The Street Smart Law Blog

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  • Frederick L Shelton

When Being a Successful Lawyer Equals Misery

   According an article in the Toronto Star, the most "Successful" lawyers are more likely to be the most miserable and even suffer from severe, mental health problems. I don't think this comes as a surprise to anyone in the profession. I've met so many attorneys who looked "successful" while they were going through their 3rd divorce and fighting over kids who resented or even hated them.

   When attorneys start out as associates, they work harder than most professionals. Racking up 70 - 80 hour work weeks is not uncommon but they persist because of the proverbial "Light at the end of the tunnel" called Partnership.

   Then they become partners. They've reached the top of the food chain and still have other people telling them how to run their practice, what to charge their clients and lo and behold, they're still working ridiculous hours.  Oftentimes they don't like or even trust many of the people with whom they work or to whom they have to report.

   People in other professions take month long vacations with family or loved ones. They get to enjoy a lifestyle that is congruent with their financial success. In contrast, I've talked with partners who actually bragged about not having had a vacation in years, as if that were a badge of honor.

   These partners often have incredibly expensive cars in which they sit miserably (after the novelty of newness has worn off) during long commutes. They have boats they rarely see. They have timeshares and condos that they lend to friends, more often than they use themselves. Why?

   Simply put, it's hard to walk away from the money. Worse, they're often unaware that it's possible to make the same money without the stress, bureaucracy and workaholic lifestyle.

   The happiest attorneys I know have what psychologist Julian Rotter termed a greater "Locus of Control". Both in perception and reality, they have far greater control over their practice and their personal lives. I know attorneys who are making close to seven figures a year and yet, still have dinner with family every evening. They take long romantic vacations at least occasionally, and personally bill less than fifteen hundred hours a year.

   Would they be making double their current income, if they'd stayed with their previous firms? In rare cases yes but ironically, the people who find a firm that affords them greater happiness, oftentimes end up making equal or even more money. Times have changed.

   BigLaw has a long history of convincing its members that the price of success is sacrificing the things that are most important in life. That's not success. It's misery, alcoholism, abandonment and eventually regret. But in order to justify their own existence, they need validation of it from others who they can convince to emulate it.

   Those who walk away remind me of Anne Hathaway's character in "The Devil Wears Prada" (a movie every man with a daughter will inevitably be forced to see, several times). Near the end of the movie, Meryl Streep makes clear that Hathaway is becoming just like Streep's character - an often brutal and tyrannical business figure whose personal life is the mirror opposite of the glitz and glamour projected in public. Hathaway walks away and is happier for it.

   While there are a lot of great firms to work for, no firm is worth your health, your family or your mental & emotional well-being. Fortunately things are changing for lawyers. Making high six figure or even seven figure incomes is no longer restricted to a small group of  firms.  Alternative Platform Firms, boutiques and even a few of the most progressive AmLaw's are reexamining their corporate culture, work environments etc. and offering their people a chance to have professional and financially successful careers, as well as more balance in their lives.

   There is indeed, light at the end of the tunnel.

Frederick Shelton

CEO Shelton & Steele LLC

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