Keeva on Life and Practice

Leading, The Small Way

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Sometimes, amid the complaining and the gnashing of teeth over how depleting law practice can be, it’s tempting to bring up a question that really needs to be asked: Why is so little time invested in trying to make life as a lawyer more personally fulfilling?

Could it be that billing 2,000 or more hours a year precludes most such conversations?

Clearly, many lawyers see no reason to question the status quo, and that’s fine. What is not so fine is the mournful reality that, for countless others, something is missing in their lives. Something money cannot replace. Often it’s time with their children, time to pursue a passion for art, golf or whatever. In any case, there’s a hole to be filled.

Ben Applegate, a founder of the 15-lawyer Applegate & Thorne Thomsen in Chicago, is familiar with the ache. As a partner in a large Chicago law firm, he found it extraordinarily difficult to be involved in raising his five sons. But having “missed” his eldest, who recently entered college, he had an epiphany: “Life is too short to spend it all in the office.”

Practice without Targets

And so now, the eight-year-old affordable housing and community development boutique is as much about quality of life as it is about doing exemplary legal work. What does that look like? For one thing, it looks like a firm without a specific billing target, though 1,650 will work for those who need a benchmark.

“There is no billing target,” says Applegate. “I have never raised the issue except to say, ‘I don’t want to see another 2,000 year from you.’ ”

And, lest you wonder, Applegate & Thorne Thomsen lawyers place in the top quartile in compensation when compared with similar-size firms.

Given that the firm’s culture puts a strong emphasis on the shared notion that everyone has a deep desire to connect with family, as well as with activities that matter to them, work hours are variable as needed. And by the way, Applegate himself leaves the office by 5 p.m. daily.

If the firm actually had a managing partner, it would almost certainly be Applegate, who makes it his responsibility to “draw lines,” that is, to accommodate the episodic nature of law practice. That requires surveying his colleagues to find out how much they can handle in the way of long work days. “I’ll ask someone how much he or she can handle late nights, for example. How about two months? The deals have got to close. So how much is OK for you?” At the very least, each lawyer has some say in how he or she spends time.

So far, after talking to everyone in the firm, Applegate has come, for now, to this conclusion: “We each expect that there will be eight to 10 weeks per year of thinking that being a lawyer sucks.”

Try that concept on big-firm lawyers and watch their eyeglasses fog up. The culture simply doesn’t, in most cases, allow for it—never mind encourage lawyers to make time to take classes, attend religious retreats or do activities that really matter to them.

If someone wants to take a Pilates class, for example—certainly an activity that supports that person’s quest for balance—Applegate and his colleagues encourage doing so.

It’s not up to Applegate or anyone else to determine what activities a given lawyer should be allowed to do. Instead, there is a sense of respect that permeates the firm, almost certainly because its ethos is all about lawyers as human beings rather than simply “practitioners.”

How to ‘Dehub’ and Thrive

Last January, under the aegis of the Philadelphia-based ThirdPath Institute, the Pioneering Leaders Summit was held. Applegate was there. The institute had put on programs in the past, but this was the first one strictly for law firm pioneers. Half the participants were lawyers from large firms and half from small firms; half were men and half women.

As one summit participant remarked: “Most inspiring are the small firms and the fact that there are lots of men who care about making change. That’s the future. It’s better than waiting for the large firms to come around.” (The speaker was a partner at a midsize East Coast firm.)

Jessica DeGroot, founder of the ThirdPath Institute, is all about rethinking work so that people can more readily find ways to lead meaningful and intentional lives. One concept DeGroot herself learned from the pioneering leaders is something they refer to as “dehubbing,” a version of delegating.

“If you keep on being the center of too many roles, it gets to be exhausting.” Instead, she suggests that leaders who want balanced lives build up a team of people to whom they can confidently hand off full responsibility. Managers also need to work hard to understand when someone is overextended or when someone has surplus capacity to take on additional work, she says.

“I suspect,” says Applegate, “that individuals have to have their personal goals clarified within their own minds before the organizations can effect change. The organization can’t dictate value, but a group of leaders with shared values can influence others and effect change. With large firms, I like the idea of starting this within practice groups as a means of breaking down the task and making it more manageable and seemingly achievable.”

Steven Keeva is the author of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life.

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