« How to Ace the Callback . . . | Main | Law School News—Chinese Students; Goldman's Analysts; and Clarence Thomas »

Nirvana In Big Law

Vivia Chen

September 26, 2012

 Bliss by Pixel & Création_FotoliaIt's all so obvious, isn't it? For all the talk about the disaffection that plagues the lawyer class, the secret to happiness is quite simple: You have to love what you're doing.

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.

Get The Careerist in your morning email. Sign up today—see box on upper right corner.    

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected]


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

To be honest, being a lawyer can be incredibly boring! I mean what happiness somebody can derive by staring at those lifeless documents for hours on end. But it’s the same with most other professions. Sorry if I sound like I’m preaching but you have to find some humor and fun in what you’re doing. That’s the only way to lead a fulfilling and happy life.

I've tried faking a lot of things. The results don't surprise me. I did BigLaw for 5 years as an employment lawyer. What was most disconcerting to me was the lack of control over my life and the incertainty of being in a practice that didn't fit neatly into the BigLaw model. It was hard to bill consistently at the levels expected by the firm. When I billed under 1800 hours, I didn't feel balanced and grateful for the free time, I felt scared and worried about getting a pink slip. I wished that I was one of the "lucky ones" whose biggest problem was billing 2200 hours and worrying about how to spend my bonus. Those interviewed for the survey who were billing at high rates were happy because they had job security. http://chatonsworld.blogspot.com

Stewart refers to associates giving the "appearance of hard work." Those who haven't mastered that aspect of law firm life may be interested in the tips in my blog "How to Beat the Old Boys at Their Own Game" in Forbes Woman. http://onforb.es/QI0DYC

I spent 17 years in Biglaw, ten of them as a partner. The years I most enjoyed were the years with the highest billable hours. Because the firm had a lock-step compensation system without bonuses, the pleasure didn't come from any commensurate increase in compensation. The pleasure came from being part of a team with my clients, helping them
close deals and being appreciated by them. Once lawyers became more of a fungible commodity and their bills subject to intense scrutiny, clients' appreciation decreased as did my pleasure in practicing.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Subscribe to get The Careerist via e-mail

Enter your e-mail address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

To search across all ALM blogs, go to www.Lexis.com.