Being a lawyer was never about the money
Don’t worry, this isn’t another saccharine, idealist jotting on the hackneyed ‘money vs. purpose’ debate.
The truth is, and despite all the naysayers, I never entered law to make great gobs of money. Yes, I expected to be paid for my blood, sweat and not-so-willing toil, but it was never the driver.
(You can shout me down all you like, but if I’d thought, for one second, that my life’s work would be measured by my putative bank balance, I never would have studied law. Most likely, I’d have studied English, Philosophy or Theology.)
Of course, this begs the question, why I entered law?
I don’t really know.
I didn’t give it much thought.
Sure, I wanted to get a degree and move back to Devon — I was living in Guildford at the time — but beyond that, it was no more than happenstance that eventually transported me to the gates of Plymouth University in September 1992 (aged 25) along with all my other unsuspecting, daft-as-batshit brothers/sisters.
If I was to scrape away the bullsh*t as to what law could or should do for the world, I’m sure to regale you with my need to serve the oppressed etc., but here again, whilst that was a good foil to my apprehensive younger self, it wasn’t writ large in 1992, and probably even less so when I finally quit private practice in August 2010. By then, I’d had enough of the timesheets and billing targets but most especially the egregious, mean-as-hell atmosphere.
Or, to be more precise, I’d had enough of working for people — mostly partners — who didn’t care about the business beyond the need to provide them with the biggest draw as was humanly possible. If people suffered under the tyranny of the relentless, ill-conceived reminder emails to bill the bejeezus out of their clients, then so be it.
I suspect, if you’ve never worked in private practice, none of this will make sense. Think of it this way: you’re scared witless at screwing up and being sued and, therefore, your soul and energy is invested in doing the best job possible to serve your very demanding client cohort; but, at the same time, someone keeps their foot pressed to your throat (not literally!) telling you to work faster, harder and to keep billing even when you know it’s the wrong-as-hell thing to do.
I can hear the hissing and booing already — “What else did you expect, Summerhayes?”.
I don’t know, but when the profit share trope infects every decision, it makes for a very corrosive working environment.
For those that might read this post and have actually worked with me, I can tell you, for the record, that my abject cynicism of private practice arises not because of my treatment but rather because our esteemed brethren, mounted atop their ‘Clients First’ steed, should have known better than to constantly put people to the sword for no other reason than to maintain their lifestyle. Whatever you might say to my face, you’ll never convince me that money is or should be the sine qua non of a law firm.
For the avoidance of doubt (oh, crikes, that sounds so bloody legal), my invective is not born out of my failed partnership pitch – yep, I did get that far. If anything, or more especially, failing to impress the interview panel who hadn’t a clue who I was or what I did — despite being at the law firm for nearly 10 years — was exactly the wakeup call I needed to question my absorption of a way of working that up to then I’d never seriously questioned. More particularly, it made me censure my ego in a way that no amount of you-are-not-good-enough criticism would have blown me off my I-want-to-get-to-partner-at-any-cost perch.
I’ll be the first to admit that, up until the time I was told I wasn’t partnership material, I was prepared to suck up the tardy atmosphere if it meant: (a) I was paid enough to live life on my terms; and (b) I had more autonomy — which I thought came with the partnership territory. But like all the partners I’ve met, coached or counselled, none of them, initially nor later in their journey, properly investigated their antecedent reasoning let alone the cost that would ensue to their family and maintaining normal relationships. Frankly, it’s no wonder that so many partners turn to the booze for solace.
When I did eventually leave practice in August 2010, I had no idea what I was going to do. In hindsight, it was a tad reckless, particularly given I was ditching my £65,000 salary for a gaping hole which I hoped I’d fill with my social media zeal and the need to change the legal profession for the better.
