Mental Health and Work/Life Balance

Goodbye Earl – A Legal Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, in a common law jurisdiction not that far away, there was a partner in a law firm who did what all good law firm partners do. He billed a lot. He brought in many clients. He trained the junior lawyers. He supervised the clerks. All in all, he was somewhat of a star. I will call him Earl.

As happens to all of us, Earl got older. He increased his time spent on business promotion because he enjoyed going to lunch with his clients and referral sources. He put in fewer billable hours because working nights and weekends had lost its appeal. He took longer vacations and travelled. He continued to spend time mentoring the junior lawyers and teaching them how to practice in his area of specialty, because he enjoyed doing that. In short, Earl started doing exactly what he wanted to do because, after all, life is short, and then you die.

There came a time that Earl decided that being a partner in a law firm was not all that it was cracked up to be. He withdrew as a partner after many, many years at the same firm, and entered into a contract with his firm to continue on as counsel, being paid a percentage of his file billings and a percentage of his originating credits. He started working remotely, long before it became fashionable, only coming to the office to meet with clients. He used the time that he saved commuting into the big city to go to the gym. He did not bother going to department meetings (which were boring as hell), and of course, there were no more partner meetings to attend. He only worked for clients he liked and only took on files that he enjoyed working on. Even better, he was able to sleep better at night knowing that his partnership capital was being repaid to him and that he was no longer liable as a partner. For the first time in an exceptionally long time, life was good.

Having more time to reflect on life, Earl started to ponder things that he had not thought much about when he was too busy working to focus on much else. He thought about things like work/life balance, maximizing health over maximizing income, not putting up with negative law firm culture, and a whole bunch of other things that partners in law firms typically do not ruminate about.

All of that would probably have been fine, but Earl also started talking about these things to the firm’s associates.

Earl’s former partners soon forgot about everything that Earl had done for the firm over his many years as a partner. They saw his work ethic going to hell. They observed his declining billings. They figured that he was close to retirement and unlikely to move and take his clients with him. And they noted with disapproval the treacherous notions that he was spreading among the next generation of lawyers.

Some of you may have heard that since I retired, I moved to the country, bought a pick-up truck, and started listening to country music. Those who know their country music will know that “Earl Had to Die” is a line from the song “Goodbye Earl” by the Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks). Now in the song, Earl was an abusive husband and the Earl in my fictional story was not abusive. He was actually kind of a nice guy, especially after he had shed his law firm partner persona. But I imagine that to his former partners, he had become somewhat distasteful, polluting the minds of the associates with a lot of crap which gets in the way of maximizing per partner profit, at least in the short-term which is typically the only type of term that law firm partners care much about.

So Earl had to die. Not a real death of course. Just a notional death where he could be encouraged to retire soon and fade out of their consciousness. So they sang “Goodbye Earl,” terminated his contract and said “Thank you for your service. Now get out.”

And they all lived happily ever after. Especially Earl.

This article was originally published by The Lawyer’s Daily (, part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.

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