What happens when you take the blue pill?
“When you take the safe route you don't learn about how to make shit happen. You don't get to experience the thrill of carving out a life from something creative and challenging”. - Joe Rogan We all know and love the classic scene from the Matrix. Mike has blogged extensively about how great it is to take the red pill. To find out what is possible. If we just remove those perceived barriers about who you think you are and what your career should be, amazing things can happen. So, what happens if you decide to take the boring blue pill and wake up to the ordinary humdrum life and career you knew before?
Lawyers are, by nature (or so we are told), very conservative. The job comes with a lot of baggage around having the identity of a lawyer. It can be tough to break free from this identity and it places unnecessary limitations on the way lawyers think about their careers. Over the last 7 years, we have engaged with thousands of lawyers at crucial junctures in their careers. Usually, they decide between staying on the same track or shifting to a more challenging or lucrative role. Whether it's a role in or out of the law, lawyers still typically evaluate opportunities within the old paradigm of being a lawyer and seeing their legal skills and experience as being their primary marketable skill.
The usual progression for lawyers involves stepping up and up, along the progression track within a firm or organisation. This progression is limited, though it usually comes with a new title reflecting seniority and a bump up in pay. The quality of the work you get and the projects you get to work on are still largely set for you by the firm and your superiors. It can be very hard for lawyers, especially in Big Law, to find the right level of satisfaction in their roles. This boils down to law firms not being able to deliver on satisfaction points, owing to the business model. The first step to changing your mindset and making change is to recognise these limitations and adjust your expectations. You also need to recognise that fundamentally it's not just your legal skills that carry value but how you add value to a practice or business using those skills and this takes enterprise which is something totally different.
We hear a lot of talk about job satisfaction, but not enough is being done by lawyers to take control of their own destiny. The typical progression track at a law firm is heavily removed from ability and potential. It comes in cookie cutter form. It's almost exclusively tied to how many years and hours you put under your belt. Everyone is treated equally in that regard. The argument is that this creates a collegiate environment that befits a law firm. It is all well and good to create a "collegiate" environment but it's hard to get satisfaction when you are not engaged in things beyond the billable hour. This is where law firms struggle to fill the gap for unhappy professionals.
We believe there is an inherent desire amongst most professionals to get a certain level of satisfaction out of their work. At the very least, your job shouldn't negatively impact on the other facets of your life, such as relationships. And it certainly shouldn't lead to mental or other health problems.
When busy professionals stop and think about what would make them happy in their jobs, time and again there are common themes that come to the fore: Freedom, autonomy, creativity, engagement and enough of a challenge to keep things interesting. At present, the reality is vastly different.
The pain comes from some key areas, including:
Pressure and Expectations
The nature of legal work, as you know all too well, means errors are unacceptable. As lawyers, we pride ourselves on our attention to detail and our clients pay good money to make sure their work is water tight. On top of this, partners love nothing more than to get out the red pen and rip into associates' work. Even though they gave it their best shot and probably spent the weekend doing it.
The thing about law is that it goes against the natural order of things. To learn and progress, we have to make mistakes. In fact, making mistakes is essential. But, in the law, there is no room for errors. This is made clear at the outset and drummed into us at law school. This dynamic puts a lot of pressure on associates from day one and can create a lot of anxiety.
Not much changes as the years roll on. You probably make fewer mistakes, but you might now be the one wielding the red pen and perpetuating fear amongst new generations of lawyers.
Lack of Control and Autonomy
One of the selling points of Big Law is the quality of work. Globally focussed, high-end deals that you only find at the top firms. A client list to die for. Interesting and complex legal work.
As a fresh-faced graduate coming out of law school, you are told that this is the pinnacle of the profession. That this is what you should be aiming for. It's a lofty goal that very few reach - and those who do often figure out pretty quickly that it's not what it's cracked up to be. The work may well be complex and interesting, but the sheer size and scale of the matters means that (more often than not) you are a bit player. You have little say in the matters you are assigned.
Even when you do get the chance to work on an interesting matter, the transactional work is highly commoditised and repetitive or the outcomes are beyond your control. However compelling your client's case might be, ultimately you are at the behest of the legal system, where the outcomes are beyond your control. This, combined with the threat of deadlines, crazy work hours and demanding clients (not to mention to huge sums of money potentially at stake) makes Big Law one of the highest pressure environments anyone can find themselves in.
The adversarial system writ large in firms
The business of law is pretty brutal. Firms compete for work and as opposing parties to a matter. The common strategy is to essentially make the life of your opponent as difficult as possible and squeeze out the best outcome for your client. All sorts of strategies and Machiavellian moves are used to try and leverage your position to the detriment of your opponent. For many lawyers, this type of environment, where everything is set up adversarially, can really wear them down. For a start, being on the opposing side of a matter or deal shouldn't mean that you are enemies. It's all so silly. Frankly, the most successful lawyers generally avoid this type of bullshit in plying their trade. But many don't and, over time, this can really wear people down and lead to all sorts of issues including depression and anxiety.
Let's face it: money makes the world go round. We are not naive enough to think that everyone who is unhappy as a lawyer has the option to simply leave practice. People have responsibilities and families to support. Lawyers are paid very well and it can be hard to get off this train if you have become accustomed to it. Lifestyle and financial changes are tough and your decision will impact on those who rely on you too. At some point, if you are unhappy, then there will be no amount of money that will change this. It becomes a question of prioritising your career and status over your general well being. It sounds insane but, generally, this is what people do. The good news is there are ways to transition out of practice over time - without the risk of becoming homeless. It's all about planning and mitigating risk, which lawyers are generally good at.
Ultimately, whether legal practice is for you will largely depend on your attitude and your expectations. Working in a firm can open doors and lead you to other opportunities. But, is it the ideal way to get to where you want to be? Or did you choose this path because it's the one most travelled? You will come up against obstacles, which might make your job less appealing, but the question is: will you take the blue pill and continue to plod along, or should you give serious thought to taking the red pill? The safe route might be the right option for you at the beginning of your career but, at some point, you will need to make a choice. Are you prepared to drop the identity and explore new options?
Taking the perceived safe route could actually cost you more long term than accepting that practice is not for you and taking steps towards pursuing the career you really want. The career or venture that will allow you to carve out something far more satisfying for your life. Usually, this leads to a better and happier life overall. You can't put a price on that.
So, what venture or alternative will work for you? That's the fun part. You can start by exploring different options and assessing what your real values are.