Reprinted with permission from the American Bar Association GPSolo eReport.
This article is the first of four installments exploring ways to keep the spark of enthusiasm alive in your law practice.
Years ago, I attended a breakfast event at which Renee Montagne, a special correspondent and former co-host for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, spoke. At the end of Ms. Montagne’s presentation, someone in the audience asked a simple but powerful question, “Ms. Montagne, you’ve traveled all over the world and met so many fascinating people. If you knew you had six months left to live, how would you spend your time?” Ms. Montagne paused briefly, and responded that she would change nothing about her current life. The questioner was incredulous, and followed up. “Come on. Wouldn’t you stop working, travel to a special place, spend time with certain people, etc.?” Ms. Montagne insisted that she would not, saying that she loved her work, found it a privilege to be a journalist, and would be perfectly happy to continue working for the last six months of her life. Her sincerity and conviction made me stop, put down that last bite of breakfast pastry, and take note: “Do I feel like that? If I had six months left to live, would I wake up in the morning and happily go to work serving my clients, knowing that I was spending my time in the most fulfilling way possible?”
Before starting my own law firm, I worked in a medium-size firm featuring a number of attorneys who chose to continue practicing law into their 70s and even 80s. All of these lawyers produced top-notch work. They continued to practice law, not for monetary gain, but because they still possessed that “spark” for tackling intellectual challenges and serving their clients. The memory of these lawyers came back to me in 2010, while perusing a Picasso exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. I was struck by how incredibly productive and prolific Picasso became in his later years. It was as if he was racing against the clock—seeing how much art he could create and send out into the world before death overtook him. Picasso’s unrelenting passion reminded me of one of my former colleagues in particular who, while in his 70s, continued to maintain a vigorous work schedule. He loved his work, and took much pride in creating high-quality work product and mentoring younger attorneys to do the same. Much like Ms. Montagne, this attorney would have undoubtedly continued living his life in the same way, even with the knowledge that he had limited time remaining.
When I proudly joined the ranks of our profession in 1988, I rarely heard of attorneys suffering from depression, burnout, alcoholism, drug abuse, and failed relationships. Now, these problems have become so prolific as to be impossible to avoid. We read about it in our bar magazines, hear about it in continuing legal education courses, and, with increasing regularity, silently take note of it during uncomfortable professional interactions with other attorneys. The causes of these problems are routinely debated. In my view, much of the misery stems from a much-outdated law firm culture, which was originally designed to support a man who billed an obscene number of hours while his wife devotedly washed his clothes, cleaned his house, cooked his meals, and cared for his children. Each year that passes, fewer lawyers fit into this model. Unfortunately, the predominant law firm culture in larger law firms has, thus far, failed to evolve to allow for the reduced hours and increased flexibility that match employment practices more common in 2017. Many of us started our own solo and small firm practices precisely to avoid working in this outdated culture, in which our “square-peg” lives constantly feel intolerably crammed into the “round hole of the past.”
But when we started our own practices, or dare I say our own small businesses, many of us likely failed to take fully into account the effort and skills required to run a business. It’s important to recognize that, as solo and small firm attorneys, we have taken on not one, but two, of the most grueling jobs in the United States: lawyer and small-business owner. I confess that when I started my law practice, I didn’t truly understand the amount of ongoing time and energy it would require to run a business. I believed that I would spend a lot of time in the start-up phase and then, over time, I would just spend an hour or so here and there to maintain it. Seventeen years in, that initial perception has proven to be quite unrealistic.
The reality is that small business owners of all trades tend to work long hours, with 19% reporting working over 60 hours a week, 30% working 50–59 hours a week, and 33% working 40–49 hours a week.1 The roles of lawyer and small business owner both require time, expertise, and dedication―it’s not just the practice of law that requires long hours. If you are a terrific attorney, but pay little attention to being a small business owner, you will at best face financial difficulties and, at worst, stare hopelessly at a bar complaint involving your rarely balanced trust account. Conversely, if you run the business-side of your practice like a well-oiled machine, but pay little attention to providing good legal work, your client base will begin drifting away to competitors. Although the solo and small-firm models generally accord us more flexibility than our large-firm counterparts, with that flexibility comes the added responsibility and pressure created by running a business.
Keeping the spark alive for your law practice means maintaining enthusiasm both for the practice of law and for the commitment of small-business ownership. Is that possible? Despite the well-reported problems in our profession, is it possible to love what you do, not just for your first ten years after passing the bar, but also for the decades to follow? Or are we all doomed to spend too many of our days whining about our clients and opposing counsel, halfheartedly drafting documents we’ve prepared thousands of times before, spending our weekends drudging through the firm’s financial reports, and daydreaming of early retirement? Hopefully, you find the former scenario more appealing.
I contend that it is absolutely possible to maintain a sense of fun, challenge, engagement, and enthusiasm throughout your career—even if you decide to have an especially long career such as the attorneys in my prior firm. Am I suggesting that you need to arrive at your office each morning loudly singing the old Disney song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”?2 Of course not. But you may feel like humming it quietly on occasion. You should feel happy about your law practice, your co-workers, your work projects, your clients, your business, and your profession. Or else what’s the point?
If you had six months left to live, or perhaps more practically as a long-term approach, six years to live, would you continue to work just as you are doing right now? Or would you make some changes? In my next article, I will examine that question in more detail, providing methods for self-examination. My third article will offer suggestions for implementing necessary changes. My final article in the series will explore the idea of legacy—a motivating concept for keeping the spark alive.
1. New survey shows work–life balance is possible but not likely for entrepreneurs (2016). http://www.thealternativeboard.com/new-survey-shows-work-life-balance-is-possible-but-not-likely-for-entrepreneurs/,