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Old Law, New Law: Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

In the old days, the path to success in the legal profession seemed fairly straight forward: Get top marks; article for a good firm (the larger the better); get hired back; work a tonne of hours; become a partner.

With success came prestige and money.

In my early years I met a lawyer who left law to join his family business making paper bags and plastic bags, and another lawyer who departed to start a restaurant. It was incomprehensible to me. I could not understand how they could just abandon the path to success to do such unsophisticated things.

From my perch in retirement, I now have a different definition of success. It now means doing fulfilling work helping people achieve their goals and protect their well-being, being intellectually stimulated, working reasonable hours, putting personal relationships before work, maintaining physical and mental health, enjoying travel and hobbies, and of course, making a reasonable living.

If I could go back and do it all again, here is what I would not care about: billing more hours and earning more money than the next guy; having the biggest house or fanciest car; and being able to say that “I am a partner at [insert name of big firm here].”  

I find it fascinating to observe some of the younger folks entering the profession today from my vantage point of having worked in the legal profession for 40 years and having achieved some degree of ‘success’ at the cost of personal fulfillment and physical and mental health. Here are my observations, for what they are worth:

1.      There is still a large contingent of young lawyers joining Big Law and pursuing what I now consider to be an outdated concept of success. I see their proud and enthusiastic announcements on LinkedIn about having accepted an associate position at this or that large firm. While I wish them the best and hope that the path that they are on will be good for them, I also fear that they just don’t get it.

2.      I also see another contingent of young lawyers striking out on their own or in small firms who are hunting for the elusive nirvana of work/life balance. Although I applaud their gumption, I worry about some of them who are going to get trapped in areas of practice that are or will soon be commoditized and about the lack of affordable and meaningful mentoring, training, and business advice available to assist them to find their way in our rapidly evolving profession.

It is this second set of lawyers who hold the most interest for me. I enjoy watching how they are going about it. Certainly, technology will give them the fighting chance that some of us older folks never had. Things like Practical Law give them access to the knowledge base and precedents that only larger firms used to have. Document automation can help even the playing field with larger firms that have more resources and compete with more experienced but less technologically adept competitors. Social media provides support groups in a solo environment where there are no colleagues to bounce ideas off of, as well as making it easier to assemble virtual teams to compete with larger firms. Working collaboratively with other virtual team members is also facilitated by technology.

Of course, while some lawyers are seizing upon the idea of technology being the road map toward greater work/life balance, they still have to be careful that they don’t just ride the technology train to the valley of constant availability and increased work output.

So where does that leave us? Where we always were. Some young lawyers have the personal maturity, good judgment and financial and emotional intelligence and support to start out on the road that is best for them. Others will venture onto the wrong path but figure it out early, pivot and navigate to a better place. And many, I fear, will languish (like I did) for many years achieving a version of success that will be costly in ways that matter more than money.

As far as technology is concerned, it will be used by some to succeed in the ways that the profession traditionally measured success, and by others to succeed in living a healthier lifestyle. Like so much in life, it will all come down to each individual’s personal maturity and value system.

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2 replies on “Old Law, New Law: Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places”

An excellent article – as someone who grew up with Practical Law I find it astounding that people managed before!

An aside – what of a third group of young lawyers who are in BigLaw but who seek an alternative to partnership within medium-sized and large law firms?

An alternative to partnership within a medium-sized or large law firm is a possibility nowadays. In my day, to remain with a firm that did not make you a partner was unthinkable. The philosophy was “up or out.” However, this approach is not without challenges. For one thing, if you do it without cultivating a client base you don’t have job security. If you are trying to cultivate a client base, there is still a bias which clients have toward dealing with partners. Sometimes I see firms making people non-equity partners so that they can call themselves partners for marketing purposes.

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