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Posts Tagged ‘billable hour’

I was kidding around with some of the guys at my gym, tossing around the question – would you fight Mike Tyson for $3 million?

One of them joked – I think he heard this on Howard Stern – that he’d fellate Mike Tyson for $3 million. He could spend the first $1 million on mouthwash and retire on the rest.

Then another guy spoke up, a sometime professional heavyweight boxer. (I’m not making this up, he really has boxed, for big money, not too long ago – and has plans to do so again.)

“It’s not worth it. Mike would destroy you. There would be no retirement.”

He went on to explain what he meant. He knew from experience – this guy had been in the ring. You’d have more than bruises – you’d have concussions, brain injuries, damaged bones and joints. You’d never be the same – and it wouldn’t be worth it. You’re better off not having $3 million but appreciating the finer things, like being able to walk and talk and think.

I saw his point.

Biglaw is also not worth it, even for big money. That’s because it, too, destroys you – just like Iron Mike.

A lawyer client, a fifth year at a big firm on the West Coast, mused to me the other day – “This job wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t end up crying alone in my office so much.”

“You mean, it wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t suck?”

“Yeah,” she said. “That’s pretty much it. Imagine doing this for ordinary money. No one would consider doing this for ordinary money.”

No one would consider fighting Mike Tyson for ordinary money, either. And it’s not worth it for $3 million. Big law isn’t even worth it for $160k a year.

Don’t believe it? Allow me to elaborate.

The process begins with sleep deprivation – plain, simple sleep deprivation. Not sleeping. Staying up all night and facing sarcasm if you plan to take the following day off.

One of my clients brought a pillow into work, so she could put her face down on her desk and sleep for an hour at a time. Her officemate saw her, and told her what a good idea it was. Then she brought in a pillow, too. Only at a law firm.

You might not think sleep deprivation is a big deal. Hell, you’re a machine. You don’t need sleep. All-nighters? No sweat.

Sleep deprivation is like binge drinking. There’s a machismo around staying up all night, night after night – like doing ten shots of tequila. You’re tough. Not a problem.

Later, as you puke your guts out and pray for sweet release, you realize you were being an idiot.

Read a few scientific studies on sleep deprivation and you will understand it fries your brain and leaves you an emotional wreck. You can’t think straight, your immune system crashes, you fall apart. As one of my senior associate clients put it, “I thought I was unflappable when I got here. I’m flapped.”

Naturally, if you aren’t sleeping, you’re also not having a life. So relationships dissolve, friendships fade, your pet starts living with your parents. And you start thinking about boinking that guy from the anti-trust group, even if he isn’t much to look at.

Okay. So why is there sleep deprivation at big law firms?

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I feel self-conscious sometimes about the pessimism of this column with regard to law as a career path.  That pessimism reflects what I see every day in my practice – miserable lawyers.

My experiences might be skewed as a result of self-selection.  It makes sense that unhappy lawyers would seek a psychotherapist who is a former lawyer and writes a column like mine, and it makes sense that these same unhappy lawyers would write me letters and post comments on my site about their (mostly unhappy) experiences.

Also, in fairness, the country is in the midst of a deep recession.  It’s hard to be happy at any career when you can’t find a job, or half the offices on your floor are empty and there isn’t enough work to go around and you’re worrying about whether you’ll have a job next week.  I see clients from other industries who are also affected by the economic downturn, such as folks in the fashion and retail world, many of whom are struggling with long-term unemployment, and even bankruptcy and foreclosure.  They’re not exactly brimming with high spirited fun either.

The difference is that those people love what they do.  They’re just out of work.

With lawyers, even the ones who have well-paid jobs seem – mostly – unhappy.

Nevertheless, in keeping with this week’s theme of cheerful good times, we’re going to ignore them – and talk about happy lawyers.  Bouncy, perky, downright merry, good-time lawyers.

I have seen a few happy lawyers.  They exist, and they tend to fall into two groups.

The first group work in criminal law.  I’ve met Legal Aid attorneys, prosecutors and even lawyers doing white collar defense, and they are often happy and like what they do.  These are the guys who grew up wanting to be Atticus Finch or Perry Mason.  They typically love their jobs, and are proud of what they do.  Some Legal Aid lawyers have described their careers to me as a calling – they are deeply committed to their vital role in our society.

The other happy lawyers are the guys with lifestyle jobs – the ones who work normal hours, report to reasonable, supportive supervisors, and generally don’t mind being lawyers.  Some quirky small practices fall into this “lifestyle” category.  I’ve run into lawyers who specialize in employment contracts for fashion designers, run a “beverage and alcohol” group at a smallish west coast firm, or handle bi-lingual business for Chilean corporations operating in the US.  It’s not so much about the work, but the laid-back, supportive atmosphere of these places.  Going off the beaten path tends to let people relax – maybe because there’s less competition.  I’ve seen a similar effect with lawyers who work in federal agencies and sometimes in-house counsel jobs, where – at least compared to big firms – the culture is friendly, the hours reasonable and the supervisors supportive.

Those two groups are the happy lawyers.  They love the law, or at least don’t especially mind it.

The rest of the attorneys I treat – the vast majority – not so much.

So…what are the lessons to be learned from observing happy lawyers?

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