Work-Life Balance

What explains the BigLaw happiness gap? It's exhaustion, law prof says

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BigLaw lawyers enjoy lucrative careers. They express more satisfaction with the substance of their work than the median for the legal profession. But still, they are unhappy.

Only 44 percent of BigLaw lawyers report satisfaction with their careers, compared to 68 percent of public sector lawyers, BloombergView reports in an article by Yale law professor Stephen Carter. The figures are from University of Tennessee law professor Benjamin Barton, author of Glass Half Full: The decline and Rebirth of the Legal Profession.

The reason for all that unhappiness, Carter concludes, is exhaustion. Forty-one percent of lawyers in large firms work 60 hours or more each week, compared to 50 hours for the median lawyer.

Why do BigLaw lawyers work so hard? Carter blames billable hours and associate exploitation.

Just how are associates exploited? Carter agrees with the philosophy that there is no exploitation deserving denunciation unless a weakness or vulnerability is exploited. And Carter believes there is vulnerability: a hard-work culture inculcated since childhood.

“Lawyers who wind up in BigLaw jobs were once high school students pressed by parents and teachers alike to study hard and achieve, lest they be left behind,” Carter writes. “Hard work isn’t a means to an end, it’s a signal of one’s membership in that elite club of … well, of those who work hard.”

Carter cites a New Yorker article by Columbia law professor Tim Wu, who notes the reversal of historic conditions in which those who earn the least work the most. To illustrate the current hard-work culture, Wu cites 2006 figures showing that the top 20 percent of earners were twice as likely to work more than 50 hours a week than the bottom 20 percent.

“What counts as work, in the skilled trades, has some intrinsic limits; once a house or bridge is built, that’s the end of it,” Wu writes in the New Yorker. “But in white-collar jobs, the amount of work can expand infinitely through the generation of false necessities—that is, reasons for driving people as hard as possible that have nothing to do with real social or economic needs.

“Consider the litigation system. … If dispute resolution is the social function of the law, what we have is far from the most efficient way to reach fair or reasonable resolutions. Instead, modern litigation can be understood as a massive, socially unnecessary arms race, wherein lawyers subject each other to torturous amounts of labor just because they can. In older times, the limits of technology and a kind of professionalism created a natural limit to such arms races, but today neither side can stand down, lest it put itself at a competitive disadvantage.”

The problem has gotten worse, Wu writes, because of technology. “The fact that employees are now always reachable eliminates what was once a natural barrier of sorts, the idea that work was something that happened during office hours or at the physical office. With no limits, work becomes like a football game where the whistle is never blown.”

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