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Reflections on the Profession: Lawyers’ Job (Dis)Satisfaction

June 28, 2011

It’s no secret that members of the legal profession have a comparatively low level of job-satisfaction, a problem that has worsened with the ongoing woes of the global economy. Lawyers report that primary among the causes of their dissatisfaction are the high stress and long hours that legal jobs tend to entail. And, even in my office, which generally boasts high morale, pay- and hiring-freezes have taken a toll, despite their necessity in avoiding lay-offs.

But, I have long believed (going back as far as law school) that there’s another significant contributor to lawyer dissatisfaction: the failure to develop personalized criteria for career success. As one law school dean pointed out, “graduating lawyers often make terrible mistakes, in large part because they don’t know themselves or what they really desire in the workplace.” Without deciding for ourselves what constitutes career satisfaction, we are susceptible to the temptation to follow the herd, constantly comparing ourselves to peers/herdmates. This is a losing endeavor. Once you get sucked in, the grass is always greener on the other side. There is always some other job or project or assignment that looks more appealing than the one you have.  It recalls one of my favorite parables, “The Fisherman’s Wife,” which cautions against always coveting more, not because it satisfies a personal need, but for its own sake. 

A vivid example of this is a recent conversation with a very successful attorney friend with a thriving practice at a prestigious mid-sized Philadelphia firm. He recounted how he was crushed when, after a clerkship and a couple of years of government practice, he vainly tried several times to get into one of the biggest law firms in Philadelphia (and, by extension, the country). The irony was that a law school friend, who had started her career at that same big firm, had recently expressed profound relief that, coming off a clerkship, she had landed a government job similar to the one my first friend had left: getting that job meant she did not have to resort to “Plan B,” going back to that same firm! Perhaps the big firm job suited the first friend but not the second, but I think it more likely that what attracted him was the glitzy facade.

Earlier this week, Harvard Business School professor Thomas DeLong, published an excellent short piece on this problem—he frames it as “chronic comparing”—including some proposed solutions. The bottom line is that some introspection as to what ‘s most important to us in our careers and personal lives is essential. Not only can it help us to appreciate the positive aspects of our current positions, it can also help us formulate better, more specific career goals. Maybe it’s partner, maybe it’s not even strictly a law job. The important thing is that you decide.

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