The Biggest Problem With Financial Independence for Lawyers

A few years ago I was at a turning point in my career. I had a job that was ok. I was working for the government in a job I really liked. I thought the work was important. The pay was relatively low, but the hours and stress were high.

But I could tell I was burning out. I had two young kids at home and I wanted to spend time with them. Even when I was with them, I was thinking about work. So, stuff was bad, and I needed to change jobs.

We make our own chains.

I did what people do when they’re looking for a new job – I called people and asked them what I could do. I asked them to introduce me to people they know who might be willing to talk to me about what to do.

A friend of a friend got me in touch with a lawyer whose career was on the rise. He was short on time, but gracious about talking to me.

At least until I told him I wanted a job where I could stay involved in my kids’ lives, and that being a good parent is a priority for me.

His tone changed. He told me I should just find another career, or go be a legal aid lawyer if I wasn’t serious about practicing law. (n.b. – legal aid lawyers are serious about their careers) He hung up soon after.

Since that call, his career has taken off. He’s now the General Counsel of a massive company. I’d wager he brings in north of $5 million a year. He’s on his third wife and his third set of kids. Whatever game he’s playing, he appears to be winning.

The Hypertrophy of Work

Why am I writing about that guy?

As always, Judge Posner is helpful. In “Goodbye to the Bluebook,” Posner explains that “[a]nthropologists use the word ‘hypertrophy’ to describe the tendency of human beings to mindless elaboration of social practices.” The pyramids are the hypertrophy of burial.

Buying a luxury SUV is the hypertrophy of providing transportation for yourself. The private practice of law is a hypertrophy of earning a living. (Or one of them. Everyone gets to build their own prison.)

I don’t want to be that guy. I see the tendency in the profession to pull us toward that. I feel it in myself.

Lawyers are told that unless they’re putting in 70 hour work weeks they lack dedication. Our profession tells us that we’re supposed to be on call, all the time.

The easiest place to see this is in how we charge our clients. Do we bill them by the value we create? No, we bill them for the hours we bill. On that metric, the best lawyer for a firm is the one who spends the most time working.

So what does that mean for being financially independent and being a lawyer? Here, I think, are the options:

First, you could stop working – thereby effectively no longer being a lawyer. You live on a beach or in perpetual travel or one of a million other fantasies.

Second, keep practicing as a lawyer and keep work up. You’re basically like every other lawyer, except that you don’t spend as much. This is probably better for the environment, but may not be great for you – unless you really like being a lawyer.

Third, you find one of the loopholes in lawyer work. You teach. You get a part-time pro bono gig. You go to one of the rare firms where you can throttle back. This is rare – though possible.

But the biggest problem with each of these is the hit to respect. If you leave a white-shoe firm to go part time at a small firm, the chorus of snickering behind your back will drive you crazy if you let it.

For many lawyers, financial insecurity isn’t the problem; reputational insecurity is. There’s no investment profitable enough to fix that problem.

4 thoughts on “The Biggest Problem With Financial Independence for Lawyers”

  1. Another option is to keep playing the game of long hours and big paychecks. If you cut expenses you should be able to get out in 10 years. You could be the lawyer that drives an old Prius and rents a two bedroom house. I think it is doable, but I am not a lawyer…

    1. This is precisely my intention. I got lucky with a great place to work, and I plan to stay here, bill the crap out of this job for the next 6-7 years, and maintain very low spending so that I can have some freedom of choice after that point. I may be motivated to reduce hours after about 3-4 years, depending on several factors relating to savings, markets, and most importantly where my personal life is headed.

  2. Seems like there are a lot of similarities with medicine and being a lawyer in terms of many people struggling to find a work life balance. I will say this, FI is on my mind but life is too short not to enjoy it along the way.

    My health and family are two things that no amount of insurance could ever replace in the event of a loss.

    I think that you posted a common dilemma. Work in a job for high pay that you don’t enjoy or take the hit and do something else. Each year that passes its harder and harder to make the change as roots grow deeper in your current situation.

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