But Isn’t Legal Work Essential?

“The most common complaint expressed within the legal profession
is a lack of meaning or sense of fulfillment from work.”

The above quote is from an article published by the Lawyers Assistance Program of British Columbia. But how can anyone think their work in the law lacks meaning? I mean, the law is essential to the functioning of society, isn’t it? Yes, but apparently essential doesn’t count for much in the pursuit of meaning.

Andrew Russel, Dean and Professor in the College of Arts & Sciences at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, New York, says this in his Aeon Magazine article Hail the Maintainers:  Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more (April 7, 2016):

“Innovation is a dominant ideology of our era… As the pursuit of innovation has inspired technologists and capitalists, it has also provoked critics who suspect that the peddlers of innovation radically overvalue innovation. What happens after innovation, they argue, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.”

Maybe so, but the maintainers themselves aren’t buying their own importance. This Huffington Post article from May 11, 2017, reported a study by Britain’s Office of National Statistics that found that workers in “maintainer” jobs — manual labor, construction, building trades, processing plants, factories, agriculture — had the highest rates of suicide in the U.K. A 2016 Center for Disease Control and Prevention study reported similar results in the U.S., with rates highest among lumberjacks, farmworkers, fishermen, carpenters, miners, electricians, construction trades, factory and production workers, and others who build, install, maintain, and repair things.

Other noteworthy findings of both studies were that suicide rates were three times higher among men than women; the highest female suicide rate was among police, firefighters and corrections officers; the second highest female suicide rate was in the legal profession; and among the professions, lawyer suicides were in third place after doctors and dentists.

The CDC study speculated that the principle causes behind these statistics include job-related isolation and demands, stressful work environments. and work-home imbalance, all of which are endemic in the legal profession. The British Columbia LAP piece quoted above states flatly that,

“It is unhealthy to do meaningless, unchallenging, uncreative work, especially for those that are intelligent and well trained.”

The article reports that a sense of meaningless is expressed differently by older vs. younger lawyers:

“[A sense of meaningless about their work] is stated more directly by older practitioners as boredom, lack of job satisfaction, just getting through each day, turning out work without time to contemplate, turning out product for clients like a machine, and lack of connection to clients, which is often expressed as lack of client loyalty. Legal professionalism has been eroded by the need for volume, speed and uniformity of work product.

“The younger practitioners… ask, “What good am I doing?” They express a lack of control over work or life. They worry about the demands of clients, and that there is little opportunity for them to utilize creative thinking. They also ask if they can have a life and practice law… [T]hey do not get a sense of fulfillment from practicing law. They do not get a sense of meaning from it and it seems to be valueless.”

We’ve been looking at books, articles, surveys, and academic research from business, academia, the professional world, and even the United Nations. All agree that meaningless malaise in the workplace is worldwide and afflicts both men and women across a full range of occupations from the “maintainers” to professionals. Money doesn’t help, neither does living in a “happy” first world country. Striving after wealth and income growth only makes things worse. Meanwhile, rates of self-destruction are alarmingly on the rise, especially in this century.

The Anti-Motivation Strategy (Part 4):  Why You Should Never Hire a Motivated Lawyer

aw schools and law firms kill brain cells, impairing the highly-motivated high achievers who populate them from doing what they’re required to do, which is to think clearly and make sound judgments, and in the meantime banishing law students and lawyers to unhappiness and maybe an early grave.

Employee-Motivation resized

Why not? Because there’s a good chance that motivated lawyer is cognitively impaired.

In a series in Fall 2014, I looked in depth at the research of University of Denver law professor Debra S. Austin, J.D., Ph.D., and her seminal law review article Killing Them Softly:  Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die From Law School Stress And How Neural Self-Hacking Can Optimize Cognitive Performance. Prof. Austin’s research findings line up with the Mayo Clinic’s analysis we looked at last time:

“Neuroscience shows that the aggregate educative effects of training to become a lawyer under chronically stressful conditions may undermine the efforts of legal educators by weakening the learning capacities of law students. Stress in legal education may also set the stage for abnormally high rates of anxiety and depression among lawyers.

“The stresses facing law students and lawyers result in a significant decline in their well-being, including anxiety, panic attacks, depression, substance abuse, and suicide. Neuroscience now shows that this level of stress also diminishes cognitive capacity. The intricate workings of the brain, the ways in which memories become part of a lawyer’s body of knowledge, and the impact of emotion on this process indicate that stress can weaken or kill brain cells needed for cognition.

“When stress persists for a few hours or days, a law student may experience a bad mood. Longer-term stress can cause stress-related disorders such as panic attacks, anxiety, or depression; the physical effects include increased blood pressure, heart palpitations, breathlessness, dizziness, irritability, chest pain, abdominal discomfort, sweating, chills, or increased muscle tension.

