Isolation as a big firm associate is a common problem today. Settings like Big Law are very impersonal, and young lawyers can go days and sometimes weeks without any conversation with another member of the firm — especially with partners and especially conversation that demonstrates any real interest in the young lawyers at all. Sad but true.
I am repeatedly told this by young lawyers, both male and female, and I spend a lot of time writing about it in my new book, What Millennial Lawyers Want, which will be released by Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers this summer. It is a very big problem and one that all lawyers need to be thinking about.
And after the thinking, those same lawyers — particularly those in management and leadership in large firms — should put their efforts toward doing something about it posthaste. The young lawyers in these firms are its future leaders, and succession plans are bound to suffer unless current management and leadership come to grips with changing times, which include greater need for personal interaction, positive reinforcement, and effective mentoring to combat the mental drain that isolation has on young lawyers.
Law firms today are not what they were forty years ago when today’s senior lawyers were associates. As one of my former colleagues and now a very senior partner at a large firm wrote to me recently, “While the digital age has many benefits, it tends to eliminate a great deal of the face to face contact young lawyers of our day had with partners, other lawyers and even secretaries, who often gave a new attorney a good deal of excellent practical advice.”
To underscore the importance of this issue, a recent Above the Law blog included an article addressing the problem of loneliness, a bi-product of isolation. The author, Jeena Cho, is the co-author of The Anxious Lawyer, a book written by lawyers for lawyers that makes mindfulness and meditation accessible and approachable. Here is a part of Ms. Cho’s article that sums up the problem:
I was at a conference in a breakout session and one lawyer shared, “Even though there are 300 lawyers in my building, I feel so lonely.” Loneliness can come in many flavors. You can feel lonely from physical isolation — being locked in a room, doing research for 12 hours with little human interaction except for the steady stream of emails and Facebook breaks. You can feel lonely because you feel different — which can lead to feeling as though you don’t belong. …
You can feel lonely because you don’t have a significant other. You can feel lonely because you don’t have people you can trust and confide in at work. You can also feel lonely because you’ve been working way too much and you feel disconnected from yourself.
The author also points out that loneliness implies vulnerability, and most lawyers do not like to feel vulnerable. This is true, but the ostrich approach of sticking your head in the sand hoping the problem will go away is rarely successful. So, it is time to look at some of Ms. Cho’s advice about dealing with loneliness as a lawyer, especially as a young lawyer, and learn from it. She writes:
- Take tiny actions. Email a friend you haven’t spoken to in awhile. Call your mom. Whatever tiny action you can take to break the isolation — start there.
- See a therapist. If the loneliness feels debilitating or you’re having difficulties managing it on your own, consider seeing a therapist.
- Remember that you are not alone. Everyone experiences loneliness sometimes.
- Take a trip. Even a short trip. A physical change in your environment can help to foster different experiences and ideas; and
- Join online communities. There are many online communities for just about every interest. Go on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and look for people who share similar interests.
And, I would add, if online communities are not for you, make a list of your interests and look for local organizations and groups devoted to those same interests. Maybe it is golf, biking, hiking, gardening, reading, fly fishing, music … and the list goes on and on. There is a group for almost every interest you may have.
Refuse to be satisfied with loneliness. It means that you must become proactive, but the rewards will be immeasurable. It will feel so good to knock loneliness out!