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Finding Satisfaction in the Law: An Introduction

By Mark Byers

"What is work? What is beyond work? Even some seers see this is not right. Know therefore what is work, and also know what is wrong work. And know also of a work that is silence: mysterious is the path of work."
-----------The Bhagavad Gita

Not so mysterious is the path of this column. Here are some of the assumptions and goals behind this Career Advice section. We assume that finding satisfaction in the legal profession is always possible; that it is a matter of "seek and ye shall find," rather than "trick or treat." We know that many lawyers wake in the morning glad to be going to work and that many have the additional pleasure of having found their jobs in a purposeful search. They differ from the lawyer who stumbled into a new job and later told us that she was "so happy (she) couldn't believe she was a lawyer." They never gave up faith that a life in the law would serve some of their deepest needs and aspirations. Our work counseling attorneys allows us, also, to keep the faith. In this column we expect to be candid about problems besetting the legal profession, and we hope that participants in the forum will be equally frank, but we're not erecting a web site wailing wall. We hope to be a magnet for empowering discussions of professional satisfaction and the means by which it can be achieved.

What of your own life in the law? How would you gauge your own professional satisfaction? By what standards? It might help to know that about 25% of attorneys are "neutral to dissatisfied" with their work, while the remaining 75% say they are satisfied; or that the single most frequently cited cause of satisfaction is "intellectual challenge." Yet, what does intellectual challenge mean to a lawyer, and why do many "satisfied" lawyers never less contemplate changing jobs? Although instructive, statistics are as descriptive as the coefficient of friction for an elephant sliding down Mount Everest; they don't quite capture what its all about.

So, consider Ruth, who like her biblical namesake found herself a long way from home, "weeping in the alien corn." Ruth always wanted to be a lawyer. Her father was a sole practitioner in a small town in upstate New York; he reminded her of the lawyer in the movie "To Kill a Mockingbird". After her mother died, she used to cook dinner while he sat at the kitchen table, telling her about his cases. In college she was on the debating team, majored in political science and was captain of a very competitive basketball team. She spent her junior year in Italy, where she became interested in architecture. However, she stuck to her goals and applied to the best law schools, which she defined as the ones with the highest rating in the annual US News and World Report.

Despite high expectations, she hated law school from day one and almost left after the first month. She worked for her father the first summer and he convinced her to return, reminding her of the substantial debt already incurred for the first year, of her long standing ambition and the prestige of the school. The second year was not as terrible - boredom replaced antipathy as her worst experience, and some of the classes were actually involving, especially those that had "law and ..." in their titles. She signed up for on-campus interviews, even though she had no interest in any of the firms or their work, which seemed far removed from her father's life as a sole practitioner. On the other hand, he seemed very excited by her opportunities. She received one offer and accepted it. The work that summer was uninteresting but relatively easy, and the pay was terrific. When offered a permanent position, she felt relieved that she had received a vote of confidence from the profession and immediately accepted the offer. During her third year, she worked in an immigration law clinical, and despite having no particular interest in immigration, found it her most satisfying law school experience, spending nearly all her school hours at the clinic. She took the bar and began working at the firm. Having enjoyed being an advocate, she expressed an interest in litigation and was assigned to work primarily on insurance defense cases.

She has been at the firm now for three years. She works until after seven every night and many weekends, and recently has been billing 190 hours a month. She was relieved to find out that although personal matters are secondary to work requirements, honeymoons were not subject to that rule. Nonetheless, she is beginning to wonder where parenthood fits in; her husband wonders too, for he is a lawyer in a similar firm. While some of her work is challenging, and she takes pride in her research, writing and negotiation skills, she has little interest in the subject matter of the cases. She never got much feedback, and now gets little except assurances that everyone is happy with her. Well, almost everyone; one partner regularly screams at her and often will not allow her the time to attend the in-house training sessions. The old boy atmosphere in the upper reaches of the firm is oppressive, but oddly, she gets along well with most of them and realizes she is in danger of making partner. Her father is very proud of her. Her husband is supportive but is frustrated by her disposition, which ranges from a high of melancholy to a low of despair. They are looking to buy a house, and he reminds her that this might not be a good time to just quit. She has had no success with headhunters, who offer more of the same. She is trying to remember why she became a lawyer. When she can, she takes gourmet cooking classes and consumes far too much of her homework. She often eats alone. Her husband gets home even later than she does.

No one will share all of Ruth's concerns, and many would even be happy in her situation. However, as a composite figure she does raise many of the issues which will be the stuff of this column and are important to finding satisfaction in the law. Posed as questions, these include:

  • How do I evaluate my present job?
  • Can I improve my present circumstances or move?
  • What right do I have to "want it all"? How enjoyable should work be any way?
  • How much of a personal life am I entitled to?
  • I'm so busy, how can I discover my options?
  • If I don't stay in a firm, what are my transferable skills?
  • How do I get the training which will help me to keep my options open?
  • What are the options in non-law firm and non-traditional career paths?
  • What is my "constituency" as an attorney: are my skills an end in themselves or means to serving a particular sector in life?
  • Can I afford a significant change, economically or in terms of personal dislocation?
  • How do I bridge the gap between law school and practice?
  • How did I become a lawyer, anyway; what is the most important about being in this profession?
  • How do I begin the process of change, other than just answering ads?

In coming columns we will address this last question, looking at the steps we think effective in mounting a job search.
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