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Success as a lawyer can come at the expense of personal relationships. Is it worth the price?

Few of my former partners in the global firm where I worked would understand my transition from a profits-first managing partner to a speaker and commentator on lawyer well-being.  How could this have happened?  Have I gone soft?  Quite the contrary—I remain on my mission to live a good life.

Before offering my views on law practice and lawyer careers, it’s useful for me to state my background upfront so that readers know my biases. For about three decades, I was a partner in a global law firm, practicing in a wide variety of business areas (frankly, wherever the clients led me).  For the last 15 years of that run, I was the full-time managing partner with firm-wide responsibility for the day-to-day business of the firm.  At the end of my third term as a managing partner (at age 62), I looked for another career and began teaching at a large university’s law school, where I started a legal clinic for startup and early-stage businesses.

My late-stage career change caused me to consider whether many of the hard-charging senior and retired law partners would be happier if they sought out some activity that gave them a purpose.  This led me down the “rabbit hole” of lawyer loneliness as I listened to the many podcasts and interviews with Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States. See, e.g., Arthur Brooks, “How to Know You’re Lonely,” How to Build a Happy Life, Ep. 2 (Oct 12, 2021).  Then I read Dr. Murthy’s book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connect in a Sometimes Lonely World (2020).

As I explored the research on loneliness, this fact consistently jumped out at me: lawyers rank #1 in loneliness, not retired lawyers trying to keep busy, but lawyers generally.  In a 2018 Harvard Business Review article, researchers from the consulting firm BetterUp shared the results of their survey of over 1,600 workers.  “In a breakdown of loneliness and social support rates by profession,” the authors note, “legal practice was the loneliest kind of work.”  Shawn Achor, et al., “America’s Loneliest Workers, According to Research,“ Harv Bus Rev, Mar 19, 2018.

In a follow-up article in the Washington Post, the study’s authors reported that 61% of lawyers ranked “above average” on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, the highest percentage in the sample.  Danielle Paquette, “American workers are already lonely. Here come the robots.” Wash Post, Mar 30, 2018 (noting other lonely groups, including “engineers (57 percent), followed by research scientists (55 percent), workers in food preparation and serving (51 percent), and those in education and library services (45 percent)”).

This seemed counter-intuitive: lawyers are around other people much of their working days.  Yet, in Together, Dr. Murthy explains that loneliness does not mean being alone:

Many people think of loneliness as isolation, but the difference between these two terms is substantial.  Loneliness is the subjective feeling that you’re lacking the social connections you need.  It can feel like being stranded, abandoned, or cut off from the people with whom you belong—even if you’re surrounded by other people.  What’s missing when you’re lonely is the feeling of closeness, trust, and the affection of genuine friends, loved ones, and community. (p 7)

Obviously, loneliness as defined by Murthy is a place that most of us would like to avoid.  Yet, it turns out that loneliness may be a gateway to other bleak life outcomes.

Loneliness as a risk factor

Enhanced concern about loneliness as an epidemic affecting the general population may have been kicked off several years ago by the National Health Service in England, which acknowledged the growing tide of loneliness as a matter of public health. See Katie Hafner, “Researchers Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness,” NY Times, Sept 5, 2016 (reporting “mounting evidence linking loneliness to physical illness and to functional and cognitive decline”).

In recent years, we’ve learned a lot about the second-order effects of loneliness, none of them being good. For example, loneliness has eclipsed obesity as a predictor of early mortality; is associated with a higher risk coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and stroke; is correlated with, and likely the cause of, faster rates of cognitive decline; and is “as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

A number of commentators have suggested reasons why lawyers are the loneliest, most of which relate to their workload and the personalities that they develop. In 2019, a widely read article in the legal press summarized the factors, including a lack of civility in a line of work that’s adversarial by nature; decreasing connections between lawyers and their firms as lateral movement increases; and a primary focus on billing hours, often a solitary task, to bring in revenue and boost profits.  See Lizzy McLellan, “Battling an ‘Epidemic’ of Loneliness Among Lawyers,”, May 28, 2019.  In terms of the root cause, however,  the article cited two consistent themes:  (1) lawyers often work extremely long hours, which requires them to give up on existing and new interpersonal relationships, and (2) lawyers develop egocentric personalities, which make maintaining and developing deep interpersonal relationships difficult.

