How do you solve a problem like the billable hour?

High-intensity, high reward?

Check out this article and then read on:

Why so many lawyers dislike their jobs

There are lots of debates about the billable hour, but I agree with the author that the pressure that is placed on young lawyers to bill ALL OF THE TIME places a premium on stamina and fails to recognize the hard mental work that lawyers should be doing. When I was at a large firm, the management was starting to place a lot of emphasis on delivering value, but, in my mind, it’s almost impossible to do that when your primary objective is to meet the minimum hour requirement.

The Harvard Business Review has identified three strategies that people use to cope with working in these kinds of workplaces:

Three Strategies

In our research we found that people typically rely on one of three strategies: accepting and conforming to the demands of a high-pressure workplace; passing as ideal workers by quietly finding ways around the norm; or revealing their other commitments and their unwillingness to abandon them.

Productivity is King

Of course, a firm needs some measure of productivity for its associates and the billable  hour is an easy measure of how much work someone is doing, but is it really reasonable to ask them to work as hard as they possibly can for 10+ years and then expect them to wake up one day and have developed a book of business at the same time? I think the brass ring of partnership just doesn’t hold the same sway over people anymore, so they’re more likely to give up than to buckle down and let the rest of their lives pass them by.

I think this is one reason why there are so many more small firms popping up offering lawyers the chance to do really good work without sacrificing everything in their lives. It shows that it’s possible to feel good about your work life and your home life. I also don’t think that it’s necessarily fair to call some of these places “lifestyle firms”. That really seems to have a derogatory connotation and I don’t think that there is anything wrong with people wanting to, you know, spend time with their partners and children and do great work.

I don’t know that I have a real solution at the moment, but I think that one thing that’s never allowed law firms to advance as much as they could have is the lack of business expertise within firms. Of course, there are ethical issues and things that have to be sorted out, but, for most lawyers, I don’t think that the business of law gets as much attention as it should. The introduction of non-lawyer ownership of firms is one thing that I think is sort of moving in the right direction, but it has it’s drawbacks. I’m really interested to see how it all shakes out in the next decade or so.

What do you think? What changes would you make to the system?

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Work work work work work

That Rihanna song is so catchy isn’t it?

Warm weather has finally arrived and it’s difficult to focus at work from time to time, but I find it much easier to work longer hours when it’s not dark at 4 or 5PM. That just makes me sleepy. And grumpy.

I wanted to share some good advice that I got a few years back about succeeding in private practice: You always need to have a little more work than you’re actually capable of getting done in the time you’ve got. Clearly, that doesn’t mean that you should take on so much work that you’re doing a disservice to your clients, but it’s something that I remind myself every once in a while when I start to feel like I’m actually getting to the end of things.

Be busier than you think you should (or want to) be.

I like crossing things off my list as much as the next person, but what I’ve learned is that you really are never done with legal work. As with any good business, the successful lawyer is always a little too busy. Think about it – you probably wouldn’t be that interested in a restaurant with no one in it, so who wants to go to a lawyer who is only ever working on one file at a time? First, as a young lawyer, if you don’t have a decent number of files, you’re probably not getting the breadth of experience that you need to keep advancing. Second, if you’re twiddling your thumbs on someone else’s dime, you should probably start looking for a new position because that isn’t likely to last too long.

Also, I just don’t think you can really have any work/life balance if you aren’t working. I suppose it’s a variation on “you can’t have the good without the bad”. Not that work is bad, per se. Just that, if all of your time was free time then you might not appreciate the time that you get to spend with your friends and family as much because, you know, you can see them any time you want. When you have work that you enjoy and that keeps you busy, you feel that much better about taking a break from it and coming back to it later.

It’s possible to be busy and enjoy your time off. In fact, having other interests can actually make you better at your job. I’ve taken up no fewer than six hobbies over the past few years (it may seem excessive, but I think my real hobby is learning to be a jack-of-all-trades). Recently, I’ve taken up golf, which has allowed me more time with my husband and is a nice change of pace.

What kinds of things do you do to unwind? Let me know in the comments!

As you emerge from the primordial soup

I was recently watching a documentary on Netflix about the great Wildebeest migration in Africa and I learned that Wildebeest calves learn to walk within minutes of birth and are able to keep up with the herd within days. 

