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 Culture of Law (10): Don’t Show Me The Money

It’s not the legal profession’s fault that you can make good money at it. The problem is when we use that as an excuse for personal powerlessness.

Personal powerlessness is when we buy into Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat as a cultural and personal norm that can’t be challenged. We think that way because our brains are running on established cultural neural pathways. There are other options out there, but pursuing them will cost our brains their cherished peace of mind.

We don’t need a research survey to tell us there are other ways to measure value than money, but consider this one anyway:

“Money and prestige aren’t key to career satisfaction, according to findings from a multiyear survey of University of Michigan law grads. Instead, work satisfaction is more closely related to the law grads’ perceptions of the social value of their work and the quality of their relations with co-workers and superiors.”

If you’re willing to try something other than money and prestige, how about…

A Utah lawyer starts a flourishing non-profit law firm, where clients pay based on income.

Or this New York Times story about lawyers who have chosen less remunerative law careers:

“Of the many rewards associated with becoming a lawyer — wealth, status, stimulating work — day-to-day happiness has never been high on the list. Perhaps, a new study suggests, that is because lawyers and law students are focusing on the wrong rewards.

“Researchers who surveyed 6,200 lawyers about their jobs and health found that the factors most frequently associated with success in the legal field, such as high income or a partner-track job at a prestigious firm, had almost zero correlation with happiness and well-being.

“However, lawyers in public-service jobs who made the least money, like public defenders or Legal Aid attorneys, were most likely to report being happy.

“Lawyers in public service jobs also drank less alcohol than their higher-income peers. And, despite the large gap in affluence, the two groups reported about equal overall satisfaction with their lives.”

Some lawyers went straight to these alternatives out of law school, others got there by exiting private practice. That path isn’t for everybody, but if you’re looking for a different option than show me the money, why not? While you’re thinking about it, consider this BigLaw partner’s case against being too enamored with the prospect of making money in the law:

“Becoming a lawyer is a great way to improve your standard of living if you come from a family of poors who thinks rich people “worked for every penny they had.” But if you are a lawyer, your income is pretty much restricted to how many hours you can work in a day. That’s no way to live.”

(“A family of poors”? Hmmm. Never heard that one before.)

Lawyers who opt for greater satisfaction for less pay are bucking a cultural norm that measures value in terms of money, which is in turn a function of hours worked — another cultural value standard. They’ve probably had their epiphanies and are on the Jerry Maguire path, and yes, as we saw last time, they will suffer for it.

And so will those close to them, as we’ll see next time.

The Culture of Law (9): Show Me The Money!

If you saw the movie Jerry Maguire, you remember the show me the money scene. Jerry has a moral epiphany, writes a middle-of-the-night manifesto, and hits the send button. He’s greeted at the office with a rousing ovation… as one colleague asks another, “How long do you give him?” His manifesto broke with the cultural status quo; he has to go. He gets fired of course, and now he’s dialing for dollars. He takes only one client with him, at the cost of everything he just gained from his awakening.

It’s funny, and if you’ve been there, painful.

I had my own show me the money moment my first day back in the office after taking the bar exam. My wife and I had escaped for 3½ weeks in the Scottish highlands and islands. The silent remoteness and stark natural beauty were disorienting at first, but in time we settled into it and returned home resolute about creating a more enriching lifestyle.

We flew back on a Saturday. On Monday morning I biked into work early, stopping to take photos of the downtown skyline and the Cathedral Basilica in the red light of the rising sun. At the office, the corporate department was in the middle of a merger on a fast track. I worked until 11:00 that night; I was the first to leave.

Welcome back. Epiphanies are nice, but duty calls. There are clients to serve and paychecks to earn. Culture wins again.

There were more epiphanies and more show me the money moments over the course of my career. I’m far from alone in that. At my CLE workshops on career and personal satisfaction, someone always brings up money. “I’m not happy,” they’ll say, “But the money is good, so I can’t change.”

Notice what just happened:  they took a cultural reality — the ability to earn a good paycheck practicing law — and turned it into a rationale for personal powerlessness — an attitude that derives from the cultural norm of resisting change we looked at earlier in this series. We saw this attitude at work in our midst a couple years back, when two-thirds of the respondents to a Colorado lawyer salary and career satisfaction survey wouldn’t recommend their jobs to someone else, but meanwhile the money was good, and 40% felt financially constrained from considering other options.

Yes you can change, I reply, but you will suffer. That’s not a challenge to dig deep or rise above, it’s a recognition of how hard it is to change our neurological cultural wiring.(See this Huffington Post video re: the difference between pain and suffering.)

Jerry Maguire suffered to get back what he gave up in his show me the money moment. We will, too. Epiphanies exact a price; we have to pay it. And one of the ways we pay is with money.

If we’re going to have epiphanies, we must deal with “show me the money.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean less money. It wasn’t that way for me in my law practice, or for most of the people I know who’ve made the break to a new law culture. Next time, we’ll look at lawyers who’ve deliberately opted for career and personal satisfaction over money. Not everyone will make that choice, but reconfiguring our relationship with money — one way or another — is a necessary stage along on the path to changing our personal response to dominant law culture.

At least we’ll be in good company. A reporter asked Rohan Dennis, winner of this summer’s USA Pro Challenge cycling race in Colorado, how he’s had such a great year. “You have to learn to suffer,” he said.

‘til next time….