“Long-term elevated levels of glucocorticoids resulting from chronic stress have been associated with the following physical conditions:

  • Impaired immune response;
  • Increased appetite and food cravings;
  • Increased body fat;
  • Increased symptoms of PMS and menopause;
  • Decreased muscle mass;
  • Decreased bone density; and
  • Decreased libido.

“Chronic stress also produces the following emotional conditions:

  • Increased mood swings, irritability, and anger;
  • Increased anxiety; and
  • Increased depression.

“The impact of stress on law student cognition includes deterioration in memory, concentration, problem-solving, math performance, and language processing. Curiosity is dampened, and creativity is diminished.”

In other words, law schools and law firms kill brain cells, impairing the highly-motivated high achievers who populate them from doing what they’re required to do, which is to think clearly and make sound judgments, and in the meantime banishing law students and lawyers to unhappiness and maybe an early grave.

Law schools and law firms don’t have to disclose all that.
Maybe they should.

ivy league admissions tours

Time For an Anti-Motivation Strategy

By now the flaw in the typical motivation strategy is evident:  motivation becomes its own loop, circles back on itself, becomes its own focus, its own end game. We’re no longer practicing motivation with a performance goal in mind, we’re practicing it for its own sake. Motivation becomes a short-term, stressful preoccupation that hampers sustainable long-term performance. In the meantime, we become tentative, uncertain, indecisive, and unfocused, which means our performance becomes tenuous, weak, and unreliable.

There’s got to be a better way. There is, and we’ll look at it, starting next time.

The Culture of Law (11): Time is Money

We’ve been talking about money, now let’s talk about time — a natural segue for a profession that logs value in 6 minute increments.

Working long hours is a law cultural norm, and never mind that it’s no secret any more that working too much is counterproductive. This Time article featured popular author, TED talker, and professor Brené Brown:

“[Ms Brown] talks about how people use the idea of being “crazy busy” as a sort of armor—a justification for not bothering to pause, evaluate what’s going on in your life, and reconsider decisions regarding lifestyle, work, family, and perhaps whether it’s really necessary to be ‘crazy busy.’

“Also, she reveals that, for the most part, highly successful people understand that perfectionism is not healthy and ultimately gets in the way of progress.”

Also never mind that overworked unhappiness abounds on both ends of the legal profession’s financial food chain. In this New Yorker op-ed piece a few weeks back, Columbia Law professor Tim Wu fingered the tyranny of technology as the culprit, citing the long hours of litigation as an example.

“Consider the litigation system, in which the hours worked by lawyers at large law firms are a common complaint. If dispute resolution is the social function of the law, what we have is far from the most efficient way to reach fair or reasonable resolutions. Instead, modern litigation can be understood as a massive, socially unnecessary arms race.

“In older times, the limits of technology and a kind of professionalism created a natural limit to such arms races, but today neither side can stand down, lest it put itself at a competitive disadvantage.

“A typical analysis blames greedy partners for crazy hours, but the irony is that the people at the top are often as unhappy and overworked as those at the bottom: it is a system that serves almost no one. Moreover, our many improvements in the technologies of productivity make the arms-race problem worse. The fact that employees are now always reachable eliminates what was once a natural barrier of sorts, the idea that work was something that happened during office hours or at the physical office. With no limits, work becomes like a football game where the whistle is never blown.”

We may not like what we’re doing — see, e.g., this Above the Law blog post re:  Prof. Wu’s article — but we do it anyway. Why?

Barry Goldman, arbitrator, mediator, and author of The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators, cites a psychological trait cognitive scientists call “sphexishness” to explain our stubbornness. You can read about it in this LA Times op-ed piece.

Sphexishness? Maybe. Or maybe unhappiness and a show me the money mentality are embedded in the larger context of American workplace culture. The following is from a Pyschology Today article called “Counterproductive Productivity,” by marketing professor Raj Raghuna:

“I don’t know about you, but it seems that the average American doesn’t really enjoy work. If the reason we work harder is because we enjoy our work, then most of us would be happy to go back to work, and we would have restaurants that are called TGIM (Thank Goodness It’s Monday) and not TGIF (Thank Goodness It’s Friday).

“No, we don’t work harder because we enjoy our work. Rather, we work harder so that we can earn more money, and so that we can feel, at some level, more important and more successful… And once we get on that gravy train, it’s difficult to get off it.”

Whatever the cause, we seem to have a problem here, Houston, and next time we’ll look at yet another reason why we avoid addressing it.