In defense of law firms

I woke up very early this morning, still thinking about the Young Lawyer’s Conundrum (article no longer available) I posted about yesterday and Schiltz’s concept that lawyers who go to law firms will end up engaging in unethical practice — indeed, living unethical lives — because of the law firm culture that pushes endlessly for more money, more billing, dangling the alluring lifestyle that no lawyer ever really has time to enjoy.  And now, here it is well past midnight, and I’m still thinking about it.  With the recognition that Schiltz almost certainly doesn’t mean all law firms have a money-lust culture or that all lawyers who work at law firm with such a culture end up in such a sorry state, I disagree.

Because I believe that perspective is built on past experience, at least to some degree, let me note that I worked in a BigLaw firm for almost 6 years.  A stepchild office, not particularly beloved by the Empire, but BigLaw nonetheless.  Overall, it was a great experience for me, and certainly a learning experience.  And when I left, I went to a mid-sized boutique firm.  Again, a strong learning experience.

There’s a perception that BigLaw lawyers are soulless creatures, rummaging about for more hours in which to cram work, leaving divorce and lonely children in the wake of what ordinary people would call a personal life, what these sad attorneys call a distraction.  But most of the BigLaw people I knew — partners and associates — had marriages about as happy as the rest of us.  They’d leave at 4 sometimes to catch a child’s softball game; they’d take vacations and be essentially unreachable for days on end.  True enough, they’d make up the time by working early mornings and late nights, and it’s certain that they billed an impressive number of hours each year.  But they’d live their lives.  I observed the same thing in the midsized firm.

No doubt the pressure on these lawyers is intense.  No doubt that billing targets (managing “unoptimized time,” in FirmSpeak) continue to rise.  But plenty of evidence exists to prove that not all lawyers get caught in the money/time vise.  Some choose to, like the firm legends who bill 3000-3500 hours a year every year.  Some happen to get trapped, like an excellent lawyer I worked with for a time who did such good work that partners felt he was indispensable on each of his cases, leading him to make super-elite frequent flyer status (over 100K miles) by late February and to leave the firm that spring when he realized that he was too often limited to seeing his family at the airport between trips.  The great majority work hard, really hard, and strive to find some sort of work/life balance that allows them to play as hard as they work.

So why am I defending law firms?  I suppose, at the end of the day, I’m not: I’m defending the individuals who associate and form law firms.  For every firm out there with attributes at all similar to those described in John Grisham’s novels, I’d be willing to bet there are literally hundreds that bear no such resemblance.  Sure, some lawyers become unethical, become people who pad bills and lie whenever it’s expedient to do so… But most simply work harder, play harder, and look for legitimate ways to make some sense out of life at the bar.

That’s why the profession survives even as law itself becomes more and more a business.  And that’s where lawyers are seeking to redefine their practices and habits in view of their values, trying to bring their personal and professional lives together into a single, sustainable, satisfying existence.

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