Lawyers have never made more money and never been so unhappy. A couple of months ago a young lawyer I am coaching sent me a link to an American Lawyer article titled: “Midlevel Survey Shows Associates Eyeing the Door” One of the main points in the article is that young lawyers are less interested in making partner than they used to be. They see partners in their firms who are doing well, but are miserable at the same time. They also see partners in their firms lose their equity partner status.
Some time ago, an article written by Jonathan Clements appeared in the Wall Street Journal titled: “Rich, Successful-and Miserable: Research Probes Midlife Angst”. The article mentions that “numerous studies have found our happiness level through our lives follows a U-Shape with folks becoming increasingly dissatisfied as they approach their 40s and then bouncing back from there.” Many experts believe that in middle age when people are at the peak of their career and have kids, time is a scarce resource. While an increase in salary gives an initial boost, soon after there is a feeling of dissatisfaction again. Clements states that the article indicates that experts sometimes refer to this as the “hedonic treadmill” or “hedonic adaptation,” meaning we rapidly adapt to improvements and thus feel no better off.
What can be done? The author points to research suggesting that we can boost happiness by “counting our blessings.” Second, we need to think about how we spend our spare time. Studies suggest that the activities be enriching and challenging. That is clearly consistent with “flow” activities. Third, research indicates we need to cultivate friends. My own research indicates we need to focus on inner fulfillment more than outward rewards.
In 1999 Professor Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi (pronounced `Me-hi Chicksent-me-hiee’) wrote an article in the “American Psychologist titled “If We Are So Rich, Why Aren’t We Happy.” He points out that material rewards, which people value so highly, do not necessarily provide the happiness expected from them because of the well-documented escalation of expectations. If people strive for a certain level of affluence thinking it will make them happy, when they reach it they will already be hankering for the next level. Second, people evaluate their possessions, not in terms of what they need to live comfortably, but in comparison with those who have the most. Third, material rewards alone are not sufficient to make us happy. Czikszentmihalyi points out those other conditions like family, friends and having time to reflect and pursue diverse interests are related to happiness. Given the scarcity of time, there is an inherent conflict in going after more material rewards and spending time with family and friends.
In addition to the American Lawyer article, plenty has been written in recent years about the growing dissatisfaction of lawyers with their careers. In an article appearing in the Vanderbilt Law Review, “On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession,” Patrick J. Schiltz paints a fairly bleak picture of big firm life in our profession. He points to studies showing lawyers are increasingly depressed, suffering from anxiety, alcoholism and drug abuse. He notes that while the empirical data is sparse, there is also some indication that the divorce rate among lawyers is higher than the rate of other professionals including doctors. Although he noted there is limited information available it appears the physical health of lawyers is not much better than their mental health.
After discussing the health issues, Professor Schlitz then discusses studies showing the unhappiness of lawyers. A RAND study of California lawyers shows that only half would become lawyers if they had it to do again. A study of North Carolina lawyers reveals that one quarter would not become lawyers if they had it to do again. With the exception of a Chicago study, all of the surveys reveal a substantial decline in lawyer satisfaction. The lawyers who are the most dissatisfied are the ones working for large law firms.
Why are lawyers so dissatisfied and why are lawyers in large firms more dissatisfied than lawyers in smaller firms? Professor Schlitz states: “In every study of career satisfaction of lawyers of which I am aware, in every book or article about the woes of the legal profession that I have read, and in every conversation about life as a practicing lawyer that I have heard, lawyers complain about the long hours they have to work.” There is no doubt that billable hours have increased over the time I have practiced law. Surveys show it and I have experienced it.
These long hours are thought to take away from family life and personal life. Professor Schlitz believes lawyers bill two hours for every three hours they spend at work. In other words, to bill 2000 hours, a lawyer would expect to work 3000 hours. I believe there is no real set formula like that. I can’t remember ever billing two hours for every three hours I worked. If a lawyer is working on a few large matters, he or she is likely to have a higher percentage of billable hours to total hours than a lawyer who has two-three pages of time entries a day.
Professor Schlitz argues that money is the driver that causes lawyers to work long hours and to ultimately be unhappy. Yet, as the American Lawyer article points out, pay is a retention tool for associates. In addition, law firms seem to focus on increasing profits per partner and continue to increase associate compensation. If the firm is compensated mostly by the hour, the only way to continue increasing profits per partner is to increase hours, increase rates or decrease the number of partners. Most large law firms do at least the first two and an increasing number of firms do the third. As a result, I often hear associates say: “I have to get my hours,” because that is how their performance is primarily measured. If they do not get their hours they will be let go. Later they speak of having no life other than at the office.
Lawyers who are focused on “getting hours” or increasing “profits per partner” are hardly “in the zone.” Lawyers who are focused on building a career, becoming a better lawyer and finding innovative ways to better serve their clients are far more likely to be in the zone and far more likely to enjoy what they are doing. To quote Winston Churchill: “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”