Friday, October 07, 2005

Law as Life, Part One

(I'm optimistically thinking I'll make this into an occasional series).

Evan Schaeffer recently posted about BigLaw Associate's blog and quoted an excerpt from a post of his criticizing BigLaw firms. BLA dislikes -- to put it mildly -- life at his firm and is contemplating a change of scenery in under a year (nine months, to be symbolic). However, in my two brief weeks as a big firm associate, I have yet to see what all the fuss is about.

Basically, everyone complains about working for law firms. Forget that you get paid an obscene amount of money for your work. Forget the prestige of putting (e.g.) Skadden, Arps on your resume. Forget the arguable experience (or, at the very least, abundant resources) you'll be able to take advantage of (this experience is what BLA takes issue with in the above-linked post). People eventually become irritated with the not-insubstantial demands on their time and attention. Sure, it makes sense to want more free time -- everyone who has ever lived in the working world wants more free time. And studies show that the less free time you have, the less you enjoy that free time. So it makes sense that people might reach a point where they decide that the money and other intangible benefits of firm life aren't enough anymore.

But there are two problems that I see with the criticisms I've read and heard. First is that some social researchers and economists are suggesting that we actually have more free time now than in the past. That is to say, people stress themselves out. We don't actually face a time crunch; we just psyche ourselves into thinking that we do. This is particularly interesting in light of the high volume of complaints lawyers have about their lives (see, for instance, some of the quotes and findings in this voluminous study). Maybe it's just that lawyers like to complain. Litigators in particular are trained arguers -- when we don't have anything to argue about we get bored, so we make up our own arguments. Perhaps, though, it's something else. Law schools, for instance, are highly competitive -- even the less-prestigious ones. While technically one need only prepare for a year before attending law school (registering with LSDAS, registering for and taking the LSAT by December at the absolute latest, and sending in law school applications), the psychological preparation needed is in essence much more extensive. Particularly in the humanities and social sciences, a bachelor's degree these days is little more than preparation for graduate school. With the possible exceptions of economics, sociology, or education, a liberal arts degree guarantees little more than meeting the prerequisite for entry-level general management jobs. Even those with business degrees often find it difficult to procure employment that puts to any real use the skills they've spent four years learning. So those with an ambitious eye on their future begin preparing early in their college careers, and often even in high school.

While initially it seems like a good thing that young people begin thinking so early about their futures, when taken in the aggregate it translates into a building problem for society. The struggle to gain a competitive advantage now begins as early as elementary school. With competition comes failure. With competition in every facet of life comes the perception of numerous failures where no failure has actually occurred. As an intelligent and competitive law student, I myself fell many times into this insidious trap of unhappiness. In this sense, working hard in the law is unlike working hard in other industries. Other occupations don't in a uniform, consistent manner, attract ambitious and accomplished people with the same rigor as the law and its related fields, like politics. So perhaps by earning our law degrees we've merely handed ourselves over to the merciless downward spiral of disappointment and dejection. In which case, perhaps the complaining about law firms makes perfect sense. On some objective level, they're no worse than any other difficult desk job. On a more personal level, however, they're the storage room for the crown jewels in the lawyer's individual hell. At a later time, I'll submit my assessment of firm versus school life, because in my vast experience I have some, I think, pointed things to say about that.

The second problem is that in many cases it's simply untrue. Yes, you work hard in a law firm -- but people work hard everywhere. Most people, in fact, would likely answer that they would prefer a job that consistently challenges them to one resembling, for instance, Peter Gibbons'. Indeed, there is room for the argument that Americans are better off working hard (though, admittedly, this assessment still must meet the challenge posed in the preceding paragraph -- that is to say, happiness derived from satisfying perverse incentives might not qualify as genuine happiness). Even if no real good comes from hard work, at least on a comparative level there's no particular reason to be unhappy. If you want a decent life in America, you're going to have to work a fair amount. That's just the way our country is. Another uniquely American trait is the inability to feel contentment. Perhaps that's our problem. The grass is always greener on the other side, for everyone -- lawyers, accustomed to hearing themselves talk, are just more vocal about their own yellowed lawns.

Certainly there are other legitimate reasons to leave firm life. The work can be unsatisfying -- or, indeed, the feeling of working for "the man" can induce guilt, particularly when defending large, rich companies against people who may have legitimate claims. This article ends with a suggestion that the key to increasing happiness may lie not in ensuring less work, but in restructuring our work lives to mean something. Still, most complaints (at least the complaints I hear the most) center around how central a part of lawyers' lives their work becomes. I contend, however, that this is entirely the lawyer's own fault. Just as I, numerous times, made the decision to allow myself to be dragged into the miserable dungeon of self-resentment (i.e., letting myself believe that anything in law school mattered), so lawyers are daily plagued with the difficult decision of whether to latch onto the unavoidable negative aspects of work, or remind themselves that they are not merely what they do. Making matters worse, the arrested adolescence many of them (us) suffer from only subjects us to greater pressure from our peers to compete, fight, win, and clouds our rational judgment, causing us to forget that other things matter, too.