I will discuss below my reactions to certain reasons that have been suggested and also discuss two related reasons that are seldom discussed: the two tournaments in Big Law in which many lawyers participate.  I will blame law schools as well. I will conclude with some proposed solutions, albeit, for the current generation of lawyers, better and more informed choices is likely the best (and perhaps only) option.

Associate-to-partner tournament

There are many book and articles in which the route to partnership in large law firms is described as a tournament in which a group of associates starts the race and then relatively few are promoted into the hallowed halls of partnership.  The most notable is Marc Galanter & Thomas Palay, The Tournament of Lawyers (1991).

When I was a managing partner, I would often hear from associates that they did not want to become partners.  I always thought that they were just hedging their bets so that if they did not make it, they could fall back on the excuse that partnership was not their goal.  The reality is that each entering class of associates can look to the right and left and see their competitors in the race ahead of them.

Although partners do not like to admit it, all of the associates in an entering class cannot become partners even if they are excellent in every conceivable aspect that a particular firm considers for promotion.  The business model contemplates that almost every associate in the group will work extremely long hours—like greyhounds chasing the mechanical rabbit of partnership—and then the gods will decide that a few of them should become partners.

It is arguable that firms should retain senior associates who miss the brass ring but just compensate them each year in accordance with their respective contributions.  However, retention beyond the “sell by” date seldom works because the “passed-over” associate becomes branded as a “permanent associate” and it is too demoralizing to stay on. Cf Robert T. Swaine, The Cravath Firm and Its Predecessors, 1819-1948 Vol II at 7 (1948) (explaining Cravath’s compelling reasons for maintaining a strict up-or-out policy for associates).

The associate-to-partner tournament is a zero-sum game so associates must run as fast as possible in order to stay ahead of their fellow associates: if any one of them has a win, the chances of promotion for the others takes a hit.  This is obviously not an environment in which strong interpersonal relationships are likely to thrive.

It is hard to measure performance when the performance criteria are subjective.  Junior lawyers are subject to this uncertainty in all but one respect—total billable hours.  Associates cannot control how senior lawyers think about their work, but they can control their input in terms of hours billed.  This results in associates working more and more and then being sure to broadcast their Herculean efforts and contributions to anyone who will listen.

When I was a young pup associate many years ago, my older brother, who was two years ahead of me in another large law firm, told me that I would be “safe” if I had at least 2,000 billable hours each year.  As we often hear, “that was then; this is now.”  Cf Post 082 (reporting an average of 1400-1500 billable hours for associates at a major firm in the mid-1960s).

In the almost-daily announcements about Big Law bonuses in December 2021, it was common to see bonus scales that started at 2,000 or more and then climbed to much higher levels.  The highest I noticed was a “piecework” bonus for more than 2,700 billable hours (35% higher than my brother’s safe number).  Does anyone doubt that the number of associates who reach that level will be higher next year now that firms have publicized that there are some associates already billing over 2,700 hours?  It would be risky for an associate not to aim that high because others in the race will surely be there.

Wholly apart from whether anyone wants to get close to a colleague who is constantly bragging about how busy they are, there is simply not much time left for family or friends if you feel that you need to keep up with those who are working all of the time.  There are not many Big Law associates who volunteer as Little League coaches.

Staying-a-partner tournament

There is another tournament at many large firms that is seldom discussed except by the occasional law firm researcher:  the competition to stay a partner.  See, e.g., Galanter & Henderson, “The Elastic Tournament: The Second Transformation of the Big Law Firm,” 60 Stan L Rev 1867 (2008). There is a handful of firms where lawyers can thrive based on their excellent technical skills.  In the overwhelming majority of law firms, however, generating business is the “coin of the realm.”  One of the biggest misconceptions about law firms is that once a lawyer becomes a partner, there is plenty of work for that partner to do for the rest of his or her career.

