The 5 secrets to living an extraordinary life as a partner in a law firm
What is an “extraordinary” life? Extraordinary certainly means different things to different people, but in this report we will see that there are some clearcut commonalities.
For some, “extraordinary” means work-life balance; for others, it means significant success. For others still, it means control, freedom, connection with colleagues, doing meaningful or excellent work or working with either important or vulnerable clients.
In 2015, Professor Larry Krieger of Florida State University’s College of Law published a study on “What Makes Lawyers Happy? A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success”.
Krieger’s study was the first theory-guided empirical research paper seeking to identify the correlates and contributors to the well-being and life satisfaction of lawyers.
As the report states, “Striking patterns appear repeatedly in the data and raise serious questions about the common priorities on law school campuses and among lawyers.”
As a general observation, Krieger goes on to say that, “Overall, the data also demonstrate that lawyers are very much like other people, notwithstanding their specialized cognitive training and the common perception that lawyers are different from others in fundamental ways.” I admit, I found that sentiment somewhat reassuring.
Krieger’s study is very much worth reading should you find the time. It was a lengthy and heavy-weight academic study, taking place over several years, with tens of thousands of subjects across all sectors of the US legal industry.
In a nutshell though, Krieger identifies five “tiers” of well-being factors in his data and, in short, Krieger’s top three correlates for the subjective well-being of lawyers were (1) Autonomy, (2) Relatedness, and (3) Competence. These findings instantly rang true with my own experience and thoughts.
Compare Krieger’s headline findings now with the most recent set of data I can obtain, published by The Lawyer magazine here in the UK in April 2022.
Using a “cultural decoder system”, devised by the organisation Brands with Values and based on a framework proposed by social psychologist Professor Shalom Schwartz, lawyers and law firm employees were presented with a word wall of 81 sentiments, with each word carefully selected to reflect a wide range of human values.
The exercise was devised to prompt respondents to carefully consider their own values and what values they desire in the workplace.
In ranking order, the highest value scores were for: (1) Community, (2) Success, (3) Selflessness and (4) Independence.
Look at the commonalities between the two studies’ top findings.
A longing for “Community” comes top, and a preference for “Selflessness” comes third, in the Brands with Values study (from The Lawyer), whilst the concept of “Relatedness” ranks second highest in Krieger’s study.
These are qualities of people working together in an evolved, mature way, relying on each other, spurring each other on. These are the qualities that are effectively showing up as the absolute top requirements for lawyers’ happiness (Community, Selflessness, Relatedness).
Next, “Autonomy” comes out top in Krieger’s study, whilst “Independence” comes fourth in Brands with Values’ findings. This one explains itself; lawyers are highly skilled professionals and expect to be left to their own devices to practice as they see fit. In fact, in order for them to be happy, the lawyers across both studies actually require a certain degree of autonomy.
Finally, the requirement to demonstrate “Competence” comes third in Krieger’s study, whilst “Success” comes second in Brands with Values’. It is clear that we all want to do well and to master our craft as well.
Whether we talk to lawyers in the US or the UK, in the commercial or public sectors, now or seven years ago, we see that the same traits, behaviours and freedoms are fundamental to lawyers’ contentment in practice.
We see a pattern emerging, and that pattern very much aligns with my own experience over the years.
Let’s delve a little deeper into what I see as the five secrets to living an extraordinary life as a partner in a law firm.
Secret #1: Wield a measure of control over your working life
For some, control means literally running one’s own sole practice. For others, it simply means some degree of autonomy over the timing and method of delivering one’s workload.
Without any measure of control though, it is clear that it is very difficult to build an extraordinary life.
I measure control in relation to where I work, when I work, how I work and who I work with.
For you personally, it might be as simple as having the flexibility to leave the office at 3pm (every day if necessary), pick up the kids, feed them, put them to bed, then log back on at 7pm for another couple of hours.
