the discussion of something like having a raise because they are putting their legal careers on the line. There are hundreds of other candidates that can replace them the next day.

These firms can even set their high standards, and no one will bat an eye. They will have a candidate from the Ivy League law school of their choice with the exact number of years of experience from a law firm they set as a requirement within a week. Attorneys are very replaceable, which can only add to the stress and pressure they are experiencing every day.

The Death in a Law Firm Is Inevitable and Can Come Anytime

Reasons Why Practicing Law Is Extremely Stressful

In law firms, no one is safe. You can lose your job anytime, even if you have been working your ass off for over a decade. In most other professions, being employed means at least some stability and gradual progress. In the legal industry, you can be earning hundreds of thousands of dollars one day and be out of work, not being able to get a new job the next.

Many lawyers practice law because they believe that they can earn a lot of money. There are professions where you can earn just as much if not more, and you do not have to worry about your job daily. For instance, sellers in car dealerships or stockbrokers can earn more than attorneys in a regular US law firm. Even if something happens to their current employer, they have marketable skills and are in demand everywhere, so they do not have to worry about their employment. They can work until their retirement or until they die, knowing that they will be able to dins a new placement if something happens.

Most lawyers do not have this luxury. While it is possible to practice law well until your retirement age, there is so much competition, and the system prefers young and driven attorneys and law students. As attorneys get more senior, they experience excessive stress and mental and physical consequences because they know that their "death" in the firm is near. The firm is waiting to replace them with someone younger and more energetic. However, they do not know when this will come, which leads to constantly stressed-out lawyers who are risking their careers and their health.

You Rarely Get Positive Reviews in Law Firms

Reasons Why Practicing Law Is Extremely Stressful

There is only a short period when attorneys get positive reviews from their employers in most large law firms. In the first year, junior associates usually get mostly negative reviews because the firm wants them to keep improving. When those same attorneys are in their most productive and profitable stage for the firm, when they have two to five years of experience, law firms start giving them stellar reviews to keep them in the firm. However, once this short period ends, the negative reviews again. Firms want to replace these "old" attorneys with new meat, so they have to start giving them negative feedback to have reasons to fire them later.

This approach would be extremely mentally and physically straining for anyone. Moreover, the firms do not care about the attorneys they are giving negative reviews to. They look at the years of experience and profitability and are not afraid to tear down anyone who does not fit their thresholds of what they expect.

When I still worked as a lawyer in a firm, I received an extremely negative review from two partners I had never met before. From what they were telling me, I knew that the review was not supposed to be mine because I have never worked with the people they mentioned. They just left my office after realizing that, and no one ever apologized. I realized at that moment that I would get almost the same review once I got to the level of the attorney the review was meant for. That can be extremely stressful and disheartening.

You Never Know When Your Legal Career Will End

Reasons Why Practicing Law Is Extremely Stressful

Attorneys lose their jobs for many reasons; however, sometimes, they lose more than that. Sometimes they lose their whole legal careers. For instance, most corporate attorneys lose their jobs once the economy slows down, and when the recession lasts longer, they can be out of work for years. It is almost impossible to recover a career from a hit like that. The same happens to many litigators after their firm settles a big case they were working on. There are also so many lawyers whose careers have been destroyed by a malpractice lawsuit for the legal services they provided or being fired after their employer found out they have lied or made a serious mistake.

You never know when something like this will happen, and your career will be shattered. That is extremely stressful, especially if you already have a family to care for or law school debt you need to repay.

One of the attorneys I have met throughout my work in legal recruiting was on the right track to becoming a partner in a major firm. Everything was set, and the partners agreed to elect him as an equity partner within a few weeks when everything changed. He wrote up a letter late in the evening and forgot to email it at that moment. The next day, he told the partner in the firm that he had sent it because he remembered that he had finished the letter and assumed he had automatically emailed it. He recalled he had not sent it yet and quickly fixed it. However, the partner found out that the attorney lied to them, fired the attorney and the firm started to spread unflattering information about the lawyer. Everyone knew him as a liar and unreliable and untrustworthy worker. His career ended unexpectedly the moment it was supposed to turn out to be the best because of a stupid mistake that, in the end, did not even affect anything in the case.

The Law Firm Is Completely in Charge of Your Time

Reasons Why Practicing Law Is Extremely Stressful

Maintaining any work-life balance when working in a major firm is next to impossible. You have no control over your time, and the firm and partners dictate when you work and when you can stop if you want to keep your job. Attorneys can usually forget about planning anything for their weekends, evenings, or holidays. As a big law attorney, you can never promise others in your life that you will be able to come to their celebration or attend an event with them because you are not in control of your time. If you are needed in the office, you have to be willing to come there when you get the call. Otherwise, you are risking that the firm will find a more willing attorney.

At the beginning of my career in my first legal job, I did not know this, and I decided to take a week off to go on a holiday over the summer. From how everyone reacted, I quickly realized I should not be taking time off. Attorneys rarely (if ever) go on a vacation, and some of the senior attorneys there have never taken time off.

I later realized how the legal world works, and my everyday experience at work changed. I remember all the evenings, weekends, and holidays I spent working. I once spent four days at the office working non-stop, and the moment I got home and fell asleep, I was called back because the partner I was doing work for did not receive an email. It was also during Easter weekend!

Attorneys cannot control their time or lives if they want to survive in a big law firm. This lifestyle is not for everyone, and there are other options in the legal industry. You can practice law in smaller firms, smaller markets, or go into alternative legal positions. However, if your dream and passion are large firms, you have to be prepared to invest all your time to work.


What I have described in this article might sound scary. And it is for many people. However, some people thrive in such a stressful environment where they are under pressure and always have to perform their best.

Only those who are truly passionate about working in a large firm will be able to survive in such a culture successfully. Otherwise, it does not make sense to endure all of this stress and put your body and mind through such a straining lifestyle.

I was personally not able (or willing) to do this to myself as a lawyer because I did not feel that driven about practicing law. However, I respect those who are passionate about helping people by providing them with legal services, and I have found my passion in assisting them in finding the most fitting job where they can thrive. And it is not like I am not working long hours like attorneys. I would say my hours are comparable to those in a large firm; however, I am doing what I am passionate about and what I believe is useful, so I do not even mind spending so many hours working every day.

Working in a big law firm is not for everyone; however, every attorney can find a job they can thrive in. The legal profession is full of different positions where every attorney can find their place, they have to look.