In reality, apart from the unusual growth in 2021, the amount of work done by law firms in total has not grown much.  See Thomson Reuters Institute, “2022 Report on the State of the Legal Market,” Georgetown Law Center on Ethics & the Legal Profession (2022) at 10 fig 9 (showing flat or downward demand for lawyer hours since 2007).  If a firm is able to grow its volume of work, it is probably doing so by taking the work from another firm or adding “lateral” partners who bring clients with them.

The days of law firms having “captive clients” are over.  For clients that are sufficiently large to have a general counsel, the general counsel typically spreads work among a number of firms.  It is common for a general counsel to put major projects “out for bid” and request a pool of firms to submit their proposals for representation in terms of both strategy and billing alternatives.

When I was a managing partner, one of my annual responsibilities was to meet with the new partners and discuss their personal business plans.  Most of them told me that they did not see themselves as “rainmakers” and that they would be content to work on “the firm’s clients” even if it meant making less money.  I explained to the new partners that the firm did not have a trunk in the basement with clients waiting to be serviced by our lawyers and that every partner, therefore, had to share responsibility for maintaining and perhaps growing the client base.

New partners always seemed somewhat shocked at the suggestion that their excellent technical work was no longer sufficient to make it in the new tournament.  Lawyers are generally introverts and do not see themselves as marketers and salespersons.  (This mismatch of talents and responsibilities reminds me of how universities choose presidents and deans based on their scholarship and then inform the winners that they are expected to generate huge amounts from donors.) Lawyers generally have a hard time being business people—this is the reason that they often keep working at a breakneck pace for months after clients have stopped paying.

If a firm’s partners cannot generate new business, whether individually or as part of a group effort, their careers peak earlier than planned, and their firms initially suggest that they would be happier with an in-house job or perhaps with a less profitable firm.  Partner life is less stressful for the subject-matter experts whom a firm needs in such specialized areas as tax, antitrust and intellectual property.  For most partners, however, the glorious event of “making partner” is the beginning of a new race just to stay in the game.

The practice of “easing out” partners who are on a “service-partner” plateau is another example of how “operating like a business” has sacrificed civility among partners.  This should not be surprising because this has been the way that big companies in the US have operated for many years.  When a middle manager reaches a point where the person’s duties can be performed by a younger and cheaper employee on the way up the ladder, the employer often offers the middle manager a “package” in order to entice the person to leave the company (and waive any age-discrimination protections that may otherwise be available).

Law-firm partners need to approach every acquaintance as a potential source of business. As a result, most of their friends are what Arthur Brooks calls “deal friends” as opposed to real friends.  Arthur C. Brooks, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life at 129 (2022).  Professor Brooks relies on Aristotle’s friendship ladder, likening deal friends to friendships based on utility where “emotional bonds are weakest and the benefits are lowest.” Id.

The billable-hours expectations do not go away when a lawyer becomes a partner.  Although the expectations are lower than for associates, partners need to maintain a high level of billable hours along with their duty of generating new business for their firms.  Some partners hope that they can make up for their business-generation deficiencies by billing more hours.  However, that generally won’t suffice because firms can rely on their associates for billing high hours.

All of this creates a pressure-cooker situation for partners.  I acknowledge that the high incomes received by many law-firm partners compensate them very well for the situation in which they find themselves—there is not much time spent worrying about the work environments for professionals with high six- and seven-figure incomes.  Nevertheless, the time and stress involved with surviving as partners require payment of a toll on the personal lives of the partners involved.  Perhaps the old adage says it best: “money doesn’t buy happiness.”

