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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 June 2007, 16:22 GMT 17:22 UK
'I felt hunted and alone' - lawyer
Old Bailey in London
The Law Society is to look at lawyers' work-life balance
The work-life balance of the UK's lawyers is to come under scrutiny as part of a Law Society review to see why record numbers appear to be leaving the profession.

Some say the popular belief that the life of a City lawyer is all about big bonuses, expensive holidays and flowing champagne is misguided and, in fact, the career is more likely to end in emotional or physical breakdown.

One City lawyer, Zoe (not her real name), explains how her job brought on anorexia and depression, and ultimately forced her to leave a top law firm.

In the firm in which I worked, the day typically began at 6am.

Technically, our working hours were 9.30am to 5.30pm with an hour for lunch, but since we were "invited" to sign a written waiver of our rights under the EU Working Time directive, that was entirely academic.

The critical factor was clocking up the requisite number of chargeable hours per day - sometimes 8 or 9 - or such additional time as the work required, including weekends or taking instructions from clients at home late at night.

This was due to global time differences or simply since clients expect that kind of service for the fees and you do so in the firm's name and to protect its outstanding reputation.

Non-chargeable work, including training or some of the pro bono work some major firms do, for example, would be expected to be on top.

Constant scrutiny

Lunch was usually eaten on the hoof, if at all, and I was always anxious that the amount of time I was away from my desk would be watched.

For two years, I did no cooking at home during the week whatsoever, snatching breakfast from the staff canteen on arrival, frequently having lunch at my desk and if the work dictated it, breaking for supper in the canteen too, before returning to my desk.

After 10pm, you could take a taxi home which would be charged to either the office or, more frequently, the client.

But I would often not return home until around 11pm, have a bath and slump into bed, just to repeat the same routine the next day.

In an environment where it is usually "every man for himself and devil take the hindmost", you feel under constant scrutiny to impress and watch your back the whole time.

Over the edge

In my experience, the firm will always close ranks against the individual, no matter what the cost to him or her, creating almost a conspiracy of silence while offering little or no support to anyone who needs help, be it personally or professionally.

Sometimes, the expectations can literally drive you over the edge.

Cast from BBC's This Life
Stressed, overworked, with no support... the life of a lawyer?

I have seen more people break down in top firms than in any other city professions, often with tragic consequences.

And once promotion becomes an issue, it is cut-throat.

So far as culture goes, it was still pretty much a case of lunch being for wimps and people would leave their jackets on the back of chairs and PCs logged on well after 7pm, lest anyone thought they were shirking.

If I wanted to get ahead within the firm, then a social life was the sacrifice I had to make.

Work was my life. My only social life was being entertained by clients, which at the time felt like a great honour, but was really quite a strain.

One client even tried to kiss me as I went to a memorial service for another client. It was repulsive.

Decision to leave

I think that the loss of work-life balance and the premium it puts on your achievements at work contributes hugely to the stress of working in such firms.

As one climbs the greasy pole, it is desperately sad to see the effects this has on individuals and their families as we struggle to prove ourselves - divorces, family breakdowns, addiction and other mental health problems, even suicides.

Physically, I became anorexic and quite neurotic.

I felt utterly beleaguered and lost faith in the integrity of the firm and potentially in the profession altogether - save that a partner in another department involved in my most major case wrote me a very kind, supportive letter after I had left.

I became disillusioned, isolated and depressed.

Eventually, I could not even travel on public transport into work and took minicabs, at great cost.

I felt hunted and went to ground completely for a month before eventually deciding to leave and joining my next firm.

Ego and money

I chose to become a solicitor since I regarded it as a vocation - in which I could make a real difference to clients' lives.

Most importantly, it was about justice, ethics and integrity.

However, I have come to realise that it is nothing like that - it is all about ego, money and soulless, ruthless commercialism and exploitation, invariably at the personal expense of those working for the true "Fat Cats".

It is every man for himself, hang the consequences.

A lawyer describes how her job drove her to depression

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