Will You Be a Happy Lawyer? Why You Should Pay Attention to Economics and Other “Misguided Metrics”

Former Kirkland & Ellis partner Steven Harper, in a typically interesting piece, talks about lawyer satisfaction (especially satisfaction among lawyers working at large firms) in his recent article in The American Lawyer (comparative data for other lawyers was provided by The ABA Journal).  Harper’s point wasn’t really about the numbers but rather that your happiness in various legal environments will depend on what kind of person you are.

While the career satisfaction of large firm lawyers was somewhat less than the satisfaction of other legal practitioners, Harper correctly notes that that has less to do with the intrinsic features of large law firms than with the match between the available jobs and the people taking them.  More specifically, I’d say, they have to do with the mismatch between expectation and reality.

Much of one’s life as a lawyer, Harper notes, doesn’t have that much to do with the actual practice of law but with the business of practicing law.  Harper thinks that’s too bad; I’m less sure of that.  Referring primarily to large firm work, Harper thinks that the emphases on business—including “billings, billable hours, associate/partner leverage to maximize short-term equity partner profits”— are part of “misguided metrics.”

Well, maybe, but regardless of what legal practice you’re in, you have to make a living (and you’ll probably have significant educational debt obligations).  Moreover, at some level of every organization, whether government, solo practice, in-house-counsel or small-, medium- or large-firm practice—someone is setting policy, revenue targets, benefits and salaries, whether short-term or long-term.  You have to have the electricity to run the train and keep it moving in the direction you want.

It’s true that at law firms, those metrics are closer to the surface and have more obvious impact on when a lawyer can go home at night.  But the economics being closer to the surface doesn’t change the fact that they’re everywhere.  Then the question is whether you’re the kind of person (Harper calls them MBA-types) who likes those reminders, or doesn’t.  Most important, it’s a question for every lawyer of whether he or she understood what they were getting into before committing to a certain kind of practice.

In my experience, associates at large firms (of which I was one for quite a while) divide along the satisfied/dissatisfied axis depending most on whether they understood “the deal” before accepting employment.  That can be hard to do because employers sometimes shade their demands (or may not even understand them fully, thinking themselves less economically-driven than they in fact are).

Billable hours are a good example of that.  Even in firms that don’t have billable hour “minimums,” you shouldn’t be deceived into thinking that billable hours don’t matter—they’re at the very least proxies for how much senior lawyers want to work with less-senior lawyers and the market demand for a lawyer’s specialty.  The state of the economy matters, too, although different firms have different tolerances for economic downturns, as we’ve seen in the last couple of years.  In short, all the things that you’d think matter—from business considerations to political considerations—do matter.  And the more attention you pay to those factors, regardless of what an interviewer or two may tell you, the more your expectations will match reality, and the happier you’re likely to be in the position you do accept.

Much as I like Harper’s work, I think calling the non-legal components of legal practice “misguided metrics” may be a counterproductive way for a law applicant to approach her or his job (vetting these and other metrics carefully with clients when they’re considering which kinds of employment they want, and at which organization or firm, is a vital part of the work I do at Advise-In).  The closer you attend to those metrics from the start, the less likely they’ll catch you by surprise—and make you unhappy—when you actually start working.  And that’s pretty much independent of what kind of legal job you choose to take.

I have a small firm practitioner friend who loves, just loves his job.  A friend of his, on the other hand, is a solo practitioner who hates his job.  My friend’s assessment of the difference: my friend thought through the business of his practice while the solo practitioner didn’t.  One knew what he was getting to, the other didn’t.  In this case, simple as that.

And it’s not just economics.  Think of how unhappy federal regulatory lawyers who believed in the positive function of regulation were during the Bush administration.  Or how unhappy regulatory lawyers who disdain regulation are during the Obama administration.  You may not want to think about the economics or policy aspects of legal practice regularly, but you should know what they are, so that when you see significant shifts on the horizon, you’ll be prepared to move on, rather than stay in a job that’s about to be eliminated or in which you’re likely to soon be unhappy.

Now, you may not be the kind of person who like to have those non-lawyering components of your practice close to the surface.  That will lead you toward some legal employment options rather than others.  But to not think about the aspects of your job that aren’t just the practice of law (whether economics or policy direction) carefully before you start is a mistake.  They are facts that change in often-predictable ways.  You’ll be better-prepared, more adaptable, more flexible, and more satisfied, wherever you practice law, if you’ve thought about extra-legal metrics before you start and at least occasionally while you’re working.  Those metrics aren’t “misguided” but the solid (or less solid) ground on which your law practice is built.  And the way to avoid your being misguided is to pay attention to them.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on October 2, 2010.

2 Responses to “Will You Be a Happy Lawyer? Why You Should Pay Attention to Economics and Other “Misguided Metrics””

  1. […] If a general trend, the change in interview focus is probably for the best, if (as my mother drilled into me) honesty is the best policy.  In the end (actually from your first day at a new job), from an employer’s perspective, an employee’s success is always based on what the employee can do for the organization.  It’s better to have that out in the open at the outset.  Yes, bright law students should have been able to figure it out anyway, but some didn’t and expected a different environment from what they got; the disconnect between what a new lawyer expected (whether or not abetted by an employer) and what the legal work-world really was like contributed a fair amount to lawyer dissatisfaction. […]

  2. […] the job for a long time are generally more satisfied with it (which helps explain the relatively lower satisfaction of large firm lawyers, since large firms are bottom-heavy and many new associates accept positions planning to stay for a […]

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