Smart lawyers face hard questions.

After reading the recently published Servants to the Damned (2022) by investigative reporter David Enrich, which chronicles the role of large law firms in today’s political polarization and wealth disparities, I revisited some earlier psychology materials to consider whether a lawyer could find meaning while pursuing a career in Big Law.

Servants offered two questions in the context of trying to understand a Big Law team’s sanctions-worthy, abusive discovery maneuvers on behalf of its Big Pharma client in a product liability case filed by the parents of a brain-damaged child: “Am I proud of the work I’m doing?” and “Am I the person I want to be?”

Emily Esfahani Smith & Roy Baumeister

As a long-time veteran of Big Law myself, these questions haunted me.  I re-read The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters (2017) by Emily Esfahani Smith, as well as a number of related articles by professionals that described psychological studies that found that meaningfulness is more important than happiness in the search for well-being in life. See, e.g.,  Roy F. Baumeister et al., “Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life,” 8 J Positive Psych 505 (2013).

When considering the accomplishments of Big Law lawyers, I returned to a standard that my wife often invokes while reading about the misdeeds of previously respected lawyers.  How will the first sentence of his obituary read (it is almost always a “he,” but there are some notable exceptions)?

  • Prescott Smith, a brilliant lawyer known for his unmatched ability to wear down sole-practitioner plaintiffs’ attorneys in product liability cases by burying the opposing counsel in discovery requests and challenging in court every request for depositions of his clients, was found dead today.
  • Dorothy “Dottie” Jones, a clever tax lawyer known for inventing the “carried-interest” rule that enabled private-equity partners to avoid billions in taxes by having their compensation taxed as capital gains rather than as compensation, died suddenly while working in her office yesterday.
  • Pearson Thurgood, a lawyer who worked tirelessly on behalf of his Big Pharma clients to battle against government agencies that sought research records related to birth defects allegedly caused by his clients’ drugs, died unexpectedly after an unmatched career.
  • Marshall Farnsworth, a highly sought-after M&A lawyer who perfected the private-equity strategy of acquiring a company in order to close most of its factories and shift production to offshore locations to save labor costs, died in his sleep last week.
  • Frederick Putnam III, a lawyer who will always be remembered for his strategy to have two big financial companies form a joint venture to buy controlling positions in the wheat futures market so that they could raise the market price for this basic commodity, died earlier today while sailing in Long Island Sound with clients.

I suspect that the lawyers in my fictional obituaries as well as the lawyers in Servants had and have what most people would consider happy lives.  Their annual incomes were no doubt over $1 million, which enabled them to buy multiple homes, send their children to private schools, have well-stocked wine collections, take exotic vacations and generally do anything that they could find time to do.

If happiness is defined in terms of being able to satisfy your needs and wants, see Baumeister, supra at 505, these lawyers would likely be very happy, but as asked in Servants, “are they proud of the work that they are doing?” and “are they the persons that they want to be?” Servants, supra at 150. For many Big Law lawyers, the answer will be “yes”—they aspired to do challenging work and make a lot of money so they and their families could have whatever they might want.  To others, the answer will be “no,” in many cases because their happiness has not been a route to a meaningful life.

Happiness versus meaning

The field of positive psychology took off in the 1990s and resulted in an explosion of happiness books.  A quick search of the Amazon “happiness books” yields over 60,000 hits, including such well-known best sellers as The Art of Happiness (1998) by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, Stumbling on Happiness (2006) by Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, and The Happiness Advantage (2010) by Shawn Achor.  Despite the dramatic growth in happiness studies, happiness “has failed to deliver on its promise. … Indeed, social scientists have uncovered a sad irony—chasing happiness actually makes people unhappy.” Power of Meaning, supra at 10.

The distinction between happiness and meaning dates back to Aristotle’s teachings about being happy vs. living a good life, a concept known as eudaimonia.  Meaningfulness is more integral to eudaimonia than to simply feeling good. Baumeister, supra at 506. Eudaimonia is also viewed as “being and doing good—and as seeking to use and develop the best in oneself in a way that fits with one’s deeper principles …  [T]hose who choose to pursue meaning [over happiness] ultimately live fuller—and happier—lives.” Power of Meaning, supra at 13. Indeed, the work of  other psychologists, including Roy Baumeister, shows that “the search for meaning is far more fulfilling than the pursuit of personal happiness… .” Id at 16.

