Why are so many lawyers unhappy with their jobs?

Why are so many lawyers unhappy with their jobs?

admin Lawyer 2024-04-09

I'm a mid-level or perhaps senior associate at a large law firm. Let me describe the two types of days that I routinely experience and then mention why I actually think I'm unhappy - as opposed to what you might think if you simply read TNR or ATL.

Busy Day:

7:00am: Wake up, check Blackberry. See that 30 emails directed to me / my team on projects have come in since I put it down at 2:00am. Response to 10 of the 30, get four junior associates in motion on tasks for the day. Try to go to gym, but realize I can't make it because, while I was writing those 10 emails, I've had clients send me meeting planners for 8:30am and 10:00am calls. (For the initiated, clients rarely ask if I can make a call; sometimes I'm told to get on the line in five or ten minutes, sometimes I get random meeting planners. If matters conflict, somebody screams uncle, but it usually isn't me.)

7:30am: Hop on train (subway). Read more emails while on train and respond to another 4 or 5 so that responses will launch as soon as I come up from underground.

8:15am: Arrive at office. Start printing documents for 8:30am call b/c secretaries won't arrive for another hour.

8:30am: Call gets moved to 9:00. Thank god I don't expect it to last more than an hour, or I'd already have a conflict. Use extra time to look over documents I expect I'll be discussing on 9:00 call. (But still no clue of its content because I tried emailing the client, but the client did not respond.)

9:00am: Jump on call. Fortunately, it's on what I expected. Client wants to do another call with the other side at 10:00am because he is heading to the beach with his kids at noon. I inform client I have another call at 10:00 and client asks me to push that call for him. I try to dodge by proposing 10:30 and promising to keep the other call to 30 minutes. All the while, 40 new emails come in while I am on the call. I get two more junior associates moving on projects, IM with another three and request additional experienced staffing for one project.

10:00am: Get on second call. Again have no idea what it will be about, but assume I can handle it because it is with an unsophisticated corporate client that we love because it lets us ring the meter. Junior comes to my office to listen to call. In-house lawyer bloviates about irrelevant points for 30 minutes and I field another 20 emails while on call and mark a document at my desk, occasionally paying attention to the call. The junior is in my office, but I never look at her because I'm just trying to get done what I need to get done to not fall further behind.

10:30am: I recap call with junior associate (largely because I missed key points while marking the document that is at my desk, and need her to tell me what happened). I then get on the 10:30am call with the 9:00am client and try to pay attention because the client is a business-side managing director. I check the news, anyway, however, in part because I know that nothing I do on the call will in any way impact my pay or my chance of promotion, so I don't really pay much attention.

11:00am: Call ends. I follow-up with benefits and IP on some points raised on the 10:30am call. They're not expecting my queries, but they can't do anything. I CC the client and the relevant partners so that the client knows I'm following up on his points and so that the benefits and IP associates have to meet my stated timeline or look bad. (Chances are, they won't respond anyway. We won't fire them for it, and we won't pay them any more if they do.)

11:30am: Take a few minutes to skim the news; get coffee. Return to desk and begin marking documents drafted by juniors for one of my deals. Attempt to mark them without interruption, but answer the phone every 10 or 15 minutes and lose train of thought.

1:15pm: 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 tell the client that, no, I have not yet reviewed the documents, but I will as soon as I can and generally try to determine whether the matter is urgent. When I realize that his deadline of this afternoon is false (like most deadlines), I find a way to push the work back. (I have more work on my plate than I could complete if I stayed in the office 24x7 for two or three weeks, so it's always a matter of fighting whatever fire is burning strongest; never a matter of real project management.)

2:00pm: Begin catching up on emails; see that I missed two calls while reviewing documents and hope clients/partners are not mad at me for missing them. Call juniors to determine what I missed.

2:30pm: Urgent email from client. Don't believe that matter is urgent b/c every matter from this client is said to be urgent, but call client to check.

2:45pm: Matter not urgent, so grab lunch in the caf. Eat lunch at desk while responding to emails.

