My Reflections on Jana Cohen Barbe’s Open Letter

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The pressure of performance, the self-guilt of feeling like you are not working enough, and the drive to make billable hour benchmarks are hallmarks of the legal profession that sometimes cause aspiring law students to forgo a career in law altogether. As lawyers-in-training and newly-minted lawyers, these issues are concerning for our future careers. While some law firms already have started incredible programming to manage anxiety in the workplace, these steps towards more attentiveness to wellness signals bigger changes that lie ahead for the future of our profession. 

Jana Cohen Barbe’s open letter is an honest look at a pervasive, and sometimes hidden, issue in the legal profession. She offers both practical suggestions on changes - some massive structural ones and some incremental ones - geared to improve the mental health for everyone in law. Her suggestions are bold and would require massive shifts in how firms treat billable hours, which may be too large of a leap for firms who have been using this revenue structure for decades. 

Barbe also suggests incentivizing teamwork through bonuses and communicating boundaries to clients. These more incremental suggestions could still make a substantial impact on the work life balance of lawyers in sustaining a career that takes years to build and deserves a much more worthwhile end than a crashing burnout. It would improve the culture of the legal profession by encouraging collaboration and improving mental wellness so that lawyers can spend their mental energy on upholding, as Barbe elegantly puts it, our noble and worthwhile vocation. In other words, happier lawyers, better justice.

Her thoughts that “I long for the day when my self-worth does not fluctuate with the recording of my time” and “the billable hour can incentivize and reward inefficiency” echo Gillian Hadfield’s ideas, who recently was a guest columnist for BarTalk. Practitioners and academics alike are calling for a restructuring of a fundamental feature of law practice. While this giant leap may be too much to stomach, Barbe’s suggestion to “[foster] a culture where vacations [are] mandatory” (with vacations being as little as two weeks) would encourage both wellness and the prevention of fraud through disallowing the hoarding of clients and isolation of particular activities to one individual alone. 

Harvard Business Review released an article in 2017 that showed sabbaticals can be beneficial to organizations, as well as the mental health of the employees. Sabbaticals increased innovation and encouraged collaboration. Don’t get me wrong. Part of signing up for the profession entails long work nights (or even weeks) to meet pressing deadlines but in the midst of the chaos, perhaps my naive pre-lawyer self believes there can be a balance. Like a pendulum, the season of endless days can pay off the much needed subsequent season of regeneration, and ideally, without the guilt and peer-pressure of coming off as “lazy” when you are prioritizing your mental wellness. To further add complexity to this issue, a lot of that guilt for taking time off is a symptom of perfectionism and self pressure to perform at an unrealistic rate. 

In this, I echo Barbe’s conclusion: “[l]et’s transform our profession into one that encourages and fosters mental and physical well-being and that views both as utterly compatible with productivity, performance and profit.”And I add to this: “so that we can better our justice system by helping good people who have chosen this path of law sustain their careers”. With the ever changing, constantly evolving field that law is, perhaps the way we work may need to change with it.

By Christina Ma

Steven Ngo