LAP Career Counseling Survey Results
Authored by Jean A. Brincko, M.A & Susan W. Miller, M.A., Career Counselors
What does it all mean? Is that all there is? Have I been doing the wrong thing all these years? I feel so trapped. All work and no play -- you know what that makes me -- really miserable.
The above comments represent the sentiments expressed by many members of the California Bar during their first career counseling sessions offered by the Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP). The LAP program, through the office of deputy director Richard Carlton, has referred hundreds of lawyers for career counseling throughout the state of California. Over 200 lawyers have been referred to California Career Services, a provider in the Los Angeles area.
As career counselors at California Career Services, we have served and continue to serve as sounding boards and guides for self-evaluation and assessment. We provide information about a variety of professional options and help with resumes and cover letters, job search resources, interview coaching, strategies for salary negotiation, and support for action. Typical sessions with attorney clients deal with issues such as solving work-related problems, increasing job satisfaction, building a solo practice, finding careers in other areas of law, finding careers outside of law, and finding a job – anywhere.
This article reports on the prevalent job-related issues affecting lawyers as well as the evaluation of career counseling services based on a survey conducted by California Career Services in March 2004.
We created a 13-question survey form that covered demographic information including gender, age, year of passing the State Bar, years in practice, and nature of employment. The survey also requested answers to questions regarding career issues, career counseling objectives, and the degree of success of counseling services. Of the approximately 100 lawyers contacted, sixty-five percent responded through phone interviews or by mailing in the survey form.
The respondents ranged in age from 25 to 65, with a median age of 45. The group included lawyers who had just graduated from law school and lawyers who had over 30 years of experience. The median amount of experience was 15 years. Sixty-two percent of the lawyers who sought career counseling were women.
Seventy-two percent of the survey population were employed as lawyers. Fifteen percent were employed but not as lawyers, and twelve percent were unemployed. Of those employed as lawyers, there were twice as many litigators as transactional lawyers. Twenty-six percent were employed in solo practice, others worked in-house or for nonprofits, and the largest percentage, forty-two percent, worked in law firms. Over fifty percent of those in law firms worked in small firms. Of those working in law firms, sixty-three percent were associates. Others held positions such as partner or of counsel. A small number were working as paralegals.
Although the population was diverse, many of the lawyers grappled with similar concerns. When asked to identify one or more of the issues that prompted them to seek career counseling, they indicated the following:
Some lawyers showed up thinking they were unhappy with their jobs. And some of them were. Some felt they hated practicing law all altogether. And some of them did. However, using the tools from counseling to explore their realities and their alternatives many of them realized that things were not so bad after all and/or that some of the bad things could be fixed. When asked to list the pros and cons of their jobs, many lawyers listed a lot of positive things – often more than they expected. Most were happy with their compensation – especially those working at big law firms – but they also listed the intellectual stimulation, the excitement of handling big, complex cases, the challenge, the chance to test themselves against the best of the best – and then there were all those free dinners brought in and paid for by the firm – the reward for working late.
Some of the problems that lawyers experience with excessive work hours and lack of balance between work and home/leisure can be attributed to the general landscape of American society as a whole and are complaints we hear from non-lawyer clients as well. Unlike most other industrialized countries, the United States does not have laws that guarantee a limit of work hours or a minimum amount of vacation time for workers. The European Union, for example, has a compulsory minimum vacation of four to five weeks per year protected by legislation and a mandated limit of 48 hours of work per person per week. (Los Angeles Times, Sunday July 11, 2004).
Recent studies have concluded that the current pattern of escalating salaries followed by excessive work demands to justify those salaries has resulted in increasing dissatisfaction and burnout among lawyers working in large law firms. When lawyers' salaries increase, fees charged to clients also increase. Clients then become more demanding. The vicious circle makes for a very stressful work environment in many law firms. Moreover, the helping, collegial legal profession of yore has become bottom-line and business oriented.
According to our survey, lawyers who worked in larger law firms reported the highest salaries but the most amount of dissatisfaction. "Golden handcuffs" were a major problem for partners, some of whom were earning upwards of $800,000 per year. Many felt trapped by the money, by the lifestyle it provided, and/or by the dangling carrot of a very lucrative retirement package. Others were horrified to learn that the bottom-line orientation of their firm would preclude them from receiving retirement benefits. Younger lawyers who graduated law school with huge student loans, maybe bought a condo and a "cool" car along the way felt trapped. Even if they decided they hated their jobs or were just burned out, they felt they had to stay because they wanted to maintain their standard of living and could not find equally lucrative employmentoutside of their firms or similar firms.
Our survey also reflected a common complaint of new lawyers at law firms, best expressed by one unhappy soul who said, "After being wined and dined, I was hired, thrown into a dark ocean of billable hours, and left alone to sink or swim." Mid-career lawyers also commonly expressed frustration at not being able to switch to a different area of practice once they started working in a particular field. "If you start out in mergers and acquisitions, you stay in mergers and acquisitions. Try to tell them you want to do tax law, and they look at you as if you've suddenly had a brain infarction."
