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One lawyer's look at his job
August 22, 2014 2:47 PM   Subscribe

Why are lawyers so unhappy? One attorney by way of explanation demonstrates exactly what his days are like in an answer pulled out and published from a larger Quora thread.
posted by shivohum (50 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Are they the last guys in the world using BlackBerrys? That really is awful.
posted by colie at 2:58 PM on August 22 [4 favorites]


The story is quite similar for American lawyers, doctors and architects - the desperate hours, the constant firefighting and immediate deadlines, the constant ass-covering.

I've talked to all three... it's depressing.

And it's the same cause in each case. A very small number of people at the top take home staggeringly huge salaries - and then everyone else is desperately overworked and undercompensated, but also desperately hoping to make partner, not realizing that by then they will have internalized this stress as the only way to live and will continue doing it and pushing exactly the same lifestyle onto their younger victims.

If professionals had labor protection, enforceable labor protection, then the 1% would simply have to hire more doctors, lawyers and architects because the work would not get done in a 50-hour week. Maybe they'd also start "planning" and enforcing better work flows to make sure everything got done.

Personally, I work long hours myself but it's at my pleasure. There are whole days I get a couple of hours of work done at best and no one is really aware. As a software engineer, I can say I'm looking into something and there really isn't much that anyone can do to gainsay it. It's not that I'm slack - I don't want to guess how many hours I put in a week! - but if someone knocks at my door, nearly all the time I can just stop work and hang out.

Most work is really done better that way.

I have a lot to be thankful for and this is certainly one big thing...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:02 PM on August 22 [34 favorites]


Physical keyboards feel so much better than anything else for really writing quickly and accurately. Add to that the general lawyerly conservatism and you've got a bunch of depressed guys using Blackberries.

Although I've never been a part of this attorney's world (I'm a solo and have always been outside of the big law game), I really feel for him. He's in a miserable job, his coworkers are totally miserable, and his clients are probably paying a helluva lot more than they should be paying for the service they get.

lupus_yonderboy is right, the system is this crappy because it benefits the guys at the very, very top. I agree that labor protections are necessary, but I also think that lawyer ethics standards, which restrict business structuring, need to be eliminated. Those ethics rules don't protect the public -- they protect the old, white, rich guys at the top of the law pyramid.
posted by factory123 at 3:07 PM on August 22 [4 favorites]


And it's the same cause in each case. A very small number of people at the top take home staggeringly huge salaries - and then everyone else is desperately overworked and undercompensated, but also desperately hoping to make partner, not realizing that by then they will have internalized this stress as the only way to live and will continue doing it and pushing exactly the same lifestyle onto their younger victims.

If the person who wrote the article works for a big law firm in NY, then as a mid-level or senior associate he or she is bringing home $200k-$400k per year. Maybe more. What the author describes as a typical day at the office doesn't sound like a trip to Disney World, but it's kind of crazy to call him or her "undercompensated." I have friends who haul trash or work a jackhammer who would kill for that kind of undercompensation.
posted by Slap Factory at 3:14 PM on August 22 [21 favorites]


Add to that the general lawyerly conservatism and you've got a bunch of depressed guys using Blackberries.

Yes, it was only half-snark and I take it back anyway. Have lots of lawyer friends who aren't on the dark side.
posted by colie at 3:14 PM on August 22


Hmm. Well I'm not doubting this person at all. But I'm a junior-to-mid-level associate at a midsize firm, and my days don't look like that at all. They're more or less as pleasant as can be expected; they just involve a lot of desk work that many people would consider rather dry and technical, and plenty of rote crap no one really wants to do. I'd say typically my days are like the "not-busy day" scenario, except I get home around 7. 9:30am-7pm seems like a reasonable day for my salary, and I consider myself more than adequately paid. No one really loves their job, you know? I think lawyers probably complain more than most professionals. I'd rather be doing this than many, many other jobs I can think of.

Maybe the people working at large sweatshops should look into the world of midsize "lifestyle" firms. One thing I learned early on is that if you're willing to take a pay cut, your quality of life increases dramatically.

