That love does not come naturally to many lawyers. How do you love a job that requires you to spend untold hours working on documents rendered in turgid prose or sparring with opponents over a few choice words in an agreement? To me, it takes unimaginable patience and a preternatural obsession for details that would drive most normal people batty.
Maybe being batty helps in law. It seems that some of the happiest lawyers in Big Law are ones with unbalanced lives.
Consider this from Major Lindsey & Africa's survey on partner compensation, done in conjunction with ALM Media (click here and here for posts about the survey): The group with the largest percentage (34 percent) of "very satisfied" partners also reported the highest number of billable hours. This happy troop billed 2,401 or more hours in 2011—which seems utterly insane for a bunch of partners. In contrast, only 23 percent of those who billed less than 1,500 hours and 26 percent of those who billed 1,501 to 1,800 hours gave a "very satisfied" rating about their compensation.
Are these high billers happy because they are also making a crazy amount of money? Perhaps. But I believe they are working like dogs because they enjoy it too.
That's a point that New Yorker contributor (and former reporter for The American Lawyer) James Stewart recently made. In The New York Times's Dealbook, Stewart recounts the time he worked as an associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore almost 36 years ago. In his nostalgic, almost elegiac essay, Stewart describes a much simpler time when first-year associates made $16,500 a year and clients were far more docile:
One of my tasks was to organize the billing records for the senior partner I worked for. But all the client got was a simple statement, rendered in elegant script, “for professional services rendered,” followed by a large number. I once asked the partner if clients ever demanded a more detailed breakdown or questioned the sum. He paused as if that were a novel idea. “That’s not the kind of client we’d want to have,” he replied.
All that seems unimaginably quaint now. But Stewart says what's still true are the qualities essential to rise to the top in a firm like Cravath. Of the very few associates who ascended to partnership, he writes:
They weren’t necessarily the brightest. Everyone there had impressive test scores and academic credentials. They weren’t, as I had expected, the hardest-working. Everyone aspiring for partner worked long hours and gave the appearance of hard work. They weren’t the most personable. . .
Finally it came to me: The one thing nearly all the partners had in common was they loved their work.
I share Stewart's bewilderment (and envy) about those lawyers who love their work:
How could anyone tackle a complex tax problem with such enthusiasm? Or proofread a lengthy indenture agreement? Why couldn’t I love a prestigious, high-paying, secure job like they did?
Once in a blue moon, I too wish that I could have found love and satisfaction in the law. (Journalists are always lamenting that interesting jobs do not pay decently.) But unfortunately, you can't will it or force it. As Stewart says, "You couldn’t fake this."
He's right. I tried—and I couldn't convince anyone. Least of all, myself.
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