Publication: Law Practice Management
(Volume 22, Issue 3)
Letter from the Editor
I'm hearing more and more poignant stories like this. Is an answer possible? I'd love to hear from you.
I'm a pretty good lawyer. Sometimes even better than pretty good. I have drafted a prepared statement putting my thoughts down on paper. I thank you for this opportunity to let me express myself freely. Maybe you can help.
I'm really depressed. Deep down existential tired. Let me tell you a little about myself. I want to get it off my chest. Maybe it will help.
I started practicing law after serving my country in the armed forces some 30 years ago. I'm in my late 50s. I've worked like a dog for everything I have. I've done what was expected of me, and more, for firm clients since I joined as an associate. I've inherited a few corporate clients along the way, but their management has aged and moved on just like my own senior partners. These inherited clients are no longer a significant part of my practice.
Along with the normal flow of transactional business, I have developed some decent repeat institutional clients of my own. They are neither as big nor as profitable as those of some of my newer partners, but they remain loyal (to a point) and are only modestly demanding of other firm assets. They certainly cover the overhead. I could probably live off them, but I need some of the other skills offered by my firm to service them properly. Yet I'm told, both directly and indirectly, that neither my clients nor I any longer matter. That hurts. Really hurts.
My managing partner says the future lies elsewhere. "Specialize," he stressed. "Emphasize the most profitable segment of your practice and drop the rest. We can't exist unless we change, and you, specifically, have to change because we no longer can assign you work from our new clients. Your skills are no longer what are needed. Try and use your free time to become a better income producer. We wouldn't embarrass you with a salary offer commensurate with your current worth to our firm," he said. "Either something changes, or " What troubles me greatly is that from his economic perspective and personal goals he's probably right!
I often remember my senior partners lecturing me on the meaning of partnership - "your second family" is how they described it. Oh, they were pillars of the community and respected by all. They never made a million dollars but they certainly were comfortable. They never measured their success by someone else's income or fame. They didn't want to work and bill 2,400 hours, as I was often reminded. When I pushed hard it was appreciated, but I was frequently told to take it easy, slow down a bit. Go for the long haul. "Remember," they advised, "you have a "first family" and you owe them some time." They emphasized to me that I'd be no good to anyone if I forgot my principles and values.
That's just not good enough for my new partners. Oh, no. From my perspective they seem to have no need for family .... a few are already beyond their second spouses and seem hardly even to know their kids. Some are incredibly self-important and are actually proud of the fact that their basic motivation is for more money and heightened peer recognition. Any other goals you suggest as appropriate brings on an odd look as if to say, "You just don't get it, do you?"
Pick one of them at random. Look at the way he lives. He admits to no set of traditional values unless there is publicity or a potential for new business. Doesn't lift one finger unless there is a client attached to it. He seems compassionless, exists entirely within himself and other partners of his generation and there isn't a damn thing I can do about it.
Our associates fear and are beholden to the new partners. These young lawyers are struggling to survive in a terribly competitive world. The pressure on them is enormous and I think they have become so turned off that bitter cynicism or, at worst, career change is their only escape.
To tell the truth, I've actually tried to change to fit the new paradigm. Impossible, in any meaningful way. I really can't change enough to make a real impact. Nor can I tell my family that our wonderful life of 30 years is teetering on the brink because of the insatiable quest for money by some in my firm.
I guess it boils down to this: I can't stay but I can't leave. It's too hard (and risky) to start up on my own, and no one else really wants me to join his firm. I'm too young to retire .... I've just finished paying for college tuitions and weddings, and I'm still helping siblings, parents, in-laws, etc. Just not enough dollars simply to up and quit.
What am I going to do? I hate myself for turning into a useless, whining, failure. What the hell am I going to do .... ?
This article originally appeared as a Letter from the Editor, in the April 1996 issue of Law Practice Management (Volume 22, Issue 3), a publication of the American Bar Association. The response is below. ("She knows you") Copyright © 1996 American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information of any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.
Publication: Law Practice Management
(Volume 22, Issue 4)
Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.
I am sending this letter in response to your editorial essay, "Do you know me?" (April 1996).