Of course, I just pulled a near all-nighter and am running on little sleep right now. I blame that entirely on myself though. I've been glued to the awful news and not feeling motivated to get stuff done lately.

The part about insane deadlines is probably accurate. I carry a lot of stress over the constant deadlines hanging over my head. I'm still learning how to give less of a fuck and relax.
posted by naju at 3:19 PM on August 22 [9 favorites]


Big Law is miserable and eats its young. Doing nothing but transactional work will turn you into a soulless scribe. Only the truly naive don't understand that. They don't pay you $160K as a no-year attorney because your life is going to be fun. By the time one is supervising junior associates I'd have thought one would've made peace with that world. Or left, before being ushered out.

But you know what? Most of the people who bitch about that life still manage to look down their nose at any kind of litigation practice that doesn't involve billion dollar disputes in Federal court.

Maybe the people working at large sweatshops should look into the world of midsize "lifestyle" firms. One thing I learned early on is that if you're willing to take a pay cut, your quality of life increases dramatically.

Unless the midsize firm is an IP boutique, cue the "toilet law" comments from the embittered Top 50 grad big law recruits.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:26 PM on August 22 [4 favorites]


11:15pm: Return to hot deals. Continue going back and forth (I'm still receiving 50-100 emails an hour on these projects)

Nopenopenope.
posted by rtha at 3:28 PM on August 22 [5 favorites]


I complain about getting 100 emails a day.
posted by stoneweaver at 3:34 PM on August 22 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I'm not sure I understand this article. I would imagine he has some kind of control over his workload? Could he not go to his boss and say "You're giving me a physically impossible amount of work to accomplish in a reasonable amount of time"?

Although he does describe regular episodes of physical violence in the office, so I guess it's possible he's just scared to say anything.
posted by Avenger at 3:40 PM on August 22


Eh. Not a lot of sympathy for this guy - you don't get that sort of soul-crushing Big Law gig unless you've opted for it. Plenty of lawyers work perfectly sane schedules - I'm one of them. We usually don't make Big Law pay, but that's the choice you make: Money or free time. I think I made the right decision.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 3:41 PM on August 22 [8 favorites]


So, how much does he get paid for this? Because I'm not feeling all that sympathetic.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 3:43 PM on August 22 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I'm not sure I understand this article. I would imagine he has some kind of control over his workload? Could he not go to his boss and say "You're giving me a physically impossible amount of work to accomplish in a reasonable amount of time"?

Sounds like someone has decided they aren't that interested in making partner.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:45 PM on August 22 [34 favorites]


The OP did a good job framing this. This literally is "one lawyer's complaints about his job," not what Business Insider claims it is ("Why Lawyers are Miserable and Unhappy").

I mean, right. People with shitty jobs are miserable and unhappy. This is an article about a lawyer with a shitty job. Many lawyers, like many other people, have shitty jobs.

Just not that pay them a quarter million dollars a year, but whatevs.
posted by MoonOrb at 3:45 PM on August 22 [3 favorites]


No one really loves their job, you know?

That's the saddest sentence. Lots and lots of people love what they do. Even lawyers.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:49 PM on August 22 [21 favorites]


Maybe, but I can't figure out how to make a decent living and not work for corporate masters, doing things I'd rather not be doing. It's sort of the big capitalist trap many people find themselves in, from what I understand.
posted by naju at 3:57 PM on August 22 [6 favorites]


Give the way big time lawyers groom and dress, I'm still trying to figure out how he gets from bed to the door in 15-30 minutes, including time for reading and responding to emails. I can't do it and I wear jeans to work and only shave about half the time.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:03 PM on August 22 [5 favorites]


Maybe the people working at large sweatshops should look into the world of midsize "lifestyle" firms. One thing I learned early on is that if you're willing to take a pay cut, your quality of life increases dramatically.

This. I've worked at AmLaw 100 firms and regional firms, and the latter are far preferable in terms of balancing hours, quality of work (i.e., still interesting), and compensation.
posted by resurrexit at 4:03 PM on August 22 [2 favorites]


> The story is quite similar for American lawyers, doctors and architects - the desperate hours, the constant firefighting and immediate deadlines, the constant ass-covering.

