I had a great dinner last night with someone I’ve known off and on for several years and who qualifies as one of the true luminaries of the Los Angeles Bar. Part of what made it a special meal was the food (lemon white wine-poached branzino). But a bigger part was our jovial conversation and his stories about his practice and his travels. It was such an uplifting discussion, in fact, that I spent some time today reflecting on it and I think I’ve put my finger on why I came away feeling so good. It’s this: my dinner companion was first admitted to practice law in January, 1969. Yet, now, after more than 44 years of lawyering, he still enjoys it!
He actually said, “I love what I do.” I don’t know about your friends, colleagues and acquaintances, but I don’t meet too many lawyers who’ve been doing this even just 25 or 30 years who still really seem to enjoy it. Or who enjoy it enough to declare, without the slightest hint of irony, “I love what I do.” Do you love what you do?
Like those researchers who desperately want to unlock the secret to longevity in a culture like Sardinia, Italy or Okinawa, Japan, his words caused me to wonder whether he had stumbled upon some little known formula to continuing to find law enjoyable after over four decades. I haven’t uncovered any secret formula, but after some thought I’ve identified a few factors, habits or traits, if you will, that could help explain how my friend has managed, not only to go the distance, but to do it joyfully. Without further throat-clearing, here’s what I’ve gathered:
As tempted as you might be to snicker at the notion of “work-life balance,” particularly now when everybody is supposed to feel lucky just to have a job and the new buzz phrase is “lean in,” don’t dismiss this too quickly (that includes you, too, Scott H. Greenfield). When my friend described his notion of balance, it did not mean always leaving work at a “reasonable time” so he can enjoy his life and time with family. His practice is litigation-oriented, specialized and in-demand, so he’s not working what used to be called “banker’s hours.”
But he did stress that he both “works hard and plays hard.” His meaning was that, while there may be some nights that he’s responding to emails in the early morning hours, there are lots of other nights when he’s having dinner with intriguing folks like me. This is the kind of balance I, too, have tried to find in recent years, recognizing that it’s not always going to work to leave the office at 6, or 7 or whenever. But for every time I get stuck working into the night, I make sure there are many more nights when I’m doing something I really enjoy–like spending time with my daughter.
When I first met this man in 1996, he told me he routinely took 5-6 weeks off annually, and spent much of it traveling abroad. When I reminded him of this comment last night he smiled and said, “now it’s more like 11-12 weeks off.” Wow. Just wow.
I fully recognize that most lawyers simply cannot, financially or logistically, afford to take 2 or 3 months off every year. So bear with me, because my point is not that we should all make that a goal, but something a little more fundamental.
For my friend, he loves time off and he loves to travel. So he structured his professional life so that it enables him to maintain a thriving practice while taking a substantial (by anyone’s measure) amount of time off. He is also really good at what he does, so he is in demand and charges a premium.
But, here’s the reason I bring this up: he has found something he loves outside the law and he pursues it and will not let anything, including his practice, prevent him from doing that thing. And we can all learn something from that. We don’t have to disappear for months at a time and visit faraway lands. But I do think having a life, interests and activities outside the law–and making time to enjoy them–may be one of the important keys to a long, enjoyable legal career. One that can last over 40 years! But it won’t happen without some serious effort toward that goal.
If you’re wondering how my friend can escape a thriving law practice for months at a time, the answer is that he doesn’t do it alone. When I met him in 1996, he had an associate and a fantastic paralegal. Now he has a few “of counsel” lawyers and a paralegal. Again, he didn’t build this practice overnight, but as it grew he early recognized the need for help. We talked briefly about his team last night and he was complementary of their skills, which led me to believe that, when he takes time away, he is confident that his clients’ needs are being protected just as if he were in town.
Here, again, vetting and training a team who could competently manage his practice when he travels must have been a challenge. But, knowing he wanted a life outside the law, he spent the necessary time and energy. I don’t know, perhaps he was also very lucky with the people he found and hired. Perhaps he treats them well. But the upshot is that he’s able to take (a lot of) time away and do so comfortably. I’ll leave it to you to ponder whether this is one of the keys to his longevity.
A Practice He Loves
I do relish a good circular argument. But, the fact is, my friend loves what he does because he does something he loves. If you don’t find an area of the law that you “love” to practice now, you’re probably not going to love it in 25, 30 or 40 years. And I don’t think you have to love it at all, but if you’re going to spend four decades doing an activity many hours a week, it will really help if it’s something you find stimulating. I will readily admit I don’t love my practice, but I do find it stimulating, and I’m hoping it will stimulate me at least until my daughter finishes college.
Have I discovered the career longevity equivalent of Sardinian olives? I don’t know. But I can point to one person whose been practicing for 44 years and is still going strong. I hope I will be able to say as much.