Lawyers, the Good Life and Work: What Really Matters in 2013

Last week a young attorney I coach asked why I left the practice of law to pursue a career in psychology and professional development. The answers to such questions are never simple.  A lawyer friend died suddenly. I realized that life is short and offers no guarantees. I started thinking about what made me happy. When I put it all together, I was not a happy lawyer and it seemed unlikely this would change.  

I had what many would consider a great practice as a partner with an AmLaw 200 firm. I worked with good smart people. I had plenty of clients with good work. But ultimately, to be a happy lawyer and a strong lawyer, I believe you must love practicing law. Although many of my partners did, I did not.  

Where does happiness and well being come from?  A few years ago, I had the good fortune to participate in Dr. Martin Seligman's Authentic Happiness coach training program. In his latest book, Flourishing, Seligman, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and former President of theAmerican Psychological Association, proposes that the good life, one in which individuals and the planet flourish, is one in which "well being" is maximized.  Well being is comprised of five elements (known by the acronym PERMA):

  1. Positive Emotions:  Simply put, good feelings.  For example,feeling joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, awe or love. In the moment as you work, how often do you feel these feelings? As a lawyer, I did not feel these enough. My former law partner Emily Parker often talks about the fun she has practicing law and how important it is to keep that in a firm's culture. 
  2. Engagement:  Becoming so immersed in an activity that you lose time and are in "flow." When I started reading books on psychology and human behavior, I lost time.  I found myself reading dense texts for fun in a way that I  had never experienced with law books.  To this day when I coach my clients or lead a retreat, the time seems to fly by. By contrast, one of my lawyer friends became totally immersed arguing about the law when on vacation with her lawyer boyfriend. That told me I was in the wrong space. What parts of your practice put you in flow?  How can you get more of that in 2013? 
  3. Meaning:  Contributing your gifts and strengths to something bigger than you.  As a young lawyer I took a pro bono case.  I found that I was much more interested in helping my client at an emotional and motivational level than I was in her legal issues. Being her lawyer, did not bring me satisfaction even though I thought it should. I contrast that with the great pleasure some of my lawyer colleagues find in righting a wrong for pro bono clients. For example Jones Day partnerSally Crawford takes joy and pride in being known as the "queen of pro bono." Over her career, Sally has devoted countless hours to serving pro bono clients and derived great satisfaction from this work. 
  4. Relationships: Satisfying relationships with others. Positive relationships with colleagues and clients kept me in law for ten years. To this day, my best friends are the lawyers and clients I met in those early years. If you are working with great people, you know the importance of what I'm talking about. If not, how can you change that? How do you make time for positive relationships with colleagues, clients, friends and family?
  5. Accomplishment: Humans have a drive to accomplish.  Of course accomplishment comes in many forms. For me, accomplishment is about helping others succeed and mastering new skills.  It just makes me feel great. Lawyers who love their work take joy in accomplishment on behalf of their firms and clients and love meeting new challenges.

A final word about well being and happiness. A strong body of research demonstrates that people who maximize PERMA in their lives, are healthier, happier and more successful. As you set your work goals for 2013, how will you create a life of happiness and well being?  

Mentoring Young Lawyers to Aspire for More: Creating a Culture Where Talented Lawyers Thrive

John Duffy, the CEO of 3C Interactive thinks leaders need to spend less time inspiring and more time creating aspirations in the employees they lead.  Duffy has a great point. Inspiration is fleeting, aspirations stick. 

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot from my law firm clients about newer lawyers’ lowered aspirations to succeed at the firm. Firm leaders worry about retaining the talented associates they have worked so hard to recruit. They perceive less long-term commitment. 

Newer lawyers tell me they are less hopeful about their chances for happiness and success at their firm. Many have little desire for partnership, which they view as unattractive, unattainable, or both.  

That’s why John Duffy’s New York Times interview caught my attention.  In the interview, Duffy lays out how he created a culture of respect and growth at 3C. He nails it and his advice is universal. 

As a law firm leader or mentor, here’s how you can apply Duffy’s advice to mentoring and developing the young lawyers you lead: 

  1. Help them understand they have an impact on the firm and it's people (and make sure your culture affords them the opportunity to have an impact).
  2. Show them how they can develop personally and professionally by seeking exposure to new experiences, asking questions and building skills in planning, problem solving and decision-making. 
  3. Mentor and lead with consistency, being the same person each day. No one should have to worry about which version of you they are approaching at any given moment.
  4. Emphasize the importance of being “coachable.” Duffy attributes his success to early experiences in sports where he sought “to be the dumbest, poorest, least successful guy in the room so I can learn what I have to do.” There is a lot to be said for being surrounded by people who know more than you. Yet for many young lawyers, your firm may be the first place where they have not been one of the smartest and most successful for any extended period of time.  Remember how that felt for you and help them appreciate the learning they will get. 
  5. Foster a culture of respect and safety where gossip and disrespect of others at any level is not tolerated. Does your firm tolerate disrespect and misbehavior by lawyers in power? 
  6. Let them know how they are doing when they are “awesome” and when “they mess it up.” Without yelling or screaming, let the young lawyer who "screws up" know what your expectation was and what they missed. Then ask this question: “What do you think you need to do to get better so this doesn’t happen again?”
  7. Tie progression and success at the firm to each attorney’s personal long-term objectives. Hint:  you cannot do this if you do not know what your mentee’s personal long-term objectives are. Take the time to really listen and understand and you may end up retaining them.

What would you add to Duffy’s advice?  How does your firm's culture measure up?