Add technical project managers to that list. Especially in the modern era of outsourcing. One PM I know has six hours of meetings on a light day, the first being the daily 8:30 AM scrum (stateside developers) and the last being the daily 11 PM scrum (India developers), alongside the time needed to prepare meeting agendas, meeting reports, daily project status updates, supervising additional ad-hoc developer meetings, client meetings, and so on. And then there is a regular ramp-up of workload on top of that due to the Agile schedule, such as the tri-weekly demo day and the sprint kickoff.

They tended to take their vacations in remote parts of the country without cellphone access.
posted by at by at 4:05 PM on August 22 [7 favorites]


Give the way big time lawyers groom and dress, I'm still trying to figure out how he gets from bed to the door in 15-30 minutes, including time for reading and responding to emails. I can't do it and I wear jeans to work and only shave about half the time.

There's a good bit of hyperbole in most of that piece.
posted by The World Famous at 4:06 PM on August 22 [1 favorite]


I've put in 10 years at an firm with 500+ lawyers and my life is much, much better than depicted. However, I made the decision when leaving law school not to practice in NY and to work at a firm known for treating its employees well.
posted by Area Man at 4:09 PM on August 22 [2 favorites]


And it's the same cause in each case. A very small number of people at the top take home staggeringly huge salaries - and then everyone else is desperately overworked and undercompensated, but also desperately hoping to make partner, not realizing that by then they will have internalized this stress as the only way to live and will continue doing it and pushing exactly the same lifestyle onto their younger victims.

ooh, so it's academia with money!
posted by kagredon at 4:13 PM on August 22 [13 favorites]


Calling shenanigans: this day is not segmented into 6 minute billable increments.
posted by Nelson at 4:16 PM on August 22 [15 favorites]


He complains that other people in his firm don't get back to him and how they suffer zero consequences for that. Can he do that too?

I mean, lots of businesses will let you work bazillion hours for them, if you're willing to do so.
posted by aubilenon at 4:19 PM on August 22 [4 favorites]


Calling shenanigans: this day is not segmented into 6 minute billable increments.

From my knowledge of Big Law in the UK, I'd guess that his firm are charging flat fees agreed in advance in many cases. And more likely to be doing so with established clients (though maybe this depends on the type of work).

Then again, from what I saw of the lawyers in our offices, his account of how busy he is seems exaggerated too, so maybe it's different in the US.
posted by Pink Frost at 5:10 PM on August 22


It is possible that all this lawyers problems are of his or her own making. Reading the story it sounds like the individual has trouble scheduling, prioritizing, setting expectations, delegating, supervising, and meeting deadlines. These are things that a mentor or coach could help improve.
posted by humanfont at 5:19 PM on August 22 [5 favorites]


One PM I know has six hours of meetings on a light day

In my experience, it's the PMs who book the bloody things.
posted by grahamparks at 5:21 PM on August 22 [14 favorites]


My job is supporting billing software for large law firms. The biggest thing I've noticed is that they cater to their clients in ways few other industries would even consider. I've heard accounts of clients rejecting bills outright because they didn't like how they looked. If that's not considered abnormal (and it's not), then I have no trouble whatsoever in believing that the story is not abnormal either.
posted by chaosys at 5:28 PM on August 22 [2 favorites]


So, over the last few decades they made a hell; and now they don't care to live in it?
posted by buzzman at 5:30 PM on August 22


I used to work in this sector of the legal industry and I read this piece quite a while ago. This guy may be exaggerating but his story is not unbelievable to me.
posted by grobstein at 5:31 PM on August 22 [2 favorites]


Cut a couple of hours off at the end and it sounds eerily like my day in academic publishing.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:31 PM on August 22


7PM? Why would I want to go home at 7PM? That's ridiculous. I want to eat dinner with my family and relax at the end of the day. Maybe go out and do some grocery shopping. And that's why I couldn't keep being a lawyer - I don't give a shit what my client wants if it's after 5PM. Emails sent to me after that time are answered the next day. If they're dumb questions maybe they're not answered at all.

