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The Crisis of Purpose in the Legal Profession

March 13, 2018

Purposeful engagement is directly linked to a person's overall well-being and quality of life. At the Yale School of Management, every MBA student takes a class on purpose at work. Unfortunately, my law school didn't offer a class on a purpose at work. In fact, law school was primarily focused on creating individuals who "think like lawyers." How do lawyers think? What are we really being taught in law school and how is that serving the legal profession or the world at large? 

 

The traditional legal training conditions lawyers to be competitive and emotionally withdrawn. While these traits may help them succeed professionally, they ultimately lead to a lack of satisfying personal lives for lawyers. Lawyers are not taught to think about their purpose and many lawyers quickly forget why they wanted to be a lawyer in the first place.

 

Personally, I went to law school to help people going through a difficult life experience and make a positive difference in the world. I quickly forgot my purpose when I started working at a firm, which like most, valued profits and productivity above everything else. Working long hours and having zero life outside of the office were recognized and rewarded. Asking for help or needing personal time were seen as weak and uncommitted to the firm and could negatively impact one's reputation and professional development. Not surprisingly, many lawyers are miserable and have unfulfilling careers and personal lives yet they are reluctant to ask for help. Lawyers need to become aware and diligent about protecting themselves before the effects of chronic stress, inherent in the high stakes and emotionally charged legal profession, lead to personal and professional burnout.

 

There is a serious crisis of purpose in the legal profession, as evidenced by the growing rates of suicide and depression among lawyers. The legal profession thrives on pessimism and skepticism - seeing problems and conflict as the norm. Lawyers are taught to anticipate problems, always expecting that things will go wrong. It's a high-stakes, high-conflict profession driven by winning and profits. Although heartbreaking, it's no surprise that lawyers have one of the highest rates of suicide among all professions. The National Institute for Safety and Health found that male lawyers age 20 to 64 are more than twice as likely to die from suicide than are men the same age in a different occupation. Many lawyers suffer from anxiety, isolation, and depression, leading to various forms of self-medication. It's not seen as a problem in the profession for lawyers to drink excessively or find other ways to numb themselves. 

 

Most law firms focus primarily on profits and give little thought to purpose. Purpose is the 'why' - what drives an individual or company. Profits are the results and cannot be the only goal of a truly successful firm or person. Purpose, whether collective or personal, determines who we are at our core and is the ultimate driving force behind actions. People will not experience true and lasting fulfillment if they are solely focused on creating profits. True fulfillment comes from working in alignment with a purpose bigger than oneself. For a company or law firm to be truly successful, it must have a clear purpose - the 'why' that underscores the 'what' and the 'how'. Where today's law firms get it wrong is by failing to recognize that without a clear purpose, extraordinary results are not possible. Financial success may be achieved for a time being but they will not have healthy, happy and well-rounded lawyers working for them. If they do, they will not be able to retain those individuals for long. Successful companies are built on one purpose-driven person at a time. Failing to invest in the well-being of the lawyers they employ will ultimately lead to mediocrity and miserable employees. Firms without a clear purpose have a high turnaround rate and have to keep hiring fresh law school grads, often desperate to find their first job because they need to start paying off their staggering law school debt. As a result, little thought is given to creating a purposeful career. The law firms where these grads end up may be high-paying, prestigious firms, but the price is ultimately paid by the lawyers who suffer and society at large. The intense deadlines, billable hour requirements, and unbearable hours are routine yet they are not sustainable for long. Lawyers are unhappy, depressed, suicidal, overwhelmed, and seriously lacking a sense of purpose. It comes as no surprise that many lawyers end up experiencing feelings of hopelessness, knowing deep down that there must be more to life than sitting in an office tracking each day in six minute increments while at the same time feeling trapped and not knowing how to create the change they so desperately desire.

 

The crisis of purpose in the legal profession is a serious crisis which impacts us all. The world needs lawyers, these high-IQ, dedicated individuals to serve their communities. Solutions to this crisis will come only when awareness of the mental health and lack of well-being in the profession are brought to the surface and recognized as a serious crisis in need of serious change. Unfortunately, today there is still a lack of awareness and transparency about the warrior culture that is perpetuated by law firms that value profits over people. True transformation needs to begin in the legal training of lawyers. Purpose at work must be emphasized in law schools and an entire course could and should be devoted to creating mindful, purpose-driven lawyers who are motivated by something bigger than the bottom line. Instead of immersing law students in a culture of stressful response overdrive, law schools need to teach the value of creating a legal career aligned with purpose and practiced with integrity. Alignment of purpose, priority and productivity is the formula for an extraordinary legal career and life as a truly successful and happy lawyer. 

 

  

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