Like many times in my life, I didn’t speak to anyone about my decision for fear, I suspect, that they’d try to talk me out of my nascent plan. I knew there would be consequences in me giving up on something which by now I’d invested 18 years of my life in building, but I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice the better part of my life doing something that I no longer enjoyed. In the mythos too was the loss of my uncle, Adrian, to a brain tumour aged 44, and the 6 days I’d spent in hospital (March 2010) with a subarachnoid haemorrhage. It’s no exaggeration to say that Adrian’s death haunted me greatly not least the fact that after my stay in hospital all I wanted to do – to fulfil my life – was to ensure that I was able to celebrate my 44th birthday.
In hindsight, perhaps I should have looked outside of private practice and worked for a charity or company where there was a mission, vision and purpose that transcended money. But I was burnt out. I’d had enough and I needed to do something different.
And so I spent the better of 6 years mixing it up in various guises – social media, speaking, blogging and coaching (that’s the abbreviated list) – in the hope of trying to change the profession to address at least some of the issues adumbrated above.
But I don’t think I moved the needle much. Sure, I got a few pats of the back, but secretly I don’t think the profession or more particularly the partners I worked with had any intention of changing their modus operandi. If I did inspire a few, I’m pretty sure they were shouted down either by their inner, rather selfish critic or, more likely, their partner cohort.
At one stage, I thought I might build a business, but it wasn’t to be. I was the business.
Come the end, following a gentle nudge out the door from my last consulting gig, I decided to throw my hat back into the legal/private practice ring (October 2016).
What a mistake that was – for me and the two firms who were kind enough to give me another opportunity. Neither lasted very long; and I don’t blame them. What was writ large was my apostasy with private practice.
Again, for the record, I didn’t have any ambition about the money. In fact, even though I was £20,000 lighter in the pocket than when I’d left in 2010, I thought, naively, that my legal purpose would materialise. It didn’t. Even though the work environs were a little better, I felt denuded of passion for the work and the clients.
I should say that throughout this time, I was still blogging, recording the odd podcast and coaching, but I’d pulled the plug on speaking and training. I simply didn’t have the time.
When I left my last firm I had a short period where I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Should I return to my coaching roots, do something completely different or use my legal expertise in some way or another?
As it happened, more by luck than chance, I secured an in-house role in Cornwall for a software company. It was part-time and the pay was meagre but it gave me the opportunity to work in house. Even though I only stayed a few months before moving to my current gig, it was wonderful to work for people who actually appreciated me for…simply doing my job, i.e. being a lawyer. ‘Thank you’ goes a long way, trust me.
When I did leave earlier this year, the only reason for doing so was because I managed to find a full-time role closer to home. Here again, though, money was not the driver. I just knew, having tasted the in-house experience, that, at least for now, this was where I should invest my energies.
Sorry. I mean sorry for making you endure this long piece all to make my point that through a long and not very illustrious career in law, I’ve always found myself at odds with the money imperative. Even now I can hear my inner voice interjecting and asking a slew of questions as to why I went into law if not for the money?, would I have been happier if everyone was paid the same? and if I’d worked for a law firm that had a heart-owning vision, how things might have been?
Perhaps it’s nothing to do with law. No absolutely: it’s all to do with me.
I do think, though, whether it’s law or any other enterprise, that if your only motivation is money, then, frankly, be prepared to live a very shallow existence or, more likely, you’ll waste the better of your life doing something that doesn’t matter particularly when set against the current zeitgeist of doing purposeful work.
I suspect to some this message will grate. I mean, it’s none of my business if you want to subjugate your life to the money imperative. For all I know, you’re perfectly happy. Sure, you have to suck up the detritus that goes with working in an unhappy office but then again, you’ve always got the weekends, holidays and your retirement to keep you in the game.
Unfortunately, to me at least, that’s not enough.
Work = life = meaning.
In other words, I’ll never sacrifice my search to make my little ol’ dent in the universe for a life where money is or has become the only reason to do what you do.
If that means that my family and I have to live a life of penury, then I’m willing to square down on the hard conversations that will no doubt ensue because, at the end of the day, I’ll tell them the same thing I’ve been telling myself all these years:
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
― Oscar Wilde