Tom Sharbaugh (Penn State), Is It Possible to Find Meaning in BigLaw?:
After reading the recently published Servants to the Damned (2022) by investigative reporter David Enrich, which chronicles the role of large law firms in today’s political polarization and wealth disparities, I revisited some earlier psychology materials to consider whether a lawyer could find meaning while pursuing a career in Big Law.
Servants offered two questions in the context of trying to understand a Big Law team’s sanctions-worthy, abusive discovery maneuvers on behalf of its Big Pharma client in a product liability case filed by the parents of a brain-damaged child: “Am I proud of the work I’m doing?” and “Am I the person I want to be?” ...
In my own experience, both within a large law firm and talking to partners at other large firms, participation in pro bono projects is very popular among the lawyers in Big Law. With a depressing eye on “what do I get for this?”, the associates in most firms have successfully lobbied to have their pro bono hours count towards their annual billable hour targets. (As you would expect, firms had to limit how many pro bono hours would count as “billable” after a few associates decided to work 2,200 billable hours (and claim an extra bonus) based almost solely on their pro bono activities.) ...
If it is all about the money (and the short-term happiness that money can buy), it may be time to stop pretending that any vestiges of being a profession remain for lawyers. Perhaps much of the code of ethics should be scrapped and lawyers should just be governed by the criminal code in the same manner as Goldman Sachs and McKinsey in investment banking and consulting, respectively. ...
Although it may be foolish to think that partners in any firm in Big Law would choose lower profits in exchange for more meaningful lives for its lawyers, I predict that at least some subset of individual lawyers will eventually be asking themselves some variation of the two questions posed at the beginning of this essay.
- “Am I proud of the work I’m doing?”
- “Am I the person I want to be?”
There are many ways to pursue meaningfulness while continuing in Big Law by making time for helping humans, assisting non-profit organizations, supporting family members and communities, and other activities that have value and purpose. In addition, there may be ways to reframe Big Law jobs in order to find meaning that is not readily apparent. Gupta, supra.
Although it appears that money may make it possible to actually buy happiness, I encourage Big Law lawyers to consider the research that shows that pursuing meaningfulness—rather than chasing money-fueled happiness—is more likely to lead to a satisfying life.