General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Volume 17, Number 2
March 2000




There is an increasing realization that law is a profession in crisis. Much of the public views lawyers as self-interested profiteers thriving on the problems and tragedies of others. Lawyers themselves are increasingly unhappy.

Why is what once was assumed and understood to be a high and noble calling now widely held in such low regard? And why are so many lawyers unhappy with their lives in general and with their profession in particular? There are several causes. First, the law gradually has evolved from the dignity of a profession to a "value-free" and dollar-driven business. Second, lawyers in recent decades have undervalued the importance of collegiality, civility, and mutual trust. Lawyers a generation ago worked in a radically different, less adversarial, environment. With noted exceptions, they knew and trusted one another. Personal relationships made civility the rule instead of the exception.

Third, along with the transformation of law from profession to business has come a neglect of the higher, more objective role of the lawyer as "counselor." The legal profession historically has placed much emphasis on the role of lawyer as "counselor." There was a difference between the role of attorney and the role of counselor. Rather than being an advocate in an adversarial process, the lawyer as "counselor" sought avoidance of conflict altogether, or the prompt conciliation and settlement of conflicts when they arose.

Fourth, the problems faced by lawyers reflect the broader societal context. Besides the negative trends unique to the legal profession, decreased professional satisfaction is partly attributable to the increased complexity, pace, and depersonalization of modern urban life. Lawyers, like everyone else, need the love and support of family and friends, time for recreation and relaxation, spiritual comfort and the other elements of a healthy, happy life. To the extent the forces of modern life have undermined these elements, lawyers have suffered their ill effects.

Obviously, decades of cultural and professional trends cannot be reversed with any number of easy steps. However, significant results are likely if we challenge our fundamental assumptions about our professional and personal priorities. Toward that end, a 12-step program for lawyers is proposed.

Step 1: Acknowledging Our Need. The survey data and anecdotal evidence should convince us that law is a profession in crisis, that many lawyers are working harder but enjoying it much less. Thankfully, the institutional response of the bar has been substantial and significant. There are now regular articles in our journals, bar materials, and CLE programs addressing quality of life issues. Another encouraging sign is the increasing number of firms that realize there must be more to life than work, both for partners and associates.

On the other hand, recovery programs are not for institutions but for individuals. Therefore, the ultimate question is not what the bar is doing, but whether lawyers are getting the point and making better choices. Am I pleased with the balance in my professional and personal life? Are my priorities consistent with any principles, dreams, or ideals I once brought to my community? Asking and addressing questions like these is the first step toward a balanced, fulfilling professional life.

Step 2: Begin a Lifelong Struggle to Regain Control of Our Time. The feeling that we never have enough time is not a problem unique to lawyers, of course. But, at least for lawyers who bill by the hour, there is an additional squeeze: We soon learn the more we work, the more we bill, and the more we bill, the more we make. Then we're on a slippery slope to an apparently bottomless pit of never-ending work. We must draw the line, or our work will consume us. Once we decide to protect a certain portion of our quality time and energy to raise our children, volunteer in our communities, and follow other personal pursuits, we should realize the struggle is just beginning.

Step 3: Develop Good Time Management Skills. Developing good time management skills is key to maximizing our productivity in our personal and professional lives.

Step 4: Living under Your Means. Just as work expands to fill the time, so our financial "needs" have a tendency to expand and consume all we make. Unless we struggle to avoid it, the natural tendency is to mortgage our future and engage in consumer spending that severely limits our ability to choose a healthier, more balanced life. By exercising discipline over our spending, we can reduce the financial pressures that cause stress. Living within or under our means will free us to make wiser, balanced decisions in other areas of our lives.

Step 5: Protect and Nurture Good Relationships. Central to personal fulfillment is good, nurturing relationships. How tragic it is that so many of us do not get around to incorporating this fundamental insight into how we spend our time. Relationships take time, and the demands they bear are frequently inconvenient. Make 2000 the year that you take some time to develop relationships.

Step 6: Implement Healthy Lifestyle Practices. There is a positive correlation between healthy lifestyle practices and subjective well being. The good habits highlighted in the North Carolina Bar Association Quality of Life Task Force (in order) were: exercise, going to church, prayer, hobbies, outdoor recreation, pleasure reading, and weeks of vacation. If we hope to enjoy both professional success and personal fulfillment, we must be vigilant not to let demands at the office squeeze out such practices.

Step 7: Law Firms Should Encourage Individuals Striving for Balance. Of all the factors contributing to lawyer stress and burnout, none is mentioned so often as what has been called "the tyranny of the timesheet." Law firms have a responsibility to encourage their partners and associates to strike a sustainable balance.

Step 8: Rigorously Apply the Golden Rule and Rule 11. In my initial pretrial conferences with lawyers I often refer to the "Golden Rule of Lawyering." By this I mean old-fashioned collegiality and courtesy, prompt return of phone calls, and full cooperation during discovery. However, there is still the occasional need for Rule 11, which is the "big stick" that must be carried in the event all "gentle speech" fails. Rule 11 sanctions are imposed in less than 1 percent of my cases. The first time is usually the last time the lawyer offends in my court. If not, more severe sanctions may be in order.

Step 9: Live a Life Marked by Charity and Kindness. Selfishness tends to make us unhappy and unselfishness tends to make us happy. To the extent our profession has made us excessively combative, argumentative, and hard-nosed, these qualities eventually will consume us if not properly balanced with kindness, gentleness, and charity. Assuming our goal in life is, in part, happiness and fulfillment, we should look for opportunities to give our time, talents, and resources to others.

Step 10: Courts Must Respect the Responsible Efforts by Lawyers to Manage Their Time and Balance Their Lives. One step in the right direction is the vacation policy adopted by North Carolina's 18th Judicial District, allowing lawyers to file with the court three weeks of reserved vacation. During these weeks, none of their cases will be scheduled for hearing or trial. Courts are unlikely to give up their final word in planning dockets, of course, but this legitimate function itself needs balancing. Furthermore, given the orneriness of some judges, balance-friendly policies should be adopted, whenever possible, on a district-wide basis.

Step 11: Laws Schools Must Do a Better Job of Preparing Lawyers for the Real World Choices and Challenges They Will Face. Generally, law schools have been slow to address the concerns raised in this article. Law schools must do their part by graduating lawyers who care more about doing right than getting rich, who strive for "balanced excellence" in their professional lives, and who bring to the bar a healthy disdain for those comfortable with the status quo.

Step 12: Take Your Vacation. Experts tell us it takes two weeks to get out of the work mode and into a much-needed state of relaxation. However, for those unable to disengage for so long a period, take at least a week two or three times a year. You will find a renewed energy and enthusiasm for life and for work.

Carl Horn is the chief U.S. magistrate judge for the Western District of North Carolina in Charlotte.

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  • This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 36 of Law Practice Management, October 1999 (25:7).
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