Or it might mean working from home three days a week, or being able to choose serviced offices to work from a ten-minute drive from home instead of coming into a central HQ.
Alternatively, it might mean not having someone looking over your shoulder every time you work on something, second-guessing or tut-tutting.
It might mean not having to hit a specific billable hours target or not always having to take on new work if you don’t like the sound of a particular client or matter or you simply have too much on.
If you ask me, the number one secret to living an extraordinary life as a lawyer is gaining as much control over your working life as possible, so you can live and work on your terms: work hard and work smart, yes, but also work right (right for you).
There will always be clients, deadlines and stress and, as we all know, in many ways these are the things that can make life exciting and get the juices flowing sufficiently to focus and do great work. But without any control, these things can quickly become overwhelming – and over time that can become debilitating.
So establishing a measure of control, a measure of choice, in our working lives, is the first and most critical step in our journey to an extraordinary life, and it’s good to know that the research backs this up.
One of the many reasons that we need control is that there needs to be more to life than work for us to be happy. This is just an inescapable truth, however much we love our work.
We must then have some measure of control to ensure that we can include the other critical elements into our lives: headspace, family, fun, rest, adventure, socialising, home-making, planning… admin, whatever it is that your life and your personal happiness outside the office demand.
So how do we go about obtaining this measure of control?
Well, some already have it. The more senior the partner, by and large, the more areas of working life tend to be under control. By contrast, the more junior the partner, typically the less control.
I recommend identifying for yourself the specific areas of your own working life that, if you had complete control over them, would have the biggest impact on your happiness. Then, if the requisite level of control is not already available to you, ask for it (but be specific).
If control over your personal critical areas is available to you already, but you are not availing yourself of that control, then use it or, like the rugby player’s advantage, lose it.
We must all take control of our own control. We deserve it. And what is clear from the research, we also need it.
Identify the most important (but neglected) areas of your life and fight for control over them. You, and your nearest and dearest, will reap enormous benefits.
Secret #2: Work with a community of fantastic people
So many of the difficulties we face, day-to-day, as well as so many of the joys, flow directly from the people we work with: our clients, our colleagues, our seniors and our wider teams.
If you do not have more people around you that make your working life positive than make it negative, you are ultimately destined for unhappiness.
The research shows us that the feeling part of a community, having shared goals, a sense of shared mission that we all buy in to, has an enormous impact on our happiness and sense of fulfilment.
It is this sense of “Relatedness” that can make life (and work) worth living.
So how do we find it?
Well, again, some already have it.
For others, the vibrant community you need to be happy might be there but you simply have not embraced it fully or even acknowledged its existence. If that’s the case, go and join in. Embrace the camaraderie, be a part of the team, it will make you happier.
For those where a positive community does not exist: just go and join a great team, hire some great people or find some new, wonderful clients.
If your team, your colleagues, your boss, your clients are negative influences in your life, then you owe it to your own happiness to change them, upgrade them.
It’s that simple… at least, if you want to live an extraordinary life.
Secret #3: Focus your practice so you can deliver excellence and expertise
Delighting our clients and our colleagues is the lifeblood of success in our industry and it is clear, both intuitively and based on the data, that success and mastery are both critical to professional fulfilment.
When we do great work, our clients are happy, and so are we. We feel satisfied, we find meaning in our work and ultimately we find success in our practice.
Not only that, but by becoming an expert in a particular field and carving out a niche, marketing our services to new clients becomes so much more straightforward. The marketing message is so much clearer and rings so much more true.
Doing great work, repeatedly, and continuously building expertise, however, are both time-consuming endeavours and, regardless of what anybody says, require great effort.
There is only so much great work that can be done in a week and only so many articles one can read and seminars one can attend.
So in order to find our extraordinary life, we also must control the work that we take on, focusing our energies on the critical matters for our critical clients, to leave enough time and willpower for expertise building and to ensure that the work we do can be great work.