The billable hour

For as brilliant as many lawyers believe they are, it is interesting that only the contingent-fee lawyers have found a way to increase their incomes by a means other than working more hours.  Even a hot-dog vendor could make more money by moving their hot-dog cart from one busy location to the next and working 18 hours a day.  Yet, unlike the typical hot-dog vendor who has a family and a non-work life, many lawyers choose to keep working long past the thresholds at which hourly workers would be receiving “time and a half” for their extra efforts.

It is unlikely that higher compensation is the motivation for an individual lawyer (other than a solo practitioner) to work high hours because their income generally does not increase in direct proportion to their hours worked.  However, the intra-firm competition among lawyers and the ever-present objective performance criterion that the billable hour provides drive the lawyers’ work habits more than the goal of reaping higher income.

There are other highly paid professionals who are not compensated based on hours of input and, therefore, receive a monetary return for their reputation and skill as well as their output.  If these output-focused professionals are more talented and efficient, they devote less input to their projects.  On the other hand, with the billable-hour model, lower-skilled and less-efficient lawyers are rewarded with higher revenue, at least until their clients find better lawyers.  Investment bankers typically receive compensation in accordance with a percentage scale for transactions and fixed fees for their advisory work. Consultants and surgeons also typically charge fixed feeds for their projects (a hip replacement costs the same, whether it takes two hours or six hours).

With every hour representing more potential income for a law firm and its partners, lawyers are disinclined to spend time on “wasteful” activities, such as social interaction with colleagues.  I recall once suggesting to other managers of my firm that we should provide free lunches in our in-house cafeterias so that the lawyers would interact with each other more.  I was outvoted but a few managers were willing to consider the idea if lawyers could take their free lunches back to their offices (thereby defeating the purpose).  I remember another senior partner suggesting that I should do something about the small groups of lawyers whom he saw walking to a nearby Starbucks during the day “when they should be at their desks.”

This ”nose-to-the-grindstone” mentality obviously does not promote relationships among those whose billable hours are being monitored.

Big egos

There is no shortage of commentary about lawyers and their big egos.  See, e.g., Amanda Griffin, “Attorneys Develop Big Egos, Ruining Their Happiness,” JD Journal, Apr 4, 2018. The assumed relationship between successful lawyers and big egos is not surprising because few clients would feel comfortable with a “wishy-washy” lawyer—clients expect good lawyers to be strong and confident.  (It was always frustrating for me when clients used television lawyers to define success: brash, loud, and “tough.”)

It is no fun spending time with people who are constantly boasting about their achievements, busyness, and importance. Thus, the bigger the ego, the smaller the chance of close personal relationships. See Phillip Chard, “People with big egos lose sight of life’s bigger picture,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, Dec 7, 2018 (psychotherapist noting that when egos become inflated, “[o]ur emotional intelligence plummets, relationships go awry, we turn off a lot of people and lose touch with our place in the world”)

Brené Brown

Most lawyers who are striving to maintain their public armor of strength would view vulnerability as a chink in their armor.  However, Brené Brown, in a podcast interview with Adam Grant, challenged the assumption that vulnerability is a weakness, and Professor Brown also maintains, after substantial research, that vulnerability is the key to connection.

One of the best examples of lawyers’ egos is the way that they rush to see how much other lawyers make in the annual American Lawyer sweepstakes regarding law-firm financial performance.  Although it is well known that law firms manipulate the results that they submit, lawyers scrutinize the numbers more closely than the facts of any case that they have litigated.  (I once asked Citibank, typically the largest lender to big law firms, if the financial information that their clients provided to the bank matched the AmLaw numbers—for 100 firms surveyed, 98 had overstated their profits per equity partner.)

I cannot think of another industry that openly brags to its customers about the amount of money that its members make on the backs of their customers—think about it: physicians, consultants, accountants, investment bankers?  As for manipulation, is a law firm really a better firm when it drops lower-compensated partners from full-equity status to reduce the divisor when computing the average profits per partner?

