How to be Perfect—the Lawyer Version

October 19, 2022

The genesis for the tongue-in-cheek headline for this post is a great book I read earlier in the year by Michael Schur, who was the creator of the television series The Good Place. In the book, How to Be Perfect, Schur takes a tour of the various philosophical schools of thought for how we can be good people. Of course, we will never be perfect as humans, but his book is a funny and practical way to think about how we can be better, and I encourage you to check it out.

With Schur’s guide to being a better person generally as a starting point, for my lawyer version, I am going to focus on distinct things we can do under our professional hats to be better (and happier) lawyers and stewards of our profession and the larger justice system. And we have a lot of opportunities to do better!

Our Need to Do Better

The backdrop to this post is a steady stream of reports of alarmingly high levels of dissatisfaction, burnout, well-being concerns, substance abuse, and related declines in overall mental health in our profession. Even if you do not personally fall into one of these categories, it impacts all of us in the profession when so many of our colleagues are having this experience.

At the same time, despite some notable recent progress, we remain a long way from a justice system that lives up to our ideals of being fair and accessible for all.

The common thread between these two trends is that they both are right in our proverbial backyard as lawyers and trustees of the profession and the justice system. We all have a responsibility to do our part to make them better, and that responsibility is heightened for those of us in leadership positions.

With those points in mind, below are a few ways we can do better in our professional roles. In putting this together, I have assumed you know what you need to do to stay on top of the nuts and bolts of your practice area and provide good legal services to your clients (or the equivalent for those of us not involved in direct service).

Build on or Reconnect to Why You Became a Lawyer

The starting point to doing better is not losing sight of why we became lawyers in the first place. When she was Illinois Attorney General, Lisa Madigan often spoke to law school graduating classes and shared some great advice with them: take the essay you wrote as part of your law school application and put it in a ”drawer,” and then revisit that in ten years and regularly thereafter to assess how well your practice lines up with the reasons you decided to pursue a legal career in the first place.

Whether you have that original essay in hand or not, there is a good chance that helping people and making the world a better place were among your primary reasons. And when we took the oath to become lawyers, we formalized that commitment to use the special privilege we have as lawyers to serve as officers of the legal system, with special responsibility for the quality of justice.

We indeed are all part of something bigger in this profession, but it is easy for that to get lost in the day-to-day practice and the challenges that can come with it. Keeping our higher calling in mind helps us stay connected to our professional core and can help all of us be better.

Pro Bono and Giving Back are Good for Us and Good for the Cause

One of the most important ways we can stay connected to our professional core is through pro bono and by giving generously to support legal aid and access to justice work.

Pro bono makes a difference in many ways in improving access to justice, and there are many ways to get involved.

For all the ways that pro bono makes a difference, however, it can never replace proper funding and other support for legal aid and related access to justice initiatives to ensure that everyone has access to legal assistance. Donating to support this work, advocating with the government to fund these essential services and to improve the system, and supporting the organizations carrying out this work are equally important ways for lawyers to get involved. Because if we as a legal community do not take the lead in these efforts, who will?

Pro bono and giving back to related causes are not just good for our justice system and the people who depend on it for their safety and well-being, but it is a good for you too! Research shows that volunteering and donating to support a cause that is meaningful to you both lead to better mental and physical health, life satisfaction, self-esteem, and happiness.

When you put it all together, that is a pretty good payoff!  And with this year’s CBA/CBF Pro Bono Week just around the corner, there are several free and easy opportunities to get involved throughout the week of October 24th (If you are outside of the Chicago area, next week is a national celebration as well, and the ABA can help you find a way to get involved in your area).

If you can’t make it to one of the Pro Bono Week events or are reading this later, don’t fret. The CBF is your year-round resource on all things pro bono, and you should always feel free to get in touch if you have questions on how best to get involved. The same is true for giving to support the cause. You can make a difference year-round by making a donation to the CBF or one of our many outstanding pro bono and legal aid partners.

And when you fill out the pro bono reporting sections on your annual attorney registration statement for the ARDC, you will feel even better by having more to report on your pro bono and giving. 

Focus on the Value You Provide to Your Clients

The billable hour is the root of many evils in our profession, and one of them is it can cause even the best lawyers to lose sight of the valuable service we provide to our clients. Good lawyers are trusted advisors who provide good counsel to their clients, have their backs as their advocate, and help them navigate difficult situations. Put simply, we help people and solve problems.

The billable hour, however, puts the focus on our inputs rather than the value to the client, distracting both lawyer and client from the value we provide as trusted advisors. It misaligns incentives to getting the best result for the client as efficiently and effectively as possible, and over time can distort how we feel about the work we are doing. Indeed,  studies show that it has a negative impact on satisfaction and wellness in the profession as well.  

If you are in a position to change your pricing to better align with the value you provide, either in your own firm or in a leadership position, I encourage you to do so. There are some good resources out there to make that change, including the ACC Value Challenge, our friends and colleagues at A Different Practice, and the CBF itself, among others. Even if you are not in a position where you can leave the billable hour behind, remaining conscious of the value you provide for your clients every day is another essential part of staying connected to your professional core.

Embrace Wellness in a Way That Works for You

For all the challenges and suffering the pandemic has thrown at us over the past two years, one of the silver linings has been the much broader recognition of the importance of prioritizing wellness in our profession.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to wellness and work-life balance, the steps previously discussed in this post are good building blocks, and the game plan that attorney and wellness expert Erin Clifford shared last year is still a solid one.

Those of us in leadership roles need to avoid the “do what I say, not what I do” wellness mantra we too often use in law (and I am guilty as charged). We need to lead by example in three important ways:

  • Setting reasonable boundaries between work and the rest of our lives–an already fraying line that has become even blurrier since the onset of the pandemic–and making that the expectation for our teams. There of course will be times like trials or big deals or their equivalents where that is not realistic, but we can’t let that become the norm.
  • Taking periodic breaks and vacations where the expectation is that we are not working during that time (or checking in on work).
  • Modeling good hybrid office behavior. Those of us in leadership positions may enjoy the flexibility of the hybrid world but we need to consider the impact that taking that too far has on people just starting out and on overall team building. As a law firm associate noted in a recent article in American Lawyer recounting their latest midlevel associate survey, “(A)ssociates take cues and if partners don’t show up, neither will we.”

Charting a More Perfect Path

The good news is that these steps are not heavy lifts for any of us but can make a big difference collectively. And they all work together: the more we embrace our responsibility as trustees of the justice system, do pro bono, and lead by example in other ways that flow from our roles as lawyers, the better off we will be.