Yes, I know you. I have heard your story many times in my role as a career consultant to lawyers. And while I am not unsympathetic to the very real distress you are feeling, the victim mentality you espouse makes me want to shake some sense into you. It's the job of a good career consultant to expand people's options, provide the tools to explore and realize them, and deliver a needed pat on the back or a kick in the rear-end. Here goes.
You've served your country and your firm, you've worked hard, you've inherited some clients, generated some of your own, and no doubt (though you didn't mention it), made a lot of money along the way. You've put your kids through college. You have a big house and a very nice lifestyle with overhead to match (you didn't say this, either, but I can read between the lines).
You are alienated by the values of your new partners who seem to value nothing but money, publicity, and personal glory -- certainly not their families and the firm. You've "tried to change" (this is very vague and make me wonder how hard you've tried), but haven't succeeded. You feel trapped by your dependence on the firm to serve your clients, your own limited business development abilities, and your lifestyle.
So what's an over-compensated partner to do? The overriding impression your comments create (beyond that of victimhood) is that the world (or at least the firm) has changed, you don't like it one bit, and you feel it owes you a living. That's an interesting perspective for a guy (let's face it, how many people in your position are women?) who is vehemently opposed to welfare assistance. Just because someone has paid into the system, you don't support the dole except for a limited period. But how long have you been on the dole, so to speak, being supported by a firm when you are not doing your share by its changing standards?
You may dispute what "your share" is, but by choosing to remain with the firm, you've implicitly agreed to abide by its rules. How long ago did the rules change dramatically? How many partner's meetings have laid out the new requirements for revenue generation? How long have the new skills for partners been discussed? How many years has this been the case?
It is not like someone sprang this on you one day; it was coming for a long time and it arrived a long time ago. If your partner's meetings didn't make it clear to you, the legal and national media certainly did. Did you honestly think that if you hid your head in the sand, the firm would keep supporting you forever?
I know you are scared. Change is scary, hard, and unpleasant, contrary to all those management articles that talk about the exciting changes in the world and workplace. Change is scary because it's the unknown. A familiar but unpleasant circumstance is preferable to one that is potentially both unfamiliar and unpleasant.
But hanging on to the past and resisting the change only makes it harder. It's like tensing up when you get an injection: The tension makes it more painful, not less, and often creates more pain than the injection itself. The Buddhists are wise in pointing out how much of our fear and suffering is based on the future, our expectations of how things will or should be. What can you do about the fear and pain you are experiencing? A lot. First, you can expand your perspective on your situation. Then you can expand your options.
Changing Your Perspective on Change
Corporate America is in a constant state of change: mergers and acquisitions, downsizings, changes in corporate culture, management, and strategy, to name a few. While your law firm has not experienced a downsizing on the order of AT&T's or IBM's, you've experienced major changes in firm strategy and leadership and probably some layoffs. Contrary to the traditional notion that things work themselves out after a major change, the evidence suggests otherwise.
Let's take downsizing as an example. Many studies report that a majority of companies under-going a major downsizing do not achieve their expected operating results. For example, of 500 firms surveyed by the American Management Association, over 75% of those eliminating jobs since 1987 report a collapse of employee morale and less than 50% saw an increase in profits. The impact on employees is no better: A study by David Noer found that only 13% of firms did a good job of addressing the needs of organizational 'survivors'; a follow-up study five years later found symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and anger were still prevalent.
What can you do about this? One thing is to understand and participate in the change process. William Bridges, a pioneer in the field, views change as a three-stage psychological process rather than a discrete event. Making a successful transition requires passage through all three stages: an ending, a period of confusion, and a new beginning.
According to Bridges, you cannot change without acknowledging and letting go of the end of the old situation. Once you let go of the old, you must experience a period of confusion or uncertainty. During this interim period, you must explore the options and create a new vision of the organization or your role. Then and only then are you ready to move on to a new situation.
Returning to your situation, this means really letting go of your view of how things used to be. They haven't been that way for a long time and hanging on to this view is fantasy at best and delusion at worst. It's time to face the facts. This means grieving for what is gone in order to leave the past behind and move on. It does not mean staying mired in grief. The "second family" no longer exists in your firm. You are entitled to grieve for its loss, but then you must look for something else, such as another way to create a "second family", a different way of existing in your current law firm or another, or a new way to use your talents.
