In a 1955 essay in The Economist, Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a British historian, described a phenomenon that would come to be called “Parkinson’s Law.” His key insight: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, if something must be done in a day, it will get done in a day. If something must be done in a year, it will get done in a year. Work takes as long as we allow for it.
If you believe that achieving success as an associate takes 3,000 hours of work per year, then it will. It’s Parkinson’s Law of being a lawyer. Working hard, working long hours, working late into the night — too many of us accept the inevitability of a life driven primarily, if not exclusively, by work.
Author Seth Godin has remarked on the fact that lawyers, in particular, find a way to fill the vacuum of their time with work:
“Busy corporate lawyers spend 12 hours a day at work, and somehow, are busy the entire time. It’s easy to imagine that they could get their work done (most days) in 8 hours, but the container they’re using is size XL, and so the work expands to fit.”
Stop and read that quote again. Is your immediate reaction to dismiss it as the ramblings of an ignorant idealist non-lawyer, or the considered commentary of a thoughtful outsider to the profession? I hope it’s the latter because Godin is onto something: When it comes to the pain of the legal profession, much of it comes from self-inflicted wounds.
The Roots of Dissatisfaction Among Young Lawyers
As a hardworking associate, it’s easy to pin the root causes of career dissatisfaction on someone or something other than yourself: a partner or client, your law firm or the profession, more broadly. But there’s clearly more to the story.
Money does not seem to be the issue. Those earning $160,000 per year as first-year lawyers at top firms are battling many of the same issues as those earning less. And while firms still have a long way to go to adapt to the changing preferences of talent in the marketplace, many are taking steps to offer more flexible work schedules. The surprising thing is that associates don’t seem interested. A recent survey by the Diversity & Flexibility Alliance found that while more law firms are offering perks and programs intended to enable associates to work a more flexible schedule, such as the ability to work remotely or craft a more convenient work schedule, only 8.8 percent of associates are taking advantage of these programs.
What Makes a Fulfilling Legal Career? What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us
So what gives? I think the answer lies in a fundamental lack of awareness and understanding of some principles that add perspective to what makes a career — in the law or otherwise — fulfilling and satisfying. Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Who am I to quibble with Mr. Twain? But here goes anyway.
We don’t understand what makes us valuable. Yes, law firms place a high value on billable hours. But they place a higher value on excellence. Ask any partner what they’d prefer: An associate who bills 2,500 hours per year and does average work, or one who bills 1,800 hours and does exceptional work. It may not seem obvious, but if you can make a partner’s job easier, give them peace of mind, and make them look good in the process, you’ll be considered invaluable even if your billable hours don’t stack up against others.
It’s easy to bill hours — you just need to be busy. It’s far harder to be valuable — it requires focus and intensity. But if you can muster the intensity required, you can maximize the results you produce, and therefore dramatically increase your perceived value. Being valuable provides leverage for all types of things, such as confidently requesting a flexible work schedule during a time in your life when you really need it.
We don’t know what to say no to. It’s fashionable in thought leadership circles these days to extol the virtues of saying “no” more often. This is good advice, as saying “yes” to everything leads to being overwhelmed, and creates lack of focus and dispersion of effort. But this advice requires context: We need to learn what to say no to.
Yes, we should say no to work requests if we can’t possibly take on more. But we need to start with low-hanging fruit — saying no to more trivial, non-work requests that we too readily say yes to. We say yes to lunch, yes to chitchat around the water cooler, and yes to the distractions of social media and the internet. We say yes to happy hour, which leads to dinner and more drinks, which results in us to saying no to our alarm clock and an early, productive start to our days.
By learning to say no to what doesn’t matter, and yes to what does, you can make room for the deep work required to make a big impact while working a normal schedule (even by non-lawyer standards).
We don’t think long term. The typical associate treats their job as a job. But the key to success lies in treating it as a journey. And in most cases, it’s a long one. We burn out because we’re always sprinting, when, instead, we should be seeking more balance, and giving ourselves time to recover. Just as top athletes train in intervals allowing for intensity and recovery, we must do the same if we expect to make it over the long term of a successful legal career.
In almost every professional endeavor, it takes years of practice, persistence and patience to gain mastery. Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, once said, “Timing, perseverance and 10 years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.” There are no shortcuts. There’s not some trick or hack that will have any meaningful impact on your career or the satisfaction you derive from it. We come to enjoy what we’re good at. And we’re good at what we practice over the long term.
We don’t pursue enough (or any) outside interests. Shortly after I started my own law firm, I had lunch with a practice group leader at one of the top firms in the city. He was a bit of a local legend, powerful and successful. I was young — in my early thirties — and he was at the tail end of his career and approaching retirement. I asked him what he intended to do with his newfound freedom. “I plan to work,” he said, without irony or a hint of sarcasm. He went on to explain that he didn’t have any hobbies because he spent the last 40 years focused solely on his practice. “Work is my hobby,” he said. I think this speaks for itself, but in case you need the meaning of this anecdote distilled more clearly: Work will take over if you let it, and if all you have is work, you have very little.
Is Unhappiness as a Lawyer a Fait Accompli?
In 2014, Leigh McMullan Abramson, an Ivy League law grad and former Big Law litigator, wrote a piece for The Atlantic in which she discussed the fact that the law is the only profession that has spawned such a large cottage industry devoted to helping members of the professions quit. She highlights all of the “specialized career counselors, blogs, books, and websites offering comfort and guidance to wannabe ex-Esqs.”
Citing her own experience, Abramson writes:
“I spent my first year as lawyer holed up in a conference room sorting piles of documents wearing rubber covers on my fingertips that looked like tiny condoms. Eventually, I was trusted with more substantive tasks, writing briefs and taking depositions. But I had no appetite for conflict and found it hard to care about the interests I was serving. I realized I had never seriously considered whether I was cut out to be a lawyer, much less a corporate litigator. After a few years, I just wanted out, but I had no idea where to begin.”
Abramson argues that many lawyers aren’t cut out for their career because they entered the profession somewhat mindlessly. They ended up in law school by default as a result of a decision, she explains, “made for reasons having nothing to do with the actual practice of law and without diligence about whether the profession is really a fit.”
That may be true for some, but I think it’s a fairly cynical view. It suggests that, for many associates, career dissatisfaction is a fait accompli. I believe that, regardless of whether you consider the profession is a “fit,” there are things you can do to make your legal career more enjoyable and satisfying over the long term.
Don’t accept the notion that, when it comes to life as a lawyer, you just need to grin and bear it. Instead, grab hold of your career, and by doing so discover a life rich with significance and meaning both inside and outside of the office. It all starts with looking in the mirror and embracing the fundamental truth that no one is more responsible for your happiness than the person staring back at you.