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Know Your Why - and Why It Matters

Know Your Why - and Why It Matters


Do you remember why you wanted to go to law school? Many of us started out with idealistic visions of helping people, making the world a better place, reforming the justice system or being a voice for marginalized individuals. Some people followed career paths consistent with these visions, but many of us didn’t—often due to the realities of practicing law that our younger selves had no way of understanding.

So, as we head into 2021, I am not going to talk about making new year’s resolutions or evaluating how we did with our 2020 resolutions because this is pointless, given how 2020 transpired. I want to talk about why we do what we do and why it matters.

Like many prospective law students, I didn’t really know what lawyers actually did. The concept sounded interesting—you were a subject matter expert that other people came to for advice. You helped them using your knowledge—and it didn’t hurt that it was believed to pay well and have some prestige. I wrote the LSAT and did well enough to get in to law school so off to law school I went. This made a lot of sense to 20 year-old me.

What was your decision-making process like? Take a minute and think about what your goals were when you embarked on law school—it will make sense as we proceed through the blog today.

When we start law school, we start learning about our future life as lawyers. We learn that certain career paths are considered more desirable than others and we start to want those paths instead of pursuing what we thought we were interested in.

We learned that the coveted career path was to article at a prestigious and large law firm, get hired back as an associate, become a partner and perhaps get a corner office, unless you were appointed to the Bench. We knew that there was an inverted pyramid at play, but in spite of our own insecurities and self-doubt, we all hoped to be the ones that advanced to the ever-shrinking next level.

Did you know that there is a large body of research about law students and how law school impacts them?

Here is the abstract from one of the leading papers on law student subjective well-being:

"We evaluated changes in subjective well-being (SWB), motivation, and values occurring over the law-student career. In study 1, law students began with levels of SWB higher than a comparison sample of undergraduates, but by the end of the first year their SWB had plummeted. These changes were correlated with the sample-wide decreases in intrinsic motivation over the first year and were also correlated with increases in appearance values and decreases in community service values. Those with the most intrinsic motivations attained the highest grades, but, ironically, high grades in turn predicted shifts in career preferences towards ‘‘lucrative’’ and higher-stress law careers, and away from ‘‘service’’-oriented and potentially more satisfying law careers. The declines persisted over the second and third years of law school. In study 2, the basic effects were replicated for a different sample of first-year students at a different law school. Implications for legal education and the legal profession are discussed."  

To paraphrase, we started out as relatively well-adjusted people with intrinsic values underlying our motivation but, during first year, our happiness decreased and we shifted from internal motivation to external motivation. That’s pretty much how I remember law school.

If you were asked why you wanted to be a lawyer when you were graduating from law school, there was a good chance that your answer would have changed. After all, you actually knew what law was about and I am willing to venture a guess that most of us mainly just wanted to succeed in our chosen profession after three hard years.

If we asked pre-law school you whether you would rather be happy or rich, which do you think you would have chosen?

Some lawyers have career success, high incomes and happiness, but sometimes career success and high incomes come at a price: happiness (or its measurable equivalent, subjective well-being).

Lawyer-happiness researcher Professor Larry Krieger conducted a ground-breaking study which found that factors most lined to subjective well-being for lawyers were internal, while external achievements like making partner (or making law review for students) had no impact on happiness.

Making money had only a small to moderate correlation with happiness, well below the five intrinsic factors:

  • Autonomy/integrity/authenticity, which includes not only having control over our day-to-day lives but also having cohesion between ourselves and our behaviours
  • Relatedness to others, having close and meaningful connections at work, at home and elsewhere
  • Feeling competent since research and anecdotal stories tell us that we are happier when we feel like we know what we are doing
  • Internal motivation for the work that you do. Professor Krieger’s research indicated that external motivators (money and prestige positions) did not significantly increase happiness. Further, he found that subjective well-being actually decreased with dramatic pay increases.
  • Autonomy Support, being respected for your needs and preferences rather than being controlled regardless of one’s needs and preferences
Another recent study looked at resilience, or stress-hardiness, in lawyers and found that three core behaviours were significantly correlated to stress-hardiness. These were
  • Having a sense of control
  • Having a sense of purpose and
  • Having cognitive flexibility.
This study found that these behaviours could be learned, and that use of any one of these behaviours built up your skill in the other two.

