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A Lawyer’s Search for Right Livelihood

Everyone knows lawyers dominate leadership positions in everything from the PTA to state and federal political offices. We are pillars of our communities, and more generous with our time and resources than just about any other profession. We are among the most ambitious people you will ever meet, which means we possess an intense desire to be of service, either to ourselves or others.

While the most self-serving among us give the profession a bad name and justify nearly every bad lawyer joke, most of us became lawyers because we genuinely want to help people. You need only speak to a class of first year law students to get a sense of the depth and breadth of their desire to have a positive impact on the world. They want to protect the environment, help the downtrodden, and defend the constitution. They want to promote the common good, and serve those who need their help. Their intelligence and enthusiasm are enough to restore even the most devout cynic’s faith in humanity.

Fast forward three short years, and many of those enthusiastic idealists will have more modest and practical ambitions. The relentless war of all against all for class rankings and the handful of “good jobs” at the “good firms” subtly grounds many people’s ambitions into the realities of practicing law and paying back five to six figures in student loans. For all but the most earnest, selfless, talented, and lucky graduates, saving the world will have to wait, or at least be confined to community service and pro bono work.

In reality, many lawyers work long hours doing tedious work that does not necessarily serve their youthful ambitions. Unfortunately, there isn’t much money or many jobs in the business of saving the world. There is, however, an unending demand for stewards of the status quo, who provide the bread and butter legal services most law firms are built upon.

This misalignment between idealistic ambitions and the practicalities of practicing law have driven many lawyers to depression, drinking or worse. But for most lawyers it simply manifests as a vague sense of dissatisfaction with their careers, and a more or less active searching for ways to find work and clients that meet their need to make money while serving at least some of their highest ideals. In some cultures this quest for living in alignment with your ethical convictions is called the search for right livelihood, and for most it is a lifelong journey or practice.

The search for right livelihood may at times call us towards abrupt changes of direction in our lives or practices; other times, we may find that subtly integrating our idealism with the realities of our practice satisfies that desire. The world needs activist lawyers fighting for truth and justice, and taking on giants. But we also need workaday lawyers doing the less glamorous tasks that keep the world going around, while embodying the highest ethical standards.

Not everyone is called to drop everything to try and save the world, but we are all beckoned to move towards a life that is in alignment with our deepest convictions. So if you can’t save the world just yet, try building a better one a moment at a time by embodying your highest values in the present moment. That may mean making big changes or small, but at the very least, it might mean engaging in simple acts of kindness, patience, and empathy with clients, colleagues, and opposing counsel. Because if you can’t change the world, you can at least change how you choose to be in it.

Booked: Why Busy Lawyers Must Learn to Say No

The old saying goes, “If you want something done ask the busiest person in the room.” Many of us have been that person at one time or another, or felt a pang of guilt or envy because we weren’t. As lawyers we are expected to burn the candle at both ends. Successful lawyers not only do their work and handle their cases, but are also active in their community and profession. As every rainmaker knows, the key to bringing in new business is contacts and visibility! However, what is seldom mentioned is that the price of this success is often organizational burnout, stress, anxiety, and depression.

Of all the mindless behaviors a lawyer can engage in this is by far the one I am most guilty of. I became a lawyer because I wanted to be of service to others, so for many years when someone asked me to join an organization, board or accept an appointment, my immediate and unqualified response was, “Yes!” Well it didn’t take long for those 10 to 12 hour days at the office to be followed by hours of lunch, evening, and weekend meetings. Before long nearly every minute of my days, weeks, and weekends were booked. I was the busiest person in the room  – and I was miserable!

An inflection point occurred a year or so ago when several prominent lawyers in my community unexpectedly passed away. I recall reading their obituaries, which were impressive by any standard. They were filled with good deeds and professional accolades. Both men had achieved professional successes I was aspiring to, and I felt a subtle pang of envy. Then it occurred to me to look into their causes of death, since the obituaries didn’t say. A little investigation revealed the heart breaking truth, both men who were at the peaks of their careers, had the same cause of death: suicide.

Yes. I had been envying the overworked, overextended, and over stressed lives of men who themselves saw no escape from their burdens save death. That was the last time I envied the busiest person in the room, or in that case, the busiest person to have left the room.

We will never know why those men decided to take their lives. But I know I saw a future I didn’t want. I was overextended, miserable, and suffering from organizational burnout. My burdens were heavy, and it never felt like I would have enough time to do it all. I was miserable, and for the most part I had chosen to be that way. I said yes, when I wanted to say no. I gave time and energy, when I had none left to give. I had packed my life with obligations, and squeezed out every opportunity for joy.

I’m still in the process of making room for joy, but it started with learning to say, “No.” Now I try to reserve my yeses for things that bring me excitement. I put recreation in my calendar and make it immovable, because each of us owes our life the duty of joy.

Lawyers Need New Idols

Mindless Lawyers abound in the legal profession, but none are more revered than the workaholic. They are the ambitious associates willing to sacrifice everything to make partner, the mid level workhorses who never take lunch, and the septuagenarian partners who will retire when they’re dead. Other lawyers who fall short of their zeal talk about them with a mixture of awe and envy. They are the lawyers many of us aspire to be, and the cause of much human suffering.

If you want to understand the psychology and soul of a profession, look to its idols and role models. Yes, our profession includes great leaders and humanitarians; selfless public servants and social justice crusaders. But these leaders belong more to the public as a whole than to the legal profession in particular.

The more influential idols and role models for the workaday lawyer have their oil paintings hanging in law office lobbies and board rooms. They are the founding and managing partners of mid to large sized firms, who set the culture and standard for their organizations. Stories float around the water cooler of how they once billed 300 hours in a month, and slept in their office two to three days a week. These are the myths and legends to which young lawyers are told they should aspire, and the standard by which they are judged.

These are the old myths and idols the legal profession must put to rest. The world is changing, and hard work is now less important than being smart and creative. There is a surplus of lawyers, and automation is making many of the routine low skill jobs done by entry level associates obsolete. Document reviews that once took ten associates a week can now be done in the same time by a single skilled lawyer equipped with the right software. Thus, the success and profitability of law firms is increasingly less dependent on living in the office than the efficient and creative utilization of technology.

We need new myths and idols in the legal profession, that match technological trends and nurture human thriving. So instead of revering the lawyers who sleep in their offices, our role models should come to be the lawyers who efficiently meet their clients’ needs while living good lives that nourish their passion and creativity.