Meaning is a subjective concept that is often described in terms of values and purpose.  In Power of Meaning, Smith suggests that “when people say that their lives have meaning, it’s because three conditions have been satisfied: [1] they evaluate their lives as significant and worthwhile—as part of something bigger; [2] they believe their lives make sense; and [3] they feel that their lives are driven by a sense of purpose.” Id at 14.

The large study conducted by the Baumeiser group focused on the overlap and differences between happiness and meaning. See Baumeister, supra at 505-16. Happiness is a fleeting state of mind, whereas meaning has more permanence and reflects a person’s evaluation of the past, present, and future.  It was not surprising that happiness, which is largely based on satisfying needs and wants, was linked to selfish behavior.

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.” Id at 516.

Adam Grant

In the language of Professor Adam Grant, happy people were more takers (“they try to get other people to serve their ends while carefully guarding their own expertise and time”) than givers (“they contribute to others without seeking anything in return”). See Adam Grant, “In the Company of Givers and Takers,” Harv Bus Rev (Apr 2013).

Baumeister and his co-authors echo a similar sentiment: “Happiness seems intertwined with the benefits one receives from others. Meaningfulness is instead associated with the benefits that others receive from the self.” Baumeister, supra at 511-12.  Meaningfulness is associated with being a “giver.” Id.  In her book,  Smith describes it as “connecting and contributing to something beyond the self.” Power of Meaning, supra at 15. Because these types of activities require investment in something bigger, a meaningful life was linked to higher levels of worrying, stress, and anxiety. Id.  This is consistent with the frequent suggestions that having children relates to lower levels of happiness, although it obviously can be a source of meaningfulness.

Finding meaning in work

Many other people find meaning through childrearing, caring for an elderly parent, or engaging in non-profit activities, such as coaching youth sports or volunteering with community organizations.  However, because most adults spend over one-third of their waking hours working, see Karl Thompson, “What Percentage of Your Life Will You Spend at Work?,” Revise Sociology (Aug 16, 2016) (running the numbers), work is an obvious way to look for meaning in one’s life.

Prof. Amy Wrzesniewski

People can find meaning through work even though they are not engaged in one of the “caring” occupations, such as medicine, social work, and teaching.  To aid that search, Professor Amy Wrzesniewski teaches a mandatory course to MBA students at the Yale School of Management Yale on finding purpose at work. See Leah Weiss, “Finding Purpose on the Job,” mindful (Mar 1, 2018).  Professor Wrzesniewski has studied diverse workers, including those in what are often considered menial jobs, such as hospital janitors. See “Crafting Your Job into a Calling,” Yale Talk: Conversations with Peter Salovey (Feb 28, 2022).  She found that some of the hospital janitors found an important purpose in their roles by framing their jobs as a significant part of patients’ recoveries.

As a long-time owner of dogs, I needed to visit the emergency clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Vet School a number of times.  I vividly remember the parking lot attendant who had what most would consider the boring job of directing incoming visitors to open parking spots.  The attendant approached every visitor with a warm welcome and asked about the status of their pets as if he really cared.  I mentioned him to other visitors and they had the same reaction as I did.  He had obviously framed his job as much more than finding open parking spots.

Attorneys and meaning

All of this having been said, so what?  There are different reasons at the individual and enterprise levels.

On a personal level, individual lawyers who lack meaning in their jobs are more likely to have mental health problems. Blake A. Allen et al., “Meaningful work and mental health: job satisfaction as a moderator,” 27 J Mental Health (Nov 2016), at 38-44.  It is well established that when compared to the general population, lawyers are more likely to have depression and other mental health problems as well as more substance abuse. Patrick R. Krill et al., “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” 10 J Addiction Med 46 (2016) (finding that 20% of attorneys in the study were abusing alcohol; and 28% has signs of depression).