Spreading ourselves too thinly, both in terms of our area of expertise and the amount of work we take on, leads to poor quality work, diluted expertise, unhappy clients and a general sense of malaise.
Focus is a critical element of excellence and success.
Secret #4: Manage your time out of work as assiduously as your time in work
This one is age-old, but all the more critical in the modern legal industry. Every week, we all have a huge amount of ground to cover.
We must all get through our critical client work, improve our knowledge, find new work and new clients, but we must also spend quality time with our children, family and friends, find time to rest and recuperate, take some exercise, get some sleep… Remember all those other things?
If we do not find a way to fit this all in, life simply passes us by.
We don’t need to dedicate our entire week to non-work, but it behooves us to create time slots, carved in stone in our diaries, for the most critical extra-curricular activities.
If you do not manage your time in this way, you will always be playing catch-up.
Let me give you some examples…
Exercise at least once a week, no compromise. Choose the date and the time and diarise it. If you can and want to do more than that, then great, but you can at least ride an exercise bike, swim, go to a class or pump iron once a week for 20 or 30 minutes. Every healthy person can manage that. The benefits will be enormous over time.
Go to bed early, at least a few nights a week, no matter what. It will revolutionise your ability to focus over the following few days. Take a pass on the extra admin, the office night out, whatever the distraction is and go home and go to bed.
The internet is awash with life hacks from meditation to keto diets. Explore and experiment, find the right things for you, and make them part of your schedule.
Carve out Sunday morning for taking your kids to do their favourite activities and do it, no matter what, every week, like clockwork.
Commit to building a routine that supports you and your extraordinary life, diarise it and do it. Make it easy, simple and not overly demanding. Work with it over time.
Nobody else will ever do this for you, and nothing will revolutionise your life more.
Secret #5: Build a never-ending supply of great work with great clients
For anybody working as a lawyer in private practice, a steady stream of work is critical.
New work generally means business development, marketing and, yes, sales. These are endeavours that many lawyers are typically unsure about (at best) and fearful of (at worst).
A sales and marketing machine, that brings in a regular stream of clients is the dream, of course, but it is absolutely an achievable dream.
So many resources are available now, beginning with your profile on your firm or your company’s website, correctly leveraging your own network of contacts, article-writing on your firm’s blog (and your firm’s influence to publish your work in industry publications) to showcase your talent and expertise, hosting webinars and seminars, and the extraordinarily powerful tools available via LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter, particularly for relatively inexpensive advertising.
By bringing together the best of all these tools and opportunities, it is relatively straightforward, as a one-off project, to develop a highly effective structure or system for finding new clients interested in you and your area of work.
The more you have focussed your practice and sharpened your expertise, the clearer, brighter and louder your marketing message will sound to the huge numbers of clients out there who need support.
Your marketing efforts can easily be maintained with just a couple of hours a week of input, again, diarised in stone.
Constantly learning from mistakes and tweaking your approach is the key to successful sales and marketing. As Amelia Earhart said, “the most effective way to do it, is to do it”.
Focus on identifying the exact type of great work that you want to do and the exact type of great clients that you want to work with.
Once we have this focus, it becomes much easier to approach the right people with the right message, over and over again. In time, and with effort, if you are doing the right things, success will always follow.
Bringing it all together
If we find a measure of control over our time, we use that control to manage our time intelligently and constructively, we build a conveyor belt for bringing in great work with great clients, we find wonderful people to work with and we set ourselves up to deliver excellent work every time, we cannot help but build extraordinary careers.
Having said that, these endeavours all require time, thought and commitment to a higher cause than simply getting through the week.
They require a separate line of effort directed towards building an extraordinary life and career. But what could be more important?
We think we can help with all of this at Clearlake, where we have built, from the ground up, a vehicle for facilitating lawyers to build extraordinary careers and to live extraordinary lives.
In fact, this is our core purpose. To learn more about what’s on offer at Clearlake, take a look at our careers website.