As we would expect, this study found that lawyers who assist worthy but down-trodden people found great purpose in their work, but this does not mean that lawyers working in other capacities cannot find purpose. Corporate and business lawyers identified meaningful purposes, including the following:
  • I educate employees. I protect the company
  • I saved the company $1million annually by exempting us from tax in one state
  • I am a compliance office and in-house counsel. I help unravel problems. I help people avoid making the same mistakes or new mistakes
  • I expose and eradicate specious claims. Not settle them for nuisance value mind you but win summary judgment or a verdict.
Other purposes given by study participants included:
  • I serve the taxpayers and work to uphold the law. If I and my supervisors agree that something works an unjust result, we work to change it
  • Completing a project to the best of my ability
  • I like to win; I enjoy winning and being right; I like the adrenaline from the fight.
  • I enjoy creating new, good law and making interesting legal arguments
  • I like the challenge of making a living by my wits
  • I enjoy upholding the constitution, assuring that people are treated fairly, and making sure people's rights are not taken away
  • Supporting my family
It appears that there is no magic to what the purpose is, as long as you have one and it is meaningful. Clearly, meaning is highly subjective.

The important finding from this study is that if you have and know your purpose, you will be more resilient:

"Our data revealed a very significant inverse correlation between stress and sense of purpose. Lawyers who experienced more stress had a lesser sense of purpose. The converse was also true. Every lawyer who reported experiencing no meaning in their practice of law reported high levels of stress and low stress hardiness. Chart 8 below demonstrates this strong association between less stress and higher sense of purpose.

Several lawyers in the study said that they had no sense of purpose in their work. One wrote:

There aren't any meaningful aspects of practicing law to me. I picture myself as being able to have a 'Shawshank Redemption' moment one day where I can shed this uniform of monotony and do something worthwhile.

It isn’t surprising that someone who feels like this would cope less well.

I struggled to find meaning in my work as a corporate finance associate in my early years of practice. It was only during my first maternity leave, when I was away from my job for four whole months (!) that I was able to look objectively at what I was doing and why I wasn’t fulfilled by being on what was supposed to be the dream path. I was able to move in-house in a completely different area, overseeing the human resources legal portfolio for a large multinational corporation.

I spent about twenty years advising corporate employers, both inhouse and then as a consultant, on human resources legal issues. I found meaning in making the workplace a better place. My work included designing downsizing program and overseeing terminations. I used to joke that I fired people for a living. However bleak that sounds, I knew that if my client terminated someone, the employee had had the benefit of due process and was being treated fairly.

So, as we head into a fresh year—filled with both promise and uncertainty—we are going to need to be resilient. Let’s pause to think about why we are doing what we do. Is there a purpose that resonates with us? And if not, what can we do to instill purpose and meaning into our work.

Professor Krieger suggests asking yourself three questions about your purpose:
  • Are you doing work that you care about?
  • Do you engage in “less than admirable, respectful practices”?
  • How often do you feel a twinge of conscience about something you are doing or not doing?

If you aren’t happy with your answers, perhaps look back at why you went to law school—can you reconnect with that purpose? Or what can you extract from that purpose that you could use to build meaning in what you do?

You can build your sense of purpose by mentoring junior people in your workplace or by providing pro bono services outside of your job, or perhaps by becoming an Assist peer support volunteer.

There will be challenges in 2021 but, unlike last year, at least this year our eyes are open to what we may be facing. We know that we need to cultivate our resiliency and that we need to take steps to ensure our subjective well-being. This starts with looking at our purpose and whether we find meaning in what we do.

If you are having trouble enunciating your purpose or if you have identified gaps in finding meaning, call me. We can connect you with a peer support volunteer who can relate to your experience and talk about how they found meaning or how they modified their work in order to find more fulfillment. We can also refer you to a lawyer-coach who can work with you one-one. This is a for-fee service, but investing in yourself and your career can be an excellent use of funds. And, of course, professional counsellors can help you unpack your career-related issues which can be part of the four free sessions per person per issue per year that Assist provides to you free of charge.

This year, we will need all our resiliency tools to get through what we hope are the final months of the pandemic while taking care of our families and ensuring that our careers thrive. Let’s kick off 2021 by ensuring that we know our why and why it matters.