Law firms may be quick to dismiss health concerns so long as their lawyers are hitting their billable-hour targets.  However, another study led by Patrick R. Krill found that lawyers who perceive that they are valued primarily for their financial contributions (i.e., total billable hours) have worse health than their counterparts. Patrick R. Krill et al., “People, Professionals, and Profit Centers: The Connection between Lawyer Well-Being and Employer Values,” 12 Psychiatry & Behav Sci 177  (2022).  The authors noted that this is consistent with studies in other industries that have found that “employees who feel valued are more likely to report better physical and mental health as well as higher levels of engagement, satisfaction, and motivation compared to those who do not feel valued by their employers.” Id.  Not surprisingly, the Krill study also found that the lawyers whose employers emphasized financial contributions were more likely to leave their firms in the near future. Id.   

Being a decades-long veteran of Big Law, I tried to find sources of meaningfulness in Big Law.  It is a challenge to find value and purpose when the profits-per-partner metric is the North Star.  One reason is that large law firms almost exclusively represent big corporations and very wealthy families that can pay their significant legal fees.  It is hard for individual lawyers to enjoy vicariously the victories that they accomplish for their corporate or wealthy clients—it is, unfortunately, almost always about the money.

Consider the following common Big Law “victories” as potential sources of meaningfulness:

  • Using voluminous discovery requests and pre-trial motions to overwhelm a solo practitioner representing a single plaintiff in a groundwater-pollution case—unlikely.
  • Convincing a government regulator to drop an investigation into the illegal distribution of opioids by a large chain of pharmacies—unlikely.
  • Having a product-liability class action dismissed so that the class members would be forced to pursue prohibitively expensive individual claims–unlikely.
  • Convincing a court following the Great Recession to permit foreclosing on tens of thousands of subprime residential mortgages even though the lender was sanctioned by a regulator for inducing low-income borrowers to take the loans—unlikely.
  • Obtaining minimal settlements for a big tobacco company in thousands of single-plaintiff cancer cases by finding an outlier expert who provided testimony regarding a novel, alternative theory of causation—unlikely.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers

It is no secret that lawyers in Big Law look down upon so-called “plaintiffs’ lawyers.”  Big Law typically represents only defendants, except for the rare commercial case started as a plaintiff on behalf of one of their corporate clients.  We have all heard the plaintiffs’ lawyers ridiculed as “ambulance chasers,” “bloodsuckers” and “sharks.”  However, the plaintiffs’ lawyers have a better shot at having something that the Big Law lawyers lack—meaningfulness.

The defense bar vilifies the plaintiffs’ lawyers for their contingency fees, but the reality is that few of the plaintiffs would be able to bring these cases if they had to pay their lawyers’ fees as their cases progressed.  (Big Law avoids this stigma by pitching contingency fees to their corporate clients as “alternative fee arrangements.”)

The plaintiffs’ lawyers typically represent humans and, if they are successful, often recover life-changing settlements and verdicts on behalf of their clients.  In contrast to the defense work enumerated above, I would be proud to tell my neighbors at a backyard barbecue about any of the following:

  • Winning a $10 million verdict on behalf of parents in a medical malpractice case against an obstetrician who did not follow normal safeguards to prevent a baby from strangling on its umbilical cord during birth.
  • Settling a class action overtime case for $20 million on behalf of a class of thousands of hourly workers in fast-food restaurants that did not pay workers for the 30 minutes of “prep time” for which they had to be present before their shifts started.
  • Settling a class action case for $20 million on behalf of a class of thousands of credit-card customers against the issuer of the credit cards that delayed mailing bills in order to increase the number of late-payment fees that it could recover from cardholders.
  • Winning a $15 million verdict on behalf of a brain-damaged teenager in a product liability case against a manufacturer of football helmets that ignored its own test results that showed that its helmets would shatter if the wearer was tackled directly from the front.

Pockets of meaning in Big Law

Although it may be difficult to find meaning in many of the projects undertaken in Big Law, there are also many projects in which a person could find the value and purpose that relate to meaningfulness.

Here are some examples that come to mind:

  • Raising money for government infrastructure projects in bond offerings;
  • Converting an abandoned factory in a blighted industrial neighborhood to loft apartments;
  • Raising money in an IPO for a fledging drug company that invented a cure for COVID;
  • Acquiring a failing business to inject new capital and preserve jobs;
  • Filing a patent to protect an inventor’s solar-power invention; and
  • Designing a retirement plan for a company’s workers.