Of course, this made me think of lawyers. Specifically, how becoming a lawyer is really a great analogy for being human. Does that seem odd?

See, the thing is, as a lawyer, you do not emerge from law school fully-formed. As a new lawyer, you are like a human baby, unable to walk. Unable to feed or care for yourself. You are completely dependent on your superiors for your care and upbringing.

As a new lawyer, the habits and skills that you learn in the first few years of practice can make or break you as you become more senior. You hope that you can rely on your superiors, just like parents, to teach you the proper rules and etiquette and lead you on the path to independence. But, of course, it doesn’t always happen that way. We are all fond of saying that lawyers are terrible managers, but what does that really mean? Sometimes it means that they’re just really bad at dealing with HR issues, but sometimes it means that they are incompetent to be supervising other lawyers. Either their own self-interest makes it impossible for them to take the time to teach you how to do something properly, or maybe (and I think this happens more often than not) they never actually learned the proper way and so their bad habits are now your bad habits.

There’s a fundamental difference between lawyers who are “raised” by the likes of June Cleaver and those who are “raised” by Ozzy Osbourne. My personal opinion is that too many Ozzys have been unleashed upon the lawyers of the world and so we can decry the lack of civility in practice and wax eloquent about a “simpler time”, but the reality is that we’re drawn to the bad-boy image. The rockstar personas. The people who just don’t follow the crowd.

However, IMHO, a profession built on the notion of stare decisis cannot be a profession that is filled with rock stars. We need intelligent and hard-working people who are willing to sacrifice their pride in order to get shit done.

Anyway, I’ve gone a bit off topic, but the point is that we all need each other. We do not emerge from law school as a final product. Like a human baby learning to walk, it takes a long time and a lot of practice and a few bumps along the way to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other and not fall down. Make the years and the time that you spend learning worthwhile by spending time with lawyers who hold themselves to the high standards to which they hold everyone else. Ask all of the questions. Learn the rules properly so you can break them with principled conviction. Don’t be a victim of your circumstances. If you work somewhere that is not providing you with meaningful opportunities for practice, then find somewhere else. If you work for people who don’t care about you or your development, then care enough about yourself to seek out people who will guide you.

If we want to be part of a profession that we can all be proud of, we have to take responsibility for ourselves and for those coming after us. Learn. Teach. Repeat.

Just Do It

It’s easy, sometimes, to believe that other people are responsible for your career development and progression. When you’re at a big firm, especially, there are lots of people dedicated to providing you with training, meeting with you on a semi-annual basis to review where things stand and coaching you to set goals, etc. However, even in those environments, the responsibility for ensuring that you have the career that you want still comes down to just you.

You have to implement the plans and work toward the goals and make sure that you are heading in a direction that fits you rather than just coasting along on other people’s dreams.

This is advice for myself just as much as all of you.

I recently got the opportunity to work closely with a senior lawyer in my area of practice as as an arbitration ‘side-kick’. No, that’s not the technical name for it, but really, the position is to be the arbitrator’s clerk. I’m taking notes, synthesizing information and discussing the day’s events with a lawyer who is not only very well-respected in the practice area, but throughout the bar. It’s a great opportunity and I am really fortunate to have been given this opportunity.

However, when the opportunity first came up, I was hesitant. Why? Because I am also really busy at work and have a husband and dog and, you know, life. It was easy to think, well if I just keep doing what I’m doing, I can still get to where I want to go.

Luckily, that thought hung around for only a split second before I realized what a golden opportunity this was and I jumped at it. I cleared my schedule as much as I could (of course people who are lawyers or friends with lawyers understand the necessity of all plans being subject to change) and I hunkered down to do the work that needed to be done. Both parties in the arbitration are represented by great senior counsel so I’m getting a front-row seat to some excellent advocacy as well as the decision-making side of things. As a litigator – things couldn’t be much better.

But, still, the fact that I hesitated bothered me. I mean, why would I have ever thought to pass up on an opportunity like this? And I soon realized what it was: because I didn’t have enough confidence in myself to ‘take a seat at the table’ as Sheryl Sandberg would say. It felt like I was putting myself out there as someone who was too keen for their own good. But, of course, that’s nonsense. I was afraid to be ambitious for myself because of some amorphous fear of what that might look like to other people.

