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Dr. Rob vs Philalawyer: A Running Conversation on the Intersection of Work and Life - Part II

Posted Oct 07 2008 7:16pm

This is Part II of a running conversation between myself and Philalawyer on some of the themes that negatively impact the American worker. You can read Part I here.

On Pointlessness

PL: We know that part of our current economic crisis is caused by greed, status anxiety and class envy. I have a theory, however, that a large contributing cause - a cause hidden and never discussed by the media - is the pointlessness of what most of us do for a living. I mean, consider the show, The Office. It's silly, but anyone who's worked in an office immediately has to wonder, "Is it more a satire or a hyperbolic piece of re-creative journalism?"

I think people have been spending like lunatics because most of us have pretty pointless jobs. Lawyers, accountants, consultants, bureaucrats... What do we create? Seems we don't do much more than live off procedure for procedure's sake. You go to an office, push paper, move through a hierarchy and feel like you're really not doing anything of any significance. One could say that's why these jobs pay well, that there's an inverse correlation between fulfillment and salary. I think so. And I think people are making up for lack of fulfillment at work by buying stuff. Do you see that?

Dr. Rob: I see this daily, especially in the higher socioeconomic brackets. If one is lucky, work is 1/3 of the day. Another third is ideally is dedicated to sleep, leaving eight hours for recreation/family/friendships/etc. Work has to have some purpose and some challenge and there are countless jobs that don't provide that, despite the financial freedoms they may provide. Pair that with an alarming high rate of interpersonal relationship dissatisfaction and what is the final product of two-thirds of the day? Intellectual and emotional dysthymia.

Those who can afford to, often turn to making as much money as possible and acquiring as many toys as they can. And while there is some truth to the idea that money can buy happiness, given that the very wealthy are slightly happier than low-income individuals, those who do spend often get sucked into the "keeping up with the Jones'" trap. In other words it's not just the "the more I have, the better I'll feel" mind set that too many people work from as a way to fill a void. Spending often has a competitive quality that involves having as much or more as peers. Material goods can serve as a mask of happiness.

Dr. Rob: As a man who probably makes a significant income, do you find yourself engaging in any of these processes? When did they start? How did you stop them, or do they continue?

PL:"Significant income?" Shirley, you jest... It always gives me a chuckle when people assume lawyers make loads of money. The average lawyer doesn't make a ton of money. A very thin slice of rainmakers at the tops of firms and personal injury and class action lawyers make what I'd categorize as big money. But the average lawyer? Factoring in the cost of the education, lost years of salary and location (to make a lot of money one usually has to work in a large metropolitan area), he's not living like Croesus. He's not living like Croesus's pool boy. He's doing alright, but nothing to brag about. Run his income on a dollars per hour basis and your plumber might out-earn him.

No, most of the lawyers you think are rolling in money are leveraged up to their eyeballs. The industry is loaded with "Keeping up with the Joneses" types. I mean, what other profession puts out upwardly-skewed industry statistics bragging about how much partners in firms make every year? You'd think they'd want to keep that hidden from clients, you know?

I think buying a lot of expensive crap is embracing the stereotypical "successful lawyer" mentality. Most litigators do that for a time, but eventually you wake up and realize that buying those badges is buying into the job as a way of life. You look at yourself in the mirror and think, "Shit, I'm wearing so many insecurities on my sleeve... Is the best I could aspire to a template of what colleagues think a 'prosprus' lawyer looks like?" Not to mention all that spending screws a person economically. As we're seeing on the news every hour...

Dr. Rob: If the average lawyer doesn't make a huge amount of money, does that simply contribute further to this idea of pointlessness in many professions? I've seen plenty of high school and college kids in my practice who have bizarre notions of the legal field because of John Grisham books and Boston Legal. They see it as a glamorous rush of power and often cite money as a major driving force for going into law. After they are disabused of that fact, do many lawyers ultimately say "Fuck. I hate this job, it's nothing like I thought it would be. And I'm not even making all that much money either"? I think Psychologists are lucky in this way. We're taught early on that the money isn't going to be there, to the point that it scares off people who don't really want to do this job. The reality is that you can do okay as a Psychologist if you put your mind to it, but you're most likely to feel any sense of pointlessness from lack of results in the therapy room, not the lack of cash.

PL: I think pointlessness and money are entirely distinct concepts. The positive of money, though it does make work more tolerable and provide the illusion of a completely satisfying goal, doesn't entirely make up for the negative of pointlessness.

I like Bill Shatner and James Spader (Secretary is a great flick), but I wonder, could David E. Kelley have created a more openly hyper-fictionalized version of the law firm world? How does anyone consider that stuff even remotely representative of the actual practice? So I wouldn't blame Kelley for the misperceptions and delusions of kids walking into the field. The blame there lies with two parties:

First, the students. When you're a creative thinker, but not exactly a math mind (or at least not interested enough in right brain work to major in Economics or Business or do a Pre-med program), college is cruel. Your friends go off to work in finance and you've been raised at a certain standard of living that requires a sizable salary, but what's your skill? You can write, but what's a journalist make? You can speak, but what good is that? Law's the default career. People told me it was a perfect fit for my personality and I didn't want to hear otherwise. I didn't think I had better, more lucrative or fulfilling options, and I didn't want to look for them. Law was the simplest track. Join a group. Let someone else define what you are, practice the trade and Get Paid Well. I'd heard law was a shit career from a lot of people going into it, but I paid them no mind.

Second, the schools lie to kids. Not overtly, but by omission. None of the schools send out brochures telling prospective students that unless you go to a nationally recognized school, you'll probably be stuck, for networking reasons, in the city where the school is located. None of them tell you that nine out of ten law students will make $60-70k after graduation, and only a select few will make $140k. Or that the kids making $140k right out of school have a 10% chance of making partner in their firms. They don't tell the kids that law is a business, or even teach it like a business. Many of the professors are failed lawyers who couldn't cut it in private practice. They tend to focus on useless theory totally unrelated to the actual grind of the job, extending what should be a two year program to three, putting the kids further in debt. The schools are businesses, no doubt, and the kids should be savvy enough to see through those lies of omission. Still, there should be more transparency, in my opinion.

But as to the interplay of job dissatisfaction and lack of money, well, eventually, unless you're a real brick, all lawyers tend to make decent coin. That something like 50% of them choose to leave the job anyway tells you lack of economic satisfaction is the much smaller problem. I've worked with many partners who made loads of money and I'm certain all but maybe one or two would quit tomorrow if they could. "If I were young and picking a career, I wouldn't do this again" is a common refrain from veterans. That's not lack of money. That's lack of fulfillment.

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