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New 'start fast' Associates Column

Path to a Successful Legal Career: Learn to Love the Process

By Jay Harrington

A great deal has been said and written about the epidemic of the unhappy lawyer. Surveys suggest that career dissatisfaction among lawyers, and even rates of depression, are on the rise. According to research published last year, 28 percent of lawyers experience mild or higher levels of depression.

Law firm associates are not immune. In fact, a survey from a few years back found that “associate attorney” was the unhappiest job in the United States. Many theories are posited as to the root causes, including overwork, stress, uninteresting work and the adversarial nature of the law. In recent years, firms have increasingly been urged to improve culture and expand opportunities for work-life balance, particularly for young associates. Firms need to change, the thinking goes, to adapt to the needs and desires of millennials.

Why Conventional Wisdom About Millennial Lawyers Is Wrong

This type of thinking, however, presumes that lawyers who fall within this arbitrary age range are part of some “lazy and entitled” monolith that must be treated differently — with kid gloves — than previous generations. It’s become conventional wisdom that today’s young lawyers are motivated by fundamentally different incentives than those who came before them.

I’m a skeptic. I think today’s “wisdom” about what motivates millennial lawyers will be proven wrong.

The same criticisms — “lazy and entitled” — were applied to Generation X lawyers who were lavishly recruited by law firms during the late-1990s tech boom. I suspect much the same was said of the baby boomers. It’s just another version of the “I trudged both ways to school through a foot of snow” story used to bemoan the perceived shortcomings of those who follow in footsteps.

My intuition is that young lawyers today are fundamentally the same as they have always been. Some are driven by the desire to become powerful and make lots of money. Others are incentivized by a more flexible work experience.

I fear that instead of making things better, firms that make changes with the good intention of making law practice a more pleasant (or at least palatable) experience for young lawyers may be making things worse. At best, they’re attempting to solve the wrong problem.

The Law Is a Grind and Other Facts of Life

There’s no getting around the fact that the practice of law, particularly at the highest levels, is a hard grind. In fact, that may be truer today than ever before. So by suggesting to young lawyers that they can have their cake (flexibility and balance) and eat it too (advancement and achievement at high levels), we’re doing them a disservice. It gives them a false sense of what it takes.

I’m not saying that taking steps to develop and nurture young lawyers is a bad thing, but firms are missing out on an important opportunity to teach what it really takes to have a long, pleasant and prosperous career.

Understanding the Associate Mindset

The lesson that law firms and more experienced lawyers should be teaching is informed by an understanding of the young associate’s mindset and life experience. Most associates, with the exception of those with significant work experience, come to the practice of law straight from the world of academia. In that world, they learned to work hard, reach a milestone and graduate to the next challenge. It was a well-defined, lockstep experience.

When they arrive at a law firm, things change. Future milestones are less clear. The next obvious one — partnership — seems vague and distant to most. But for many, it becomes a fixation — the next tangible validation of their hard work.

This is a trap many lawyers fall into. They’re hyper-focused on achieving future milestones like making partner and earning enough money to retire. During the process of trying to reach these milestones, many trade-off present happiness for uncertain future happiness. Because they are unhappy in the journey, they tend to up their spending and lifestyle along the way, often in hopes of numbing the pain. Then they find themselves stuck on a hedonic treadmill that robs them of the security and freedom that they thought their present pain and suffering would afford them in retirement.

This is the problem with suffering through the everyday grind of a legal career with an eye toward the rewards of an uncertain future: What if the end isn’t different, but just more of the same?

Learn to Love the Process

The lesson firms should be instilling in young lawyers is that they need to learn to love (or at least like) the process of practicing law. For a lawyer who learns to love the process, each day isn’t drudgery, it’s another opportunity for fulfillment. Partnership becomes a goal, but not an obsession, because there is satisfaction in the everyday.

“It’s the journey, not the destination” is a cliche, but it’s true. Marathon runners will attest that it’s not the end of the 26.2-mile race that most remember, and are most proud of, over the long-term. It’s the hundreds of training miles that were logged in the months leading up to it. Those who try to run the race but refuse to embrace the training typically end up injured and disappointed even if they manage to cross the finish line.

These principles apply even more acutely when it comes to work because the stakes are so much higher.

One way to learn to love the process of practicing law is for new lawyers to look at their careers not as one long journey, but as a series of shorter ones. The first destination, or rung on the career ladder, is reached after approximately one to two years of practice. At this point, many lawyers feel they’re starting to get their feet underneath them, are developing sound judgment, and have attained a basic level of competence. In other words, they’re ready to move on to the next destination as a midlevel associate. It wasn’t easy, but they look back with satisfaction and forward with confidence.

Unfortunately, many other lawyers finish this first stage chastened or dejected. They feel regret about their career choice, and detest the day-to-day of their job. They focus on how to get out of their circumstances or fixate on a distant future where more money will provide the cure to what ails them.

The difference between these two types of young lawyers is not culture or environment — you’ll find both types at every firm. The fundamental difference is mindset. One has learned to enjoy the process and the challenge of the day-to-day, while the other is simply focused on the destination.

One feels in control of his circumstances, while the other feels controlled by them.

Stressed and Overwhelmed? A Path Forward for New Associates

If you’re in the first couple of years of your legal career, unless you’ve been hiding under your desk, you’ve experienced some stressful situations. Maybe your default state of mental being is stressed and overwhelmed — I know mine was in my early days as a lawyer!

First, know that you’re not alone. Second, come to grips with the fact that stress is part of the bargain — you’ve chosen a challenging, often contentious career. Third, take solace in knowing that it will get better — as long as you dedicate yourself to being better. As you sharpen your skills and improve your judgment, things will get more comfortable.

To help you improve, and enjoy the process along the way, you need to work on the basic building blocks of the practice. Over the next 12 months, I’ll be focusing this new “Start Fast, Start Smart” column specifically on issues of importance to young lawyers. I’ll be sharing my own thoughts and experiences, and also curating ideas from some of the best in the business.

But keep in mind that your happiness and satisfaction are a byproduct of your diligence and intentionality. It’s on you to learn to love playing the game as much as you desire to win it. Otherwise, victory will be hollow.

As Abraham Lincoln wrote to a 19-year-old applying for a student’s position in his law practice: “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing.”

Illustration ©

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Jay Harrington Jay Harrington

Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading thought-leadership PR and marketing agency that specializes in helping law firms and lawyers build awareness, influence and new business. Jay is the author of three books for lawyers on issues related to business and professional development, including “The Productivity Pivot,” “The Essential Associate” and “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice.” He podcasts at The Thought Leadership Project and writes a weekly email newsletter. Previously, he practiced law at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner. Follow him @JayHarrington75.

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