Trimble: The continuum of law — not a one-size-fits-all profession

TrimbleIn the decade or so since the most recent economic downturn, a lot has been said and written about how law has been changing. Some have ignored the change and soldiered on doing things the same way with heads down. Others have embraced change and have radically retooled their practices. Most, however, are somewhere in between — they see change, adapt to it, and rarely try to get out ahead of it. Few think about it very much.

At cocktail parties, meetings, and seminars, we hear gross overgeneralizations: “What’s the world coming to?” “We can’t hire or retain Millennials!” “The young lawyers we hire don’t want to work as hard.” “All of our work is going in house, and so are the young lawyers!” “We hire and train young lawyers only to see them leave as they are becoming partners.” “Old timers are practicing longer, refusing to retire, refusing to hand off client relationships, and blocking younger lawyers from succession opportunities.” “Senior partners are expecting pay that is out of balance with what they are now generating in revenues.”

As I have made my own observations about the pace of change, and the supposed differences in generations, I have come to the realization that a career in law is a continuum, and that we all slide up and down that continuum as our life cycles change. Law never has been, nor will it ever be a “one-size-fits-all” occupation.

At one extreme of the continuum, law is a box. It is 9 to 5 and Monday through Friday. The box is surrounded by life. At this end of the continuum, lawyers come from life and climb into the box until it is time to climb back out to life again. Law and life don’t mix … or, at least they mix very little. For the lawyer at this end of the continuum, law and life are balanced.

At the far opposite extreme, law is a calling, not a job. Law has no walls or time constraints, and no days of the week. Law isn’t work … it is simply who you are and what you do. Your friends are your clients, and your clients are your friends. You may appear to be working all the time. To an observer, this end of the continuum could appear to be utterly out of balance. To the lawyer at this end of the spectrum, life and law are balanced because they feel seamlessly integrated.

Of course, for the vast majority of lawyers, law is somewhere on the continuum between the two extremes, and that is what observers would label as true “work-life balance.”

You may be asking yourself, “Why does this matter?”

My pitch to anyone who is observing the behavior of lawyers of all ages in these changing times is to be mindful of the impact of life cycles on how lawyers decide to shape their careers. We baby boomers moved up and down the continuum of law at various stages of our lives. Many of us have seen both ends of the continuum and in between. If we have been reflective at all, we realize that law can provide very satisfying and interesting careers no matter whether the time commitment is 9 to 5 or 24/7. The key is what works for each individual in that person’s current life cycle.

To my friends who run law firms, talk about life cycles and the impact they have on lawyers at varying ages. Accommodate life cycles. Create a culture that allows your lawyers to move up and down the continuum of law as their lives allow for it. Try to avoid a “one size fits all” mentality of lawyering. If you do this, you may be able to hire and retain younger lawyers, and you may be able to institute succession planning.

To my younger friends and colleagues coming into law, be mindful of your own life cycles, and do what you can to think about the long game. Before you judge your careers against what you are seeing of the senior lawyers, take the time to learn how the more senior lawyers moved up and down the continuum of law in their earlier life cycles. Try to think more than three years at a time, and ask lots of questions so you have an accurate assessment of the future opportunities you may be addressing.

Gross over-generalizations do all of us a disservice. Let’s spend more time talking about how great law is as a career and counseling one another as we each travel the continuum of law. Law can and should be good for all of us! #WillYouBeThere?•

John Trimble (@indytrims) is a senior partner at the Indianapolis firm of Lewis Wagner LLP. He is a self-described bar association “junkie” who admits that he spends an inordinate amount of time on law practice management, judicial independence and legal profession issues. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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