There are many other examples of lawyers irrationally worshiping false ego-gratifying gods.  I recall individual lawyers’ wanting to purchase advertisements congratulating themselves on being included in the regional Superlawyers publications even though most lawyers, including those selected, thought that the selection process was obviously flawed.  The annual US News & World Report ranking of law schools is another example of the seemingly insatiable egos of the “best and brightest” lawyers and law professors—they boast about the rankings of their respective alma maters and employers even though almost everyone is aware that the ranking components have little predictive value of good lawyering and that law schools routinely “game” their metrics.

Yet, all this ego-indulgence undercuts the likelihood of close interpersonal relationships, thus putting lawyers at greater risk of loneliness.

Law schools

 With all that is written and discussed on lawyers’ loneliness, depression, substance abuse, and general unhappiness, it is natural to question who is at fault.  Are lawyers born with hyper-competitive traits and big egos? Is Big Law with its crushing workloads at fault?  Is it the pursuit of status or high income?

Several years ago, a clinical law professor and a psychology professor conducted a large-scale empirical study to answer these questions. See Lawrence S. Krieger & Kennon M. Sheldon, “What Makes Lawyers Happy?: A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success,” 83 Geo Wash L Rev 554 (2015).  It turns out that, among other factors, employment at large, prestigious law firms is bad for lawyer happiness, at least as compared to lawyers focused on public service.  Id at 618,  That said, the researchers found little evidence that lawyers were a unique population.   Comparing their results to decades of research on happiness in the broader population, Krieger and Sheldon concluded that these studies “apply without qualification to this large sample of legal professionals,” id at 621, thus suggesting that lawyers’ happiness plight is necessarily the result of environmental factors.

In terms of environment, Krieger and Sheldon laid much of the blame at the feet of US law schools, suggesting that law students change during law school in response to the competitive environment that they have entered.  They found that:

[T]he current data show that the psychological factors seen to erode during law school are the very factors most important for the well-being of lawyers. Conversely, the data reported here also indicate that the factors most emphasized in law schools—grades, honors, and potential career income, have nil to modest bearing on lawyer well-being.  Id at 560.

The empirical work discussed by Krieger and Sheldon displayed the following changes in law students after entering law school:

[M]arked increases in depression, negative mood, and physical symptoms, with corresponding decreases in positive affect and life satisfaction; shifts from helping and community-oriented values to extrinsic, rewards-based values in the first year; similar shifts in motivation for becoming lawyers, from salutary internal purposes (for interest, enjoyment, and meaning) to more superficial and external reasons (such as for financial rewards, recognition, or to impress or please others); and decreases in values of all kinds after the first year, suggesting generalized demoralization or loss of personal purpose. Id at 566.

Those of us who attended law school would readily acknowledge that it did not take long to become aware of the proxies for winning: class rank, law review, high-paying jobs with Big Law, and federal-court clerkships.  High-achieving students typically follow the winners’ career path of success in lockstep without pausing to question whether they will be happy in Big Law, for example, helping large companies to conduct years-long discovery wars or churning out repetitive disclosure documents for yet another offering of mortgage-backed securities.  The highest achievers likewise often follow their successful predecessors into federal-court clerkships even when they have no interest in pursuing careers in which this experience would be helpful.

As with the partnership tournament, law school is the classic zero-sum game.  There are only so many students who can make Order of the Coif.  If I win, your chances of winning go down.

Other professional schools appear to be different.  MBA schools like Stanford trumpet their collaborative approach in their recruiting materials: “our collaborative culture is designed to reduce competition between students and deepen relationships.  Northwestern makes a similar pitch: “[a]t Kellogg, collaboration is integral to who we are and what we do. We believe that it is a strategic imperative for leaders in today’s interconnected, global economy.”