Complaining about excessive billable hours was a ubiquitous theme among lawyers working in law firms. Although the Los Angeles Law Firm Compensation Survey: 2003 Published in the Los Angeles County Bar Update December 2003 Volume 23 #11 indicated that the average number of billable hours has been relatively constant for the past five years at approximately 1,800 hours for partners and 1,820 hours for associates, approximately seventy percent of the lawyers we surveyed reported that they bill at least 1,950 to 2,100 hours per year. Two reported that they bill up to 2,400 hours. In order to meet their required billable hours, these lawyers invariably have to work at least 60 hours per week. Although excessive hours are increasingly the norm at law firms, they are no less oppressive, and since the day still consists of only 24 hours, the amount of time at work obviously takes away from time for a personal and family life – and often sleep as well.
During counseling sessions, suggestions of taking a vacation to relieve stress were often met with ironic smiles even though the two most costly illnesses caused by overwork – stress and depression – can be remedied by taking more vacation time. "When the clients are paying $600 per hour, you don't get to take a vacation. They hunt you down no matter where you go." "If I take a vacation, I only have to work twice as hard before and after to make up the billable hours and I can't work 120 hours per week. That's 17 hours per day seven days per week." "After 30 years with my firm, one of the partners was asked to leave because his billings were down. I've got a mortgage and kids in private school. Vacations are not an option."
But at the same time, attorneys who heeded the vacation advice often returned with a completely different outlook and perspective. Thanks for making " take a vacation" number one on my to do list. It was paradise. I was still on the phone now and then but I managed to plug back into the universe, recharge and come back with a whole new energy.
Solo Practitioners, In House Positions, and Non-Profit/Public Law
Of the surveyed lawyers, the eighteen percent who had solo practices most commonly complained about the difficulty of collecting fees. They also reported that their major anxiety was caused by the insecurity involved with getting a steady flow of clients and building their practices so that they could consistently make an adequate living. In addition, they expressed feelings of isolation.
The seven percent of surveyed lawyers who worked in legal departments of corporations complained most of problems directly related to the culture of the corporation. Some complained of bosses who were "screamers." Others were bored. Still others felt they had reached career dead ends.
For the lawyers who practiced in the nonprofit and public law sectors, the major issue was that their jobs didn't pay as well as jobs in the for-profit sector and in addition, they too experienced burnout. However, they seemed to get more satisfaction and moral fulfillment from the nature of the work they were doing. Many of the lawyers currently working in law firms or for corporations expressed interest in pursuing work in the nonprofit or public sectors despite the fact that they knew they would have to take a substantial cut in salary.
Comments Regarding the Career Counseling
Thirty percent of the lawyers rated the helpfulness of their career counseling experience as a five on a scale of 1-5. An additional 28 percent rated it a four. Twenty-five percent rated it a three. Regarding the success of meeting their objectives for going to counseling, seventy-four percent rated it in the three to five category. Sixty-nine percent rated themselves on a scale of 3-5 for following up with action based on their career counseling. There was a strong positive correlation between the lawyers' satisfaction with meeting objectives of career counseling and the degree to which they followed up with their actions. One lawyer wrote, "What I really need is a kick in the butt."
In March 2004, Sandra Day O'Connor, delivering a lecture regarding ethics and professionalism in law, said that lawyers are "an unhappy lot" and "job dissatisfaction among lawyers is widespread, profound and growing worse. Studies have shown that lawyers are three times as likely as other professionals to suffer depression, drug dependency, divorce and suicide."
That stated, the law remains an attractive, lucrative, and fulfilling profession for a large percentage of practitioners. The California Career Services survey is a very skewed sample. After all, most happy lawyers are too busy with their work to schedule three hours with a career counselor, even if it is offered to them for free.
Among the lawyers who did show up for counseling, there were also many success stories. For example, one newly graduated lawyer who came in for "preventative" counseling was overjoyed to have someone to guide him through self-analysis to discover what area of law might make him most happy. He later wrote a letter telling us how hopeful he felt about working in a nonprofit environment where he could truly feel he was helping people.
Another client had almost no work experience since she started her family and stayed home with her children soon after passing the bar. While home, she also became involved with her sister's children, one of whom had a disability. She found that acting as a resource for her sister and an advocate for her sister's child was very satisfying. We were able to provide her with names of attorneys from our mentor network who were working as educational advocates. We also referred her to training programs and other resources that she could consider in order to become a special education advocate. When she first came to our office, she thought she was unemployable. She left delighted and hopeful about finding employment in this specialized area of the law.
Another client had been ill and was away from the practice of law for several years. Although he now felt well enough to return to work, he was afraid to give up the money he was receiving from his private disability policy and was at a loss as to how to begin his job search. He followed the step-by-step process that his career counselor recommended and landed a job with one of the partners from his old firm who had started a new firm.
Lawyers who have taken advantage of the State Bar's LAP program almost unanimously expressed gratitude to the Bar Association for providing them with the opportunity to engage in career counseling. One lawyer wrote, "My career counselor did not have a magic wand to make everything all perfect, but figuratively speaking, she did have a machete to help me cut through the dark, overgrown jungle of my world and help my see some light."