Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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The Great Prioritization

Summertime, and the living is easy.  Lawyers are heading on vacations, or if you are like me, you have already returned. The sun is shining, birds are singing, and air conditioner sales are going through the roof. And lawyers’ thoughts are turning to….job transitions.
Thinking about job changes may not be a traditional summer activity, but we are in transitional, not traditional, times. Academic and media commentators are calling this period The Great Resignation, as unprecedented numbers of employees are leaving their pre-pandemic work.
One of the best explanations I have heard for the high level of workplace departures is that the Great Resignation is a misnomer. Resignations are a symptom, but the more accurate description, and the explanation for the symptom, is the Great Prioritization. Employees are focusing on the non-work aspects of their lives, like well-being, family care, health, hobbies, and outside interests, and many are questioning assumptions that underlie their career paths: who do I work for, how do I work, and why do I work?
One author believes that Americans (which we can interpret as North Americans) are shifting from a “live-to-work” mindset to a “work-to-live” mindset ( Working from home during the pandemic heightened awareness that high quality work could be delivered without lengthy commutes and expensive accoutrements, and that people could connect more easily with other aspects of their lives.
The pandemic and lockdown orders allowed us to think freely about what our ideal work world would be, having seen our traditional model combust and working remotely emerge like a phoenix from the ashes. Law is a profession which is rooted in tradition—we use precedents when drafting agreements and we cite cases as precedents in legal arguments. Doing things “the way they have always been done” has usually been an acceptable reason for not changing. We lacked permission to think about what we wanted if it did not fit within the four corners of a traditional law job.
My own epiphany about reprioritization came when my first child was born, and I took four whole months of maternity leave. Before my baby arrived, I couldn’t imagine how I was going to live without my high stress-high prestige job and my work friends. But in between figuring out taking care of my baby’s every need while remaining on the main floor of my two-storey house and desperately grabbing naps,  I forgot about everything else. Looking after a newborn was an exercise in mindfulness for me. As the sleep deprivation gradually waned, I struggled with my return-to-work plan. I was expected to go back to my job at the end of my maternity leave, and I was a people pleaser by nature, so this was clearly the right thing to do, but I also felt more authentically like myself than I had for years.
My solution was to apply to work on a reduced hours basis. I gave up a fair chunk of salary and some career upside potential, but I had the freedom to leave at 5 pm and to take weekends and the occasional day off when my files were under control. For me, being released from the bill-more-than-1800-hours-per-year hamster wheel—and as an insecure overachiever, I had to exceed the target-- was worth it. When I asked myself who I worked for, how did I work and why did I work, I was happy with my answers. And I love the way my career developed as my work-life balance priorities changed in the thirty years since I walked away from traditional law firm life.
There are many ways of having an interesting career in law. One way is to work at a law firm as an articling student, then as an associate, ultimately becoming a partner. As your seniority and responsibility rise, so does your compensation, along with other perks. You may retire as an equity partner or perhaps to take a judicial appointment.  Or perhaps you set up your own firm so that you can do law your way. These are both great career paths as long as they make you happy. And while Assist is happy for all the lawyers who are happy, we are here for the ones who are not.
According to a 2013 American study, “associate attorneys”—junior lawyers—have the unhappiest jobs. Associate lawyers are even more unhappy than customer service representatives!
Is it a great surprise that lawyers are questioning whether they want what the legal profession offers? Sure, if you stick it out and become a partner or set up your own firm and it thrives, you may become happier, but the path to traditional success is longer than it used to be. How long are you willing to wait?
The Great Resignation, or the Great Reprioritization, is a multi-faceted issue—not a one-size fits all event at all. Some older employees have opted to retire early after reconnecting to family, hobbies, and recreation during the pandemic. Other employees are exploring remote work more fully: they can have the benefits associated with working all over the world without uprooting their families. Others are burned out after two long years of working from home, and are seeking greater work-life balance. Others have realized the value of considering their well-being rather than subjugating their feelings dissatisfaction.
If you are among the many lawyers questioning your who, how and why, call us. We can connect you with lawyers who have considered the same issues through our peer support program. Our program is confidential!
We can also connect you to lawyer coaches who can help you explore your goals and how to reach them. Lawyer coaches charge hourly rates but investing in yourself is as important as saving for your retirement. Professional counselling is another great way to explore whether your work life is working for you—and you are entitled to four free counselling sessions per person per issue per year.
To close, I am going to share my favourite 1990s joke (that we used to photocopy and fax things like this!) for everyone who is considering making a change in their work lives:

An investment banker was vacationing in a small fishing village and noticed a fisherman having a siesta in his boat, with several large-fin tuna carefully stored. The investment banker complimented the fisherman on the size and beauty of the fish he had caught. He asked the fisherman how long it took him to catch them.

The fisherman replied, “Not too long.”

The investment banker then asked why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish.

The fisherman said he had enough to support what his family needed.

The investment banker asked him what he did with the rest of his time.

The  fisherman replied, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”

The investment banker snorted. “I have an MBA and I can help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the money you make from selling fish, you could buy a bigger boat, and with the proceeds from selling more fish from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats. Eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to the big city where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The fisherman asked, “But how long will this take?”

And the investment banker told him, “Fifteen to twenty years.”

“But what would I do that after that?” asked the fisherman.

“That’s the best part,” laughed the investment banker: “When the timing is right, you put together an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich! You would make millions.”

“Millions?” asked the fisherman. “Then what would I do?”

The investment banker said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evening, sip wine, and play guitar with your amigos!”

There may be times in your life when you want to be like the investment banker in the story—it will be all about maximizing profitability in your career, perhaps while you are repaying your student loans or saving for a down payment on a house.  But there may be times in your life when you want to be a bit more like the fisherman. Perhaps you want to complete an LLM or an MBA, or pursue a business venture while maintaining your practice, or perhaps your children are young, or your elderly parents need assistance. It is okay to have different priorities at different times. This may be part of what we are seeing in the Great Reprioritization.

But what I have seen over the last 35 years is that sometimes lawyers pull back on their careers at times and then go full throttle again at a different time. Be in sync with yourself, where you are, when you are, and who you are. And if you aren’t sure about where, when and who you are, call us.