You can choose to kill yourself working until midnight every day if you want. But all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. And probably an asshole, too. naju, i slowed my law practice way the hell down so I could play music professionally instead, and I *love* my new job. Being a lawyer, at least the way we do it in the Anglo-American world, sucks. If most people really knew what they were getting into before they went to law school, all but the gunners and the lifers wouldn't go.
posted by 1adam12 at 5:38 PM on August 22 [3 favorites]


That's why I'm a lawyer at a bank. 3-6-3 yall.
posted by jpe at 6:17 PM on August 22 [4 favorites]


"One of my callers asked me if I've seen emails that just came in and if I've reviewed the documents attached — 250 pages, came in five minutes ago.

I honestly think that what really makes lawyers unhappy — much less happy than, say, bankers or consultants — is some combination of the lack of ownership over anything, the inability to ever make any forward career progress, the social isolation, the complete lack of control over when any work comes or must be done, the nonstop false deadlines and the realization that the clients never read anything that you produce ... so that it all seems completely pointless — which, perhaps surprisingly, is far worse than the hours, the backstabbing or the often inhumane partners and senior associates."


I didn't know I was a lawyer.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:22 PM on August 22 [7 favorites]


I also think that lawyer ethics standards, which restrict business structuring, need to be eliminated. Those ethics rules don't protect the public -- they protect the old, white, rich guys at the top of the law pyramid.

Why eliminate them? Best I can tell from having filed grievances and looking at the annotated notes from the rules they are not enforced unless it is a misuse of trust money, sex, or gems like "he sold drugs on behalf of his client".

If you are a solo practice the response of the grievance body is to ask for more info.
posted by rough ashlar at 6:29 PM on August 22 [1 favorite]


One thing I learned early on is that if you're willing to take a pay cut, your quality of life increases dramatically.

Maybe, but I can't figure out how to make a decent living and not work for corporate masters, doing things I'd rather not be doing. It's sort of the big capitalist trap many people find themselves in, from what I understand.

The internship is still open! We are loving the socialism over here bigtime, come on in!
posted by Meatbomb at 8:02 PM on August 22 [1 favorite]


Rough ashlar, I don't mean all of the ethics guidelines (necessarily), but particularly the ones dealing with fee splitting and the prohibition on ownership interests being held by non-lawyers.

If Walmart could offer legal services, for example, you could have a standardized product at lower cost. Legal services could then be more available to lower and middle class folks, and there could be more jobs for middle class lawyers.

Aside from that issue, I'd like to say something about all the, "but he makes a half mill, so who cares" comments in this thread. Just because a person has money, that doesn't make them less deserving of sympathy. A lot of these folks are smart, enthusiastic, interesting people with good hearts who have gotten stuck in a rotten system. Money does not eliminate their humanity.
posted by factory123 at 8:38 PM on August 22 [6 favorites]


But when you choose lots of money over having a richer, human, life, can those not making 200K a year really be expected to be sympathetic?
posted by Windopaene at 9:54 PM on August 22 [2 favorites]


I understand that his job sucks, but he's clearly getting something out of it (Money? Prestige?) otherwise he wouldn't do it. This is coming from someone who worked in a similarly soul sucking industry, Big Advertising, for years. I know what it's like to have clients with a flat fee structure tell you at 6pm that night, that they actually like the work but they want to get the most for their money, so can you redo all those ideas so they can see new ones on their desk at 9 the next morning? That's why I was never home before 8, sometimes 3am, and occasional slept on the couch at work. For years. And years.

The thing is, if you don't like it, you have options. I left, right now I'm a SAHM but keeping in mind if I ever do go back, it can't be in that capacity again, because kids, so there's other options to explore with my skill set. He can do the same thing. Life is short. It's even shorter if you have a heart attack because of stress. I learn that the most valuable thing for me wasn't money, it was time because I had none of it. Something tells me he is the same.
posted by Jubey at 9:59 PM on August 22 [2 favorites]


Young BIGLAW lawyers are often unhappy because they are being disabused of their dream, which was "No Math + No Selling + No Risk + No Actual Interest in Finance = Big Money." You make that equation work only by the addition of a fifth addend: "Work Like a Dog on Stuff that Bores You."

