“Your articles are sometimes ‘edgy,'” my friend suggested wryly.
I took it as a compliment. He was referring to my more pointed critiques, especially of misguided metrics that often supplant reasoned thought. A frequent target has been big law’s resulting transformation over the past two decades: Most firms now maximize short-term equity partner profits at the expense of other values — collegiality, community, mentoring, career satisfaction, efficient lawyering, long-term institutional vitality, and even the profession’s unique identity.
But it wasn’t always so, and that’s why my large firm career figures prominently in the following list of things for which I am thankful:
— A spouse (the same one who put me through law school), children, and family who helped me maintain perspective. “The law is a jealous mistress” (Story, J.), but I’ve tried to practice what I’ve preached. When it was time for firmwide work-life presentations, I was the go-to partner. Those waiting for me at home were the reason.
— A rewarding career. I joined Kirkland & Ellis immediately after graduation because it promised litigation associates engaging colleagues, great training, challenging matters, and exciting courtroom experiences. I stayed for a long time because it delivered on all counts. When I was young, my ambition was to be the civil trial lawyer version of Perry Mason. Starting with a first-chair jury trial as a third-year associate, I got close enough to enjoy my work while making some lifelong friends. It was a much different time.
— A financial surprise. My job enabled my “second act” — writing books and these articles. All current large firm equity partners who graduated after 1970 should admit that their incomes have vastly exceeded their wildest law school dreams. Unfortunately, many are big law leaders who have decided that they’re entitled to such extraordinary wealth. To preserve it, they’ve used misguided metrics to create firm environments undermining attorney satisfaction and the profession’s core values. Younger lawyers have borne the brunt of the billable hours/leveraged pyramid culture, but they’re not alone. An ABA poll taken shortly before the 2008 economic collapse reported that 60% of attorneys practicing 10 years or more said they would urge a young person away from a legal career. Big firm lawyers are the unhappiest and the metrics-driven business model shoulders much of the blame.
— Readers who understand that criticism comes from caring. Interpersonally, it would have been easy for me to take my accumulated marbles from a lucrative career, buy a boat, and sail silently into the sunset. But that pesky person in the mirror would still be waiting every morning.
— Readers who confirm that I’m not alone. As a critic of large firms’ increasing use of simplistic metrics to displace important qualitative judgments about human value, I assumed that I was an outlier. The overwhelming feedback from intelligent, thoughtful, and varied readers — associates, academics, consultants, lay persons, and even big law partners — has convinced me that I’m writing what many of you think. Thanks for letting me know.
— Readers who understand my motives. I aim to improve the profession and assist those who are considering it as a career. An accomplished attorney famously observed, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” My tiny flashlight seeks to illuminate the path for those who might want to follow, but who haven’t yet paid the $150,000 entry fee. I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from becoming a lawyer, or even from pursuing a large law firm career. My goal is a happier profession; revealing truth that might help bridge the gap between expectations and reality can’t hurt.
Finally, I’m thankful for the courage of Aric Press and Dimitra Kessenides at The American Lawyer. In recent months, they’ve run 20 of my articles in Am Law Daily, even though my positions challenge many of their constituents’ attitudes and behavior. They’ve trusted me with their audience and amplified my voice.
If I’ve made some big law managers squirm and other people think, well, then I’m thankful for that, too.