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The Mentality and Attitudes of Lawyers

Desperately Seeking More (Billable Hours)

“Let me have men about me that are fat; Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’nights: Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.   

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar                                           

I used to think too much.  About my files.  About my billable hours.  About marketing. About how to run the firm better.  And mostly, about how much in common I had with Cassandra.

You may recall that in Greek mythology, Cassandra was blessed with the ability to predict the future accurately but cursed in that she would never be believed.  Imagine how frustrating that would have been.  I, on the other hand, do not have to imagine it.  I lived it.  I knew exactly how things would turn out if my partners did not run the firm the way I knew that it should be run, and yet they never believed me.  

Eventually a simple thought occurred to me that explains both my Cassandra complex and a great number of other things that are going on in the world today. Prepare to be amazed with my insight.  Here it is:   We all have our own unique set of values, and typically we all think that everyone who does not share our values is simply wrong and that they should change their views.  Of course, that includes our law partners.

As a result of this type of thinking, in some parts of the world religious extremists wage wars, and in other parts of the world so called ‘stable democracies’ experience civil strife.  In law firms, conflicts over fundamental values sometimes make things unpleasant, and often result in lawyers departing for friendlier skies and greener pastures.  Or moving to the country and buying a pick-up truck, like I did.  

One of the values that drove me for a good long while had to do with the importance of working hard and generating a great many billable hours, which I now believe is over-rated. 

Although putting in a lot of billable hours and amassing a good client base resulted in me earning a more than satisfactory living, I never worked that hard because I wanted to become rich.  Nor did I put in all of those hours because I wanted to drive an expensive car or live in a ridiculously large house in the perfect neighbourhood. (As proof of that, I offer that at the zenith of my career I drove a not that new Honda Accord.)

I worked long hours for other reasons.  I wanted to serve my clients well.  I felt nervous and insecure unless I kept on top of things.  And, although I am somewhat embarrassed to admit it, I kind of enjoyed being the big man on campus for awhile, although if the truth be told, it was a pretty small campus.

Over time, my values evolved, and I wanted to spend less time working and more time doing a whole host of healthier things. That put me on a bit of a collision course with the more ambitious folks.

But enough about me.  Since I retired and started to laze about much of the day, I sometimes find myself thinking about all of the lawyers who I met who worked extremely long hours for many more years than I did. I particularly enjoy thinking about the fact that many of them are still doing that, and I am not. 

I have concluded that there are three reasons that many lawyers work extremely long hours, often to the detriment of their physical and mental health and relationships.

A good number of them work very long hours because they want to serve their clients well.  This seems to make some of them happy, and some of them not so much.  

Then, there are lawyers who work excessively and obsessively because they are workaholics. They are usually not that happy, but they do not seem to be able to figure out how to stop. 

Finally, there are the lawyers who are very ambitious.  They work very hard so that they can achieve their goals (which are usually to make a great deal of money) and therefore be happy.  I imagine that this must work out well for some of them, although not the ones who I have met.  The ambitious lawyers who I met always seemed to still (and forever) be in the process of obtaining everything that they needed to finally be happy.

I suppose that nothing in life is that quite that cut and dried, and presumably these conditions overlap in some individuals.

It is the ambitious folks who intrigue me the most.  On the one hand, I have learned to accept that there is nothing inherently wrong with someone working incessantly because they are ambitious.  Even I was ambitious once upon a time.   Being ambitious simply means that you want to succeed.   Success can be a nice thing to achieve, and it is an unfortunate fact of life that in order to have success, it is often necessary to work hard. 

On the other hand, everyone seems to define success differently, and as much as I know that I am supposed to respect those whose definition of success is different than mine, sometimes I find it difficult to do that since deep in my heart I know that I am right, and they are wrong.

For example, I knew a fellow whose definition of success included living in Rosedale and associating with all of the right people.  He had to drive the right car, and his very young children had to attend private nursery school at the cost of several tens of thousands of dollars a year.  All of this takes a great deal of money.  Although he was the highest earner in a well-respected law firm, neither the clients who he attracted, nor his law firm partners were up to the task of supporting his financial ambitions.  That made him very unhappy.

Some would say that this fellow’s view of success is as valid as mine and is therefore none of my business.  I accept that.  Sort of.  However, his constant unhappiness with the willingness of his partners to work hard enough to play their part in helping him achieve the goals which he had set for himself was their business as well, since he spent many hours trying to influence their behaviour and the behaviour of other firm members.  He said that he did so with a view to improving the financial performance of the firm. 

He also told himself and others that he was doing this for the benefit of all of the partners. In fact, he was doing it for the benefit of himself and those partners who shared his values. He was also creating dissension between those of the partners who shared his values and those who were actually happy with things as they were.

Unfortunately, with this approach, there were bound to be winners and losers.  To the extent that this fellow was successful in setting a new direction for his firm, some people quit, some people’s career paths were redirected, and others retired earlier than they might otherwise have done.  Presumably those who remained made more money and were therefore happier, although I am not really sure whether that is the case.

After working so hard to change the firm culture to support his aspirations, the fellow in question moved on to a larger, more profitable firm where he should now be very happy, although I expect that being satisfied and happy with what he has is not in his nature.

Meanwhile, back at his old firm, there remain the lawyers who work too hard to serve their clients, the lawyers who work too hard because they are workaholics and the lawyers who work too hard because they are ambitious.  A few of these hard-working lawyers are happy, but not too many of them.

In addition, there are some lawyers who do not work too hard and who are still there because they were not dislodged in the first go-round by the ambitious partner of whom I spoke.  They may yet be squeezed out by the new group of ambitious partners coming up the ranks.

There is a moral to this story:  Know what your values are and hang out with people who share them.  Things did not work out very well for Cassius.  Or Cassandra.

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