This requires a willingness to experience a period of confusion and fear. Could this be any worse than the limbo you have been experiencing? It also demands active exploration of future alternatives. It means giving up all your assumptions about how things will be or should be, all the constraints You've imagined that keep you locked into your current trap (such as assuming that you alone are financially responsible for your siblings, parents, in-laws, etc.), fearing the worst but being unable to do anything about it.
But what about me? I can hear you whining. You've been fixated on this concern for a long time, but you haven't done anything about it. You're still living in the past, when employees abdicated control of their careers to the firm in return for lifetime employment. Is this advisable or even possible today? Definitely not. Corporate America (including law firms like yours) has clearly demonstrated that lifetime employment and paternalistic control of employees' careers are outdated. There are no guarantees. It's up to you to control your career. If you don't, the firm will terminate you. Failure to act now will force the firm to take control for you and from you.
So stop whining and start working. Change can be frightening, but it can also represent an opportunity to reinvent yourself. If you're willing to wrestle with some ambiguity and look carefully at your current situation and skills, you will find you have more options than you thought. Hire a career coach, if you need professional assistance. But do something.
Consider Your Options
It's an empty canvas that it's up to you to create. You have more resources to do this than you realize. As an example, write up a description of your ideal job and work environment. Describe your role, activities, colleagues, guiding values, size of the organization, specialties, clients. If this seems beyond your capabilities, let me assure you that I have personally worked with hundreds of people with far fewer resources than you who have made major career changes successfully and happily using this approach.
Brainstorm some ideas about how this could work. Join forces with other senior partners like yourself and perhaps some disgruntled associates and form a smaller firm with values like yours to service clients without the overhead costs of your current firm? Go into solo practice, sharing resources with other solo practitioners? Move to a smaller and less costly home or city? Seek contract work from clients? Join a boutique firm in your specialty area? Find an older partner with a lucrative practice you could join and then inherit? Find a new outlet for your interests and skills, such as teaching, public interest law, or something outside the law?
Or how about determining the skills you need to be effective in your current firm or those you need to leave, research ways to gain them, and ask your firm for assistance? The only rule is that you can't use the objections you've voiced in the past hold you back -- you must resolve or ignore them. There is no standing still anymore.
Take this challenge seriously -- your future depends on it, after all. Don't expect to figure this out overnight. Talk to friends and colleagues. Talk to other unhappy partners, including those who have left your firm or another. Talk to people who have made other career changes. Solicit their involvement and assistance in coming up with options. Get some professional advice from a career coach. Ask your spouse to help you generate and consider alternatives (You're probably not hiding your distress as well as you think, anyway. You're a lawyer, after all, not an actor). Speak discreetly with people in the field to test the waters. Give yourself some time to create this vision.
It may seem like a stretch today, but you can view your situation as a glass half full, rather than half empty. You haven't been happy at work for a long time. This is a chance to rethink your future so you can spend the remainder of your career more happily employed. Part of re-imagining your career means considering factors apart from money. It's not to underestimate its importance, but it isn't the only factor, as you have pointed out. You complain because that's the only factor that matters to your partners, yet your actions (or inaction) suggest that money is the only thing that drives you, too. Is this really living your values?
You can do this. Look at what You've already achieved in your life -- graduated from law school, practiced for 30 years with a respected firm, earned a good living. That's a lot to be proud of and it took intelligence, dedication, and hard work. Now the challenge is to apply those very real strengths to a new area -- your future. It isn't the only challenge you've faced in your career, but it may well be the most important. You've had 30 years to prepare and you are up to the challenge. Good luck!
This article originally appeared in the May/June 1996 issue of Law Practice Management (Volume 22, Issue 4), a publication of the American Bar Association. It appeared as a response to a "From the Editor" article by Robert M. Schack: Schack, R . M. Do you know me? ABA Law Practice Management Journal, April 1996, 22 (3), 8ff. Copyright © 1996 American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information of any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.