The Mentality and Attitudes of Lawyers


Whoever Dies With The Most Stuff Wins

–David Mitchell

The other day someone asked me why so many lawyers work excessive hours on the road to mental and physical health issues, divorce, and addiction.

The answer is simple. It is greed.

By this I do not mean that all of the hard-working lawyers are greedy. The vast majority are not. They are just trying to earn a living, serve their clients well, stay on top of their work, and avoid being negligent.  My point is that most law firm cultures are shaped by greed, and that many lawyers are simply cogs in a greedy system.

Let’s pick on Big Law to illustrate the point because they have perfected the greed formula.  However, smaller firms need not be too smug, since they often do their best to mimic the same approach. They just do not do it particularly well. They likely would if they could.

Senior partners in Big Law firms earn a lot of money. We are talking about seven figures, which is more than anyone needs to have a decent lifestyle. Even at the bottom of the partner totem pole, people do quite well. We are talking about people for whom it is a challenge to spend everything that they earn, but God knows that they try.

Let’s say that a partner earning $1,500,000  was happy to earn $500,000. That would free up $1,000,000 to hire four or five junior lawyers to share the workload. Suddenly, the people at the bottom would not have to work 2,000 billable hours.

But as long as the people at the top have to earn these amounts, the worker bees at the bottom have to churn out billable hours.

One of my former partners always wanted to earn ‘more.’ I tried to convince him that life would be better for everyone if we were all willing to earn a bit less. For example, we could stop pressuring new moms to put in so many hours that they had to leave the firm to go in-house or quit law altogether. His argument was that if we did that, people like him who were high earners and significant rainmakers would leave and take their clients with them so that they could preserve their  high incomes, and the rest of us would do even worse. He had a point. As long as we are reliant upon the greedy, change is impossible.

But why are we so greedy in the legal profession?  It all has to do with how we define success. Starting in law school, we are told that success in the legal profession means becoming a member of a prestigious law firm. From there we strive to become partners and once we become partners, we compete with each other for the largest slice of the partnership pie. Never are we told that success in life is really about having supportive personal relationships and physical and mental health, so we sacrifice those for more and more money.

It is the greedy among us who invented and perpetuate this system. The rest of us supposedly super-smart folks are just too damn stupid to challenge it.

This article was originally published by Law360 Canada, part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.

2 replies on “Greed”

How about the “I had to do it when I was junior so now they should all have to do it too” argument?

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