Medical educator Maha Pervaz Iqbal has observed with respect to medical schools that:

The medical practice landscape has changed towards a more team-oriented and inter-professional approach. Physicians are expected to function as effective members of multidisciplinary teams, as the patient case mix has increased in complexity, chronicity, and age. Developing collaborative skills in medical education is essential as medical students will enter a dynamic world of team-based medical practice. …

The literature recommends beginning collaborative and teamwork training at the start of medical training, using implicit team learning (e.g. problem-based learning and team-based learning activities where students work interdependently to achieve learning outcomes while teamwork/collaboration is influenced by the facilitator) for early students and progressing towards more explicit team learning (e.g. clinical simulation activities where students work interdependently and are given explicit instruction and practice in teamwork/collaboration with the goal of improving their performance) as students advance.

Maha Pervaz Iqbal, “Promoting collaborative and teamwork competency in medical students,Harvard Macy Community Blog, Apr 13, 2022.

Although law-school classes occasionally divide into very small teams for moot court and similar competitions, group projects are rare.  It is hard to see how the reasons given for collaboration in MBA schools and medical schools are different from the legal environment in which most law students will find themselves.

Where do we go from here?

There are no doubt many reasons why some law students transform into hyper-competitive, self-focused, success-driven lawyers.  This extrinsic success has come at a price—lawyers who become successful under the measures of income and status are less likely to have close personal relationships and, therefore, more likely to suffer from loneliness.

It is naïve to suggest that law firms should just require fewer billable hours, promote and retain more partners, and make less money.  The current business model works too well for those who measure their lives by their published profits per partner.  Also, ratcheting down would only work if all firms adopted the same philosophy because the high achievers would simply move to the firms that were still in the race to the top.

I suggest that law schools take a look at whether their annual reenactment of The Great Race strikes the right balance among those customs that are intended to promote effective education and those that are likely to detract from the long-term well-being of their graduates.  It is ironic that law schools have been quick to adopt well-being programs during the COVID pandemic, yet the winner-take-all model in the academic realm continues to thrive.  Perhaps law schools need to spend more time discussing with their students the many careers that are available apart from Big Law, and the possibilities for finding fulfilling careers in public service, with Small Law, and in small cities.  Likewise, law schools with top-to-bottom rankings of their students should consider whether even percentage-based ranking below a certain level, say, the median, serves any worthwhile purpose (although I appear to be losing the battle to abandon numerical rankings in the law school where I teach).  And wouldn’t it be better to train law students to work in groups, as most of them will do when they start practicing?

I admit that I do not have a systemic solution to propose for the legal industry, though I am confident that the so-called meritocracy based on rankings, whether it be the US News law school rankings or the American Lawyer profits-per-partner rankings, is a road to personal loneliness.

All we have are personal strategies

Change in the legal profession is notoriously slow. So that means that most lawyers working today need to focus on personal strategies to navigate professional environments that put us at higher risk of loneliness.

On an individual level, I encourage lawyers to examine their personal situations to see whether they are devoting enough time to their personal relationships.  I have a few friends who have called me almost every week just to “check-in,” as they say—none of them is a lawyer.

In my case, I was over age 60 when I jumped off the hedonic treadmill and started a new career.  It is easy for me to say now that I wish that I had done so earlier, and I acknowledge that I was wearing the same income-and-prestige blinders that chain most Big Law partners to their careers.  It was apparent to me as a managing partner of a law firm that most of my friends were (and would turn out to be) only what Arthur Brooks calls deal friends, but I was fortunate in my legal practice to grow some lasting client friendships.  This was presumably because I was fortunate to represent small- and mid-market companies where the management teams did not turn over regularly (but which could still afford my Big-Law fees).

I will end with a tribute to a small-city lawyer in Iowa whom my daughters called Big Jim when they were young.  By extrinsic standards of fame and fortune, Jim was not special.  However, he was an important member of his community and his clients pleaded with him not to retire as he entered his 70s, then his 80s.  Jim obviously enjoyed the many relationships that he had built over the years.  Likewise, Jim was happier in his role as a lawyer than any better-known and better-compensated lawyer whom I have known.  I cannot imagine that Jim suffered from loneliness.