The 100% giveaway that someone is in that hole is when they complain about no career advancement or learning on the job, when, in fact the Biglaw career path and training has a geometric learning and responsibility curve, and a nicely arithmetic earning curve, if you take it seriously. A first year associate comes in making $160k, knowing nothing, and able to do nothing. A sixth year associate is making $300k, and is capable and actually expected to lead on a day to day basis billion dollar deals.
posted by MattD at 6:02 AM on August 23 [10 favorites]


One thing I learned early on is that if you're willing to take a pay cut, your quality of life increases dramatically.

Law is famous for its bimodal pay distribution, with most lawyers earning something like $50k and then another group way up there in the six figures. So he may be facing the crappy choice of continuing his unhappy but well paid current job, or taking a 90 percent pay cut for the lower pressure job; the option of taking a twenty percent pay cut for a twenty percent reduction in stress may not exist.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:43 AM on August 23 [4 favorites]


Dumb question: There was an overabundance of lawyers a few years ago, right? And there are a ton of lawyers who are unhappy being at the bottom of a firm, right? Why don't they open their own firms and undercat the old, rich guys? It isn't like you couldn't cut 20% off your fees and not still make more then I'll over make. I mean, the cost of legal fees is insane.
posted by Canageek at 1:49 PM on August 23


What a fucking waste of human life.
posted by Happy Dave at 1:53 PM on August 23 [2 favorites]


Canageek -- it takes ten years, give or take, to have enough skill and experience actually to run a complex case or deal or render reliable specialty advice without supervision.

Younger lawyers can't undercut them because they can't offer that service at any price.

However, every big city is full of mid-size law firms with lawyers with lot of experience who market themselves as fully capable to run deals and cases and aggressively undercut the fees of the BIGLAW firms, and most buyers of legal services look to use them whenever possible. Some clients are completely price-insensitive, but that number grows smaller by the year.
posted by MattD at 3:53 PM on August 23 [1 favorite]


I was burned out by 11:30 the first morning. There isn't enough money.
posted by carping demon at 9:45 PM on August 23


I just figured out that I am not returning to my old job...
posted by xammerboy at 10:52 PM on August 23


"Work Like a Dog"

I've seen the pet dogs people keep. They seem to exist to bark at others and are in the owners face all the time demanding petting and food. Its not a ruff life if your whole job is to bark at others - and that seems to be what many lawyers are.

Younger lawyers can't undercut them because they can't offer that service at any price.

I've seen the fresh Cum Laude law grads under the wing of 30 year vets get discovery questions and 40 days later draft a letter AFTER being the court was moved to accept the default no answer write a letter saying that he and the client would answer the discovery ONLY if the case would be dropped. How the hell was THAT proper behaviour?

But The State protects the Lawyer and makes them the only party who can speak in court for Corporations and for other human beings. You want to be rid of regulation? Let anyone who can pass the test be a lawyer. Hell, let anyone who wants to say "I can represent you" do that if you want to be rid of regulation.
posted by rough ashlar at 10:00 AM on August 24


> The biggest thing I've noticed is that they cater to their clients in ways few other industries would even consider.

That was my takeaway too. It's obviously worse for this lawyer but I've also experienced a boss that won't tell a customer "no". The result was non-stop overwork and (big surprise) unrealistic deadlines. A colleague mused "If you never say 'no' then your 'yes' means little."
posted by Monochrome at 8:39 PM on August 24


40 days later draft a letter AFTER being the court was moved to accept the default no answer write a letter saying that he and the client would answer the discovery ONLY if the case would be dropped.

But had they really been far even as decided to use even go want to do look more like?
posted by kagredon at 9:10 PM on August 24 [7 favorites]


MattD: And yet prices are still high enough that someone in the RPG industry has a company that makes money illegally selling cheaply printed copies of other people's books, and avoids lawsuits by only targeting companies that are small enough that they can't afford to sue him. Someone told me that getting a lawyer to look at it would cost well over $10,000, which is freaking insane. $10,000 is half my pay for a year.
posted by Canageek at 11:56 AM on August 26


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