By Stacey L. Romberg
This article is the first of four installments exploring ways to keep the spark of enthusiasm alive in your law practice.
Years ago, I attended a breakfast event at which Renee Montagne, a special correspondent and former co-host for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” spoke. At the end of Montagne’s presentation, someone in the audience asked a simple but powerful question, “Ms. Montagne, you’ve traveled all over the world and met so many fascinating people. If you knew you had six months left to live, how would you spend your time?”
Montagne paused briefly, and responded that she would change nothing about her current life. The questioner was incredulous, and followed up. “Come on. Wouldn’t you stop working, travel to a special place, spend time with certain people, etc.?”
Montagne insisted that she would not, saying that she loved her work, found it a privilege to be a journalist, and would be perfectly happy to continue working for the last six months of her life. Her sincerity and conviction made me stop, put down that last bite of breakfast pastry, and take note: “Do I feel like that? If I had six months left to live, would I wake up in the morning and happily go to work serving my clients, knowing that I was spending my time in the most fulfilling way possible?”
Before starting my own law firm, I worked in a medium-size firm featuring a number of attorneys who chose to continue practicing law into their 70s and even 80s. All of these lawyers produced top-notch work. They continued to practice law, not for monetary gain, but because they still possessed that “spark” for tackling intellectual challenges and serving their clients.
The memory of these lawyers came back to me in 2010, while perusing a Picasso exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. I was struck by how incredibly productive and prolific Picasso became in his later years. It was as if he was racing against the clock — seeing how much art he could create and send out into the world before death overtook him.
Picasso’s unrelenting passion reminded me of one of my former colleagues in particular who, while in his 70s, continued to maintain a vigorous work schedule. He loved his work, and took much pride in creating high-quality work product and mentoring younger attorneys to do the same. Much like Montagne, this attorney would have undoubtedly continued living his life in the same way, even with the knowledge that he had limited time remaining.
When I proudly joined the ranks of our profession in 1988, I rarely heard of attorneys suffering from depression, burnout, alcoholism, drug abuse, and failed relationships. Now, these problems have become so prolific as to be impossible to avoid. We read about it in our bar magazines, hear about it in continuing legal education courses, and, with increasing regularity, silently take note of it during uncomfortable professional interactions with other attorneys.
The causes of these problems are routinely debated. In my view, much of the misery stems from a much-outdated law firm culture, which was originally designed to support a man who billed an obscene number of hours while his wife devotedly washed his clothes, cleaned his house, cooked his meals, and cared for his children. Each year that passes, fewer lawyers fit into this model.
Unfortunately, the predominant law firm culture in larger firms has, thus far, failed to evolve to allow for the reduced hours and increased flexibility that match employment practices more common in 2017. Many of us started our own solo and small-firm practices precisely to avoid working in this outdated culture, in which our “square-peg” lives constantly feel intolerably crammed into the “round hole of the past.”
But when we started our own practices, or dare I say our own small businesses, many of us likely failed to take fully into account the effort and skills required to run a business. It’s important to recognize that, as solo and small-firm attorneys, we have taken on not one, but two, of the most grueling jobs in the United States: lawyer and small-business owner.
I confess that when I started my law practice, I didn’t truly understand the amount of ongoing time and energy it would require to run a business. I believed that I would spend a lot of time in the start-up phase and then, over time, I would just spend an hour or so here and there to maintain it. Seventeen years in, that initial perception has proven to be quite unrealistic.
The reality is that small-business owners of all trades tend to work long hours, with 19% reporting working over 60 hours a week, 30% working 50–59 hours a week, and 33% working 40–49 hours a week.1 The roles of lawyer and small-business owner both require time, expertise and dedication — it’s not just the practice of law that requires long hours.
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