Published in The Times

The juxtaposition of two stories in The Times last week -one reporting that top-flight City lawyers were charging as much as Pounds 1,000 an hour for their expertise, another that a quarter of lawyers wanted to leave their profession -raised a pertinent question: just why are those in the legal business so miserable?

The Law Society has recently been trying to provide an answer, but its “quality of life” review, taking the form of workshops, debates and online surveys, has been dragging on inconclusively like a complex fraud case and also seems to have missed some vital evidence from across the pond.

You see, as with everything else, America has been doing lawyer dissatisfaction bigger and better than us for decades. Polls have at various times established that not just a quarter, but up to 40 per cent of US lawyers want to leave their profession; and whereas British lawyers are only just waking up to the fact they are miserable and want to die, their American counterparts have been alert to it since 1989, which saw the publication of Deborah Arron’s Running From the Law: Why Good Lawyers are Getting Out of the Legal Profession.

Indeed, there are now almost more books, articles and websites dedicated to the subject of legal despair than there are American lawyers. Which is saying something, given that the USA has more lawyers than people.

And last week, to help the Law Society get to the point, I spent two bleak days sifting through the literature, a process that made it clear City lawyers are unhappy because of:

1. the dehumanising hours. Remember that bit in The Firm where Tom Cruise’s character is told that if he even thinks of a client in the shower, he should bill it?

Not only can one imagine this actually happening now -lawyers generally charge on the basis of billable hours, and annual targets can be brutal -but the shower might even be taken in the office. Many City firms offer beds and washrooms in offices to enable staff to work longer.

While those entering the profession may be prepared for this -an excessive workload is seen as a rite of passage -many don’t seem to realise that their reward for selling the best years of their lives is simply the privilege of being allowed to sell the rest of their lives in the capacity of partner.

Which, of course, negates the only advantage of being a lawyer: the cash. Leaving aside the question of whether money can make you happy, it is pretty obvious it won’t if you have no time to spend it.

2.the yawning gap between their intelligence and the mind-numbing nature of their work. The word “lawyer” may trigger images of attractive people making clever arguments in wood-panelled courtrooms, but most spend the majority of their time in back offices drafting and redrafting small print that almost no one will read. At least if you flipped burgers for a living you’d have the satisfaction of giving people momentary pleasure.

3.the yawning gap between the ideals of those entering the profession and the reality. Some go into law because they dream of fighting injustice, but discover on entering that most of what lawyers do benefits big business.

Others enter the profession because they are seduced by the apparent glamour of the trade, as portrayed in Ally McBeal and LA Law, only to find that the work is about as glamorous as getting a verruca (cf point 2). Then there are those graduates -as much as 47 per cent of the profession, according to a recent survey -who drift into the job because they don’t know what else to do, assuming vaguely that it might be fun, and find on entering that it is about as amusing as breaking a limb in a traffic accident (cf point 1). Repeatedly. For 90 hours a week.

4.the cumulatively lowering nature of the work. We all end up being shaped by our careers. Journalists become rude, incorrigible gossips. Police officers start believing what they read in the Daily Mail. Lawyers, meanwhile, become competitive, aggressive, judgmental, analytical, adversarial, emotionally detached, paranoid of being sued and, worst of all, pessimistic. Being a good lawyer involves assuming that people will do the most awful things and that treachery is to be expected. It’s inevitable that this negativity eventually seeps into their personal lives.

5.the vortex of hatred that envelops them entirely. I’m not only referring here to those surveys that put lawyers among politicians and journalists as the least popular of professionals.

I’m also referring to the fact that lawyers despise each other (cf point 4), despise themselves (cf points 1, 2, 3,4), are despised by their clients (for charging too much, not always winning cases) and, in return, despise their clients back.

Handling others people’s problems, unless you are Mother Theresa or Esther Rantzen, eventually becomes tedious, especially when most of those problems relate to money.

6.the self-inflicted nature of their suffering. Because of the way City firms work, most senior lawyers, as well as having to spend too long doing too much dull work, are under intense pressure to attract new business. When dissatisfaction kicks in, it’s amplified by the fact that the work making them unhappy is self-imposed. It’s like waking up to find someone drilling a hole into your head, only to realise the sadist wielding the Black ‘n’ Decker is actually you.

Looking back over this list, I realise little of it is going to elicit much sympathy. Somehow, I can’t see the Red Cross diverting resources away from Darfur to come to the rescue of professionals earning Pounds 1,000 an hour.

But human misery isn’t relative, and I can’t help thinking these problems could be solved. All City firms need to do is take a moment or two to take a good look at themselves. But that must be difficult when time is (so much) money.