We no longer live in a legal world where you should feel good about keeping your head down and not making waves. There are too many lawyers and too few jobs to pretend that you can do anything other than be that annoying kid who always raises his/her hand when the teacher asks a question (I admit, I was totally that kid, but I prefer to say that I was just precocious).

Anyway – I’m really glad that I put my hand up and took this opportunity. I’m learning more every day here than I did in the past three months since I started this new job. I am remembering what it feels like to be really, genuinely interested in something.

So, my advice to you is just do it. Put yourself out there. Take control of your career. Don’t rely on other people to direct you to where you need to go and don’t coast on someone else’s dream just because you can’t think of anything else to do.

Set goals.

Go after what you want.

Be ambitious. Be amazing.

Be yourself.

How to Manage

 

I want to make something very clear: there is no point in having a conversation about managing your time or energy if you hate your job.

There are so many CPDs, and an entire industry, geared toward helping lawyers be more organized or more efficient or whatever it is that they need to improve to bill as many hours as possible.

This is all wasted on you if you are actively hating your job right now.

Let’s be honest – the reason that you’re not getting that much done is because you don’t want to do it. You don’t want to call that client about that thing that you don’t care about. You don’t want to draft that document or make that offer or whatever because you just don’t want to be there.

I have spoken to too many young lawyers who are convinced that something is wrong with them because they aren’t hitting their billable targets, and so many of them are failing to ask a basic question: do you like what you do?

Notice that I didn’t ask whether you love what you do because that’s stupid and it’s impossible to know in the first five years of a legal career. But, you can like it. You can wake up in the morning and look forward to seeing your coworkers and learning something new and taking on a challenging new file. You can do that and if you like it, then you can decide whether you need to better manage your time or energy.

If you look around you and you say – this sucks. I hate these people. I used to be so motivated and I’m just not feeling it anymore. You should seriously consider whether this is the right place for you. Maybe even if it’s the right career. Because you’re not going to become motivated to work 2000 hours on something you don’t want to do.

I think the ‘mysterious’ loss of motivation is one of the key issues that lawyers who are unhappy face, but they consider it to be a personal failure rather than a sign of a larger problem. And I get it. It’s really hard to be someone who worked extremely hard in undergrad and law school (and loved it) and then all of a sudden feel like the brakes have been slammed on, but there’s no obvious reason for it.

Wasn’t this the job that you always wanted? Isn’t this the type of law you always wanted to practice? When the answer is yes, the lawyer quickly determines that they have the issue and if they just work harder/smarter/faster, they’ll work through it. However, that logic is flawed.

Trying to work without motivation is like trying to run through quicksand. The more you force yourself to do the work, the slower you’ll go, the faster you’ll sink and you will never reach the other side. Then the inevitable panic and downward spiral begin. You think – if I can’t motivate myself to do this work, then I must be a bad lawyer/bad person/terrible at everything. But, you’re not the problem.

The problem is a system that’s set up to put warm bodies in seats and doesn’t pay attention to the individual strengths and weaknesses of the person. It used to be the case that lawyers were apprentices. They got to work under experienced counsel and develop an appreciation for the practice of law as much as the concepts underlying our legal system.

That’s not really the case anymore. Now, new lawyers are a cog in the wheel. It may five to seven years before you ever get to actually “practice” law. You’ll spend those first few years doing a lot of the mundane document-based tasks that will eventually be done by computers. You’re not actually using your brain so you check out. You lose motivation. You wonder why you went to law school.

You hate everything.

And I don’t want that for you. So, don’t be afraid to ask yourself the question: Do I like what I’m doing? If the answers yes, then we can have a further discussion about how to make all of the pieces of the life puzzle fit together.

However, if the answer is no, we need to go back to fundamentals. You can flourish as a lawyer, you just need to find the right position. Start by checking out my post on searching for legal jobs because there are so many questions to ask. Next, do a little soul searching – you have to know yourself to know what you want. Last, put yourself out there. Meet as many people as you possibly can. It is time consuming and difficult and there are always some really awkward people out there, but you’ll get better at it and it will improve your odds of finding something you like immeasurably.

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