How to be a happy lawyer
TL;DR version: work less.
Before law school, I was a computer programmer. My team worked on a high-availability website. It means it had to work even if a million people tried to go there. It also had to pay out money for certain things. Money and millions of users is hard, believe me. High availability is hard.
I learned two things in those days: scalability and determinism. I owe much to my experience as a computer programmer because scalability and determinism help a lot in my law practice.
To be a happy lawyer you need to understand scalability and determinism.
Scalability means you can suddenly work a lot harder than usual. I am in commercial litigation. My files regularly involve urgent motions for pretty dramatic relief. Also, (rarely) opposing counsel will engage in sharp practice, which by definition is a surprise designed to catch you off guard. Then you have to work very hard very quickly, which can make you unhappy and sometimes even cause long-term damage, especially if you make a mistake. Tell me it didn’t happen to someone you know.
The key word in the first sentence of the previous paragraph is “can”. If you can deal with work spikes, you are scalable. Doing this at the cost of getting sick or becoming an alcoholic doesn’t count as “can”. If you can add capacity in emergencies relatively easily, you are scalable and happy. Old-school machines had gauges with red segments that showed danger zones. Humans are a lot weaker than machines. So if you want to be happy be scalable. The only way to be scalable for a human being is to work at less than full capacity. Otherwise you will have to scale up into your nights and weekends, which is a red segment on your gauge. My scalability secret is that I work at 40–50% of my capacity by design and rely on outsourced services that can scale up or down on demand.
The second principle of happiness is determism. I borrowed it from software engineering too. The whole idea of sofware is that it follows a plan. Input always properly computes into output in working software. When it doesn’t, you have a bug. The point is programmers code many different scenarios into the machine and force users to follow the scenarios. Ever thought why pretty much all software is around some kind of form you fill out?
The more predictable is the input, the more predictable is the output. Determinism. A lot of unhappiness stems from having no clue what the output will be.
There are three parts to determinism in law practice. First, you need to investigate the heck out of facts. This is your input. If your client casually mentions a new issue, don’t mission-creep into a new file without an investigation. Tell your client clearly that it’s not in your mandate and suggest a retainer top-up. LawPRO says it’s for your protection but it’s really for your client’s protection first. It’s painful but honest to tell your client where your missile-defence umbrella ends (so to speak).
Second, you need to know the law and how the courts have treated the facts. It will usually take time. Who said legal advice was supposed to be cheap? Yes, you need to do legal research almost every time you give legal advice.
Third, you (or your client) need to be lucky and get a judge who will agree with your analysis. We are not robots, and judges are famous for being able to reason towards any legal conclusion at will.
The first and second parts of determinism require time. If you work at your full capacity, you will borrow time from nights and weekends. Eventually, you will break down. This is where scalability and determinism loop into each other.
Breaking down is not in your interest. It’s not in the interest of your clients or the administration of justice. Lawyers working at or above capacity are dangerous, given that a lot of their projects are mission-critical.
This is not legal advice (duh). This is not even advice. My situation is almost certainly different from yours. This piece is also heavily litigation-biased. But I believe you can do high-end, high-quality legal work and be happy. I know you want to tell me I am wrong because this is not how law firms work. But times are changing. Lawyers can do amazing things for clients, for the public, and for the justice system without the traditional (high-overhead) structures. Even fifteen years ago you couldn’t be scalable or know what you’re doing without some expensive support networks. Now it’s different.