In my own experience, both within a large law firm and talking to partners at other large firms, participation in pro bono projects is very popular among the lawyers in Big Law.  With a depressing eye on “what do I get for this?”, the associates in most firms have successfully lobbied to have their pro bono hours count towards their annual billable hour targets.  (As you would expect, firms had to limit how many pro bono hours would count as “billable” after a few associates decided to work 2,200 billable hours (and claim an extra bonus) based almost solely on their pro bono activities.)

Viktor Frankl

Immediately after World War II, the eminent neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, wrote an influential book that posited (in Part II, after a detailed description of the Nazi death camps he had just survived) that our lives are best understood as a search for meaning. See Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) (introducing foundations of logotherapy).  Frankl’s work on logotherapy is sometimes referred to as the third branch of Viennese psychotherapy, challenging Freund’s emphasis on pleasure and Alfred Alder’s will to power.

I submit that the high level of interest in pro bono work is the typical Big Law associate’s response to Dr. Viktor Frankl’s message.  See Paul T. P. Wong, “Viktor Frankl’s Meaning-Seeking Model and Positive Psychology,” in Meaning in Positive and Existential Psychology 149-84 (Alexander Batthyany & Pninit Russo-Netzer eds., 2014) (empirically exploring parallels between Frankl’s logotherapy and positive psychology.

Ways to justify what is clearly bad

A recent edition of “The Ethicist” advice column in The New York Times included a question from a new Big Law associate who was troubled that the work that his firm does to defend large corporations in pollution litigation was inconsistent with his values. See Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Is it OK to Take a Law-Firm Job Defending Climate Villains?,” NY Times Mag (Sept 6, 2022).

The “Ethicist” responded in a manner that was similar to the answer given by a number of high-ranking Trump administration officials when asked why they were not resigning in the face of bad behavior: it is better for the junior associate with values to continue working for the corporate clients than to have him replaced with someone who did not have his values.  The Ethicist also suggested that after repaying his student loans and satisfying other needs, the young lawyer could give more money away in an effort to assuage his guilt.  (One could argue, of course, that I am doing the same.)

The stakes in Big Law may have gotten too high to expect lawyers to turn away noxious clients.  The easy response is that firms in Big Law need to generate big profits in order to discourage their stars from becoming free agents and moving on to the highest bidder. There are few firms that would reject disgraceful clients on a basis other than a fear of not getting paid.  And there will always be plenty of lawyers who are focused on the money (and, therefore, happiness), waving away the importance of meaningfulness.

Although a substantial number of partners, as they outsource their family responsibilities and reach for their designer vodka, would be shocked to hear that there is even a problem in Big Law that needs to be fixed, it’s at least noteworthy that a professor at Harvard Business School is counseling business leaders on the importance staying attune to what workers find meaningful and fulfilling in their jobs. Sharlene Gupta, “You Don’t Have to Quit Your Job to Find More Meaning in Life,” HBS Working Knowledge (Sept 21, 2022) (discussing how managers, in engaging with workers, need to be more attuned to subjective ways that work impacts the broader world).

If it is all about the money (and the short-term happiness that money can buy), it may be time to stop pretending that any vestiges of being a profession remain for lawyers.  Perhaps much of the code of ethics should be scrapped and lawyers should just be governed by the criminal code in the same manner as Goldman Sachs and McKinsey in investment banking and consulting, respectively.

Two questions

Although it may be foolish to think that partners in any firm in Big Law would choose lower profits in exchange for more meaningful lives for its lawyers, I predict that at least some subset of individual lawyers will eventually be asking themselves some variation of the two questions posed at the beginning of this essay.

  1. “Am I proud of the work I’m doing?”
  2. “Am I the person I want to be?”

There are many ways to pursue meaningfulness while continuing in Big Law by making time for helping humans, assisting non-profit organizations, supporting family members and communities, and other activities that have value and purpose.  In addition, there may be ways to reframe Big Law jobs in order to find meaning that is not readily apparent. Gupta, supra.

Although it appears that money may make it possible to actually buy happiness, I encourage Big Law lawyers to consider the research that shows that pursuing meaningfulness—rather than chasing money-fueled happiness—is more likely to lead to a satisfying life.