disgruntled lawyers

My practice is in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., inside the beltway in Northern Virginia. Therefore, I have treated many attorneys over the years. It’s a fact of geography.

Maybe I’m being unduly flippant with the “disgruntled” designation.  I know lawyers who are happy with their profession. However, they way things work in law can do bad things to good people. It seems that the way things are structured in law creates perverse dilemmas, e.g., the golden handcuffs of a highly-compensated associate who can’t afford to downshift into a position that is conducive to raising a family. Or, some are unable to find a well-paid position and are shackled to student loans while doing work that is dull and unsatisfying.

I’m impressed with how large and varied the profession of law can be. Strangely, I keep meeting with attorneys who have wound up in a kind of legal work that is profoundly unsuitable for them: for example, a person who hates conflict who is working in litigation, or a highly shy and introverted person in a role that requires them to rainmake or be fired. I don’t know why this is. There are so many kinds of law that it seems there should be a niche for everyone.

It’s impossible to generalize about the psychological needs of attorneys, but I find that some highly responsible, industrious people feel trapped and frustrated in a career that seemed to offer meaning, status and security and provides none of these. It is a shame, because it is a profession that attracts people who are bright, hard-working and inclined toward the liberal arts. Law has long been a safe haven for English and History majors. The law degree is no longer an assurance of a good living, if it ever was. One of the most common complaints of the lawyers I see is that they used to read fiction or history and no longer can.

The current economic climate in large-firm law practice is a growing problem. We are facing a lost generation of smart, hard-working associates who will encounter a dead end in the path to partnership in firms that are unable to grow. Something will have to give. In the meantime, the pressure is felt in the families of these associates.