If I'm right, and I usually am, then the only thing that makes a law firm uniquely unbearable is the embarrassingly obvious fact: it's full of lawyers.


At October 7, 2005 at 9:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At October 8, 2005 at 12:48 AM, Blogger odderie said...

Please see the following article "On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, Unethical Profession.",_Healthy_and_Ethical.pdf

At October 9, 2005 at 9:17 PM, Blogger Gus said...

Say it ain't so, that you're becoming one of the biglaw apologists! Well, perhaps you are one of the lawyers who are happy with the biglaw life. Many are.

But one thing that you--as does anyone proposing a theory--must do is vet your theory against empirical data. If they don't match, something's amiss. In my life, outside of the lawschool context, I have had opportunity to know lawyers in several walks of life. Every government and PI lawyer that I've known has been satisfied with his or her life; every firm lawyer I've known has hated his or her life; and in-house consel/corporate lawyers have been a mixed bag.

While your arguments do make sense, and are likely true in your case (far be it from me to tell you what makes you happy!), I don't think that they hold in the broader context. Of course, I'm heavily biased, being one of the few from Chicago who has planned from the start not to--and is indeed not going to--work for a firm. But the biggest thing that I noticed during the various first year talks that the OCS made available was that people working for the gov't and PI always sounded like they were describing their jobs in earnest, both the good and the bad; whereas the speakers from firms always sounded like they were trying to justify why they didn't mind their jobs, to the point that I could never tell if they hoped that we or they would believe what they were saying. That's what I mean when I describe a concern of your post as an appologia.

This isn't to criticise you or your assessment of biglaw life--you were one of my favourite people around here and I do hope that you're happy; it's to criticise, in good Chicago style, your argument through another lens.

Though your life is also a valuable data point in my greedy econometric plot to empirically challenge every sound theory that I can; so I whole heartedly encourage that you make this an occasional series.


At October 10, 2005 at 10:27 AM, Blogger Micah said...

I had to snicker at the term "biglaw." The only time anyone used that term at my law school was when talking about one of the student groups - BIGLaw (Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian group).

Glad you're enjoying work, so far. I don't know if I could do it - I enjoy my free time too much and am one of those who would make a trade-off, moneywise.

At October 10, 2005 at 1:07 PM, Blogger The Law Fairy said...

odderie -- very interesting article. I love reading things like that.

Gus -- thanks for the compliment -- I always liked you too. One of my favorite musical pics is of you and your "twin" :)

I don't know that I would call myself a biglaw apologist. And I'm not sure yet that I'm happy in this life. But I think that for right now it's working for me. One thing I particularly appreciate is that I feel needed and respected here -- a feeling I'm beginning to realize was sadly lacking for much of law school. So in that sense it's comparative praise.

I don't know a whole lot of government lawyers, so I can't do much to rebut your point about them. In keeping with my lawyers-hate-lawyers hypothesis, however, perhaps it's merely that the path they've taken puts firm lawyers in close quarters with REAL lawyers ("real" meaning people whose sole or primary focus is expensive client work, rather than, for instance, administrative or legislative tasks) more than do government or public interest jobs. Or perhaps gov't and charitable lawyers feel "better" about themselves as people by virtue of the work they do, thus relieving the effects of having to deal with other lawyers.

Being a philosopher rather than a sociologist, these are just my initial thoughts, and I'd have to do more research to, as you say, rebut your points with more than insightful thinking :)

As to firm life itself, then, it's not so much that I think it's necessarily a better life; I just think it gets a bad rap. It's a convenient blame point on the social radar (much like big corporations, a few of which I myself am guilty of vehemently despising). I'm not convinced, however, that there's anything so unique about working for a big firm, versus working as a lawyer in general, or working as any other random office-dweller, that makes it inherently worse. Perhaps, even, non-firm lawyers feel inherently better given the notorious rep that firms have -- sort of the self-fulfilling prophecy aspect of expecting to be happy/unhappy.

Hopefully I can come up with enough thoughtful -- and empirically-backed -- points to post more on this later.

Micah -- hehehe. Ours was Outlaw, which I personally think is a fantastic name. It's clever on several levels. I do wish I had more free time, but I wish that even when I'm on vacation. I must admit, though, I do miss my Sims 2 families. And the money-for-free time thing might work if my credit cards weren't completely maxed out :0)


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