3:00pm: Things are quiet, so catch up on document that has sat on my desk for more than a week. The official deadline was last Friday, but we all know that deadline was false and I probably blow through 50+% of my deadlines.

3:30pm: The firedrills begin. Client says it wants to sign a set of documents today, none of which we've seen. I call two juniors to get them to review parts and to get tax review. I skim as fast as I can, isolating key points.

4:00pm: Three clients have already sent me voicemails on other projects, and I have two more meeting planners, both for calls at 4:30pm. I ignore all to close out document I'm reading for the 3:30pm client.

4:30pm: I jump on one of the calls and find out this client also wants documents signed tonight. I IM some juniors and wonder how I can possibly get this done.

5:00pm: Partner drives by and drops a 200 page markup on my desk. He spend 30 minutes in my office trying to discuss it despite my telling him that other matters are in process and need to be closed out.

5:30pm: I've been hit with two more clients who want to sign documents today. I now have five projects that are trying to get done by today. I push things forward to the extent I can, do the least possible amount of work I am OK with on each project and push things out. I am on and off calls with each client for next three hours while turning the documents.

8:30pm: I'm now waiting for comments on three of the five matters. The other two have died: false alarms. I catch up on emails.

9:00pm: Things get hot again and it's just like at 5:30pm, except that now it's harder to reach the clients but the deals still need to get done. This continues until 10:30pm.

10:30pm: Order dinner on seamless, catch up on emails not related to hot projects.

11:00pm: Documents begin to come back and junior associate dumps work on me from outside of my practice group. I try to tell him to shove it, but I can't because he has CC'd a powerful partner. I ignore the deals that I'm trying to close and deal with the junior associate's query.

11:15pm: Return to hot deals. Continue going back and forth (I'm still receiving 50-100 emails an hour on these projects) for next 2 hours.

1:15am: One deal done, the others can't be finished because one side's clients went home and all outstanding points are "business points" (i.e., they matter, so we can't touch them because we are just lawyers). Turn back to other work that build during the day. Because most of my juniors are gone, do whatever needs to be done that hasn't yet been done.

2:00am: Get markups from Asian office. Powerful partner CC'd, so turn documents myself, which include such wonderful 2:00am tasks as adding brackets to the trailers on signature pages. Finish in about 90 minutes, and call a car.

3:45am: Get in car, knowing that everything that I did not close last night will be open by 9:00am the next morning, likely with clients hounding me to get in touch with other side, update all dates and numbers, etc., from approx. 7:00am onwards.

Not-Busy Day

7:00am: Wake up, check Blackberry and see 20 emails. None need to be handled by me, so I ignore them.

7:15am: I go to the gym and aim to get into the office at 9:30am.

9:30am: I skim the news and ignore projects that have sat on my desk for weeks. I turn to them at 10:00am and work on them until 1:00pm.

1:00pm: I get lunch and say hi to my secretary. I eat lunch at my desk so that I can continue to plow through the backlog from busier days.

4:00pm: I get coffee b/c I am bored with the work and want to talk to somebody. I bring coffee back to my desk, anyway, and continue to read and mark more documents.

8:30pm: I finish reading what I think ought to be read today (It's really my call; every deadline I have at this point is obviously false and I cannot possibly clear my plate.), and call it a day by having document services scan my markups.

8:45pm: I take the train home, a little happier because I talked to the folks in document services, at the coffee shop and the cashier in the cafeteria. Otherwise, I just spent the last 11.25 hours alone in my office proofreading and marking documents without any human interaction.

How many people would like to work through either of these two types of days?

When you add partners who scream at you (and do indeed throw objects when angry), associates who routinely backstab each other, fixed salaries and bonuses so that there is no link between pay and performance, or pay and value add, and partnership odds of roughly 1 in 25 to 1 in 50 - as well as sometimes weeks on end in which you do not leave the office before midnight - there are just a lot of things not to like about the practice of law.

But, having been through all of this - and quite a bit more - 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.

Btw: I've slightly altered the facts in my replies because I want to preserve my anonymity. Because I felt uncomfortable, and in no way want Quorans to think that I am exaggerating anything above or below, I felt compelled to add this disclosure.

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