Time, Satisfaction and the Law

A recent letter to the forum, entitled "Time, Life and Exhaustion", prompted me to further reflection on the alleged work/life dichotomy and related issues said (by us among others) to influence career satisfaction. I thought about this on the way to work this morning, which was one way to make the commute pass faster while raising my awareness of mortality by reducing my attention to surrounding traffic. In fact, I have often experimented with time in traffic. Waiting impatiently at stoplights, I decided to try reading something really lengthy and compelling. For the sake of argument, suppose that I find Proust compelling, and that I took to keeping a volume of Remembrance of Things Past open on the seat beside me, dipping into it at every light. Just as Proust had cleared his throat, so to speak, the light would change and I would curse its brevity. In this fashion, I could get to work in a flash. What I do at work to achieve the same effect is a different story. Suffice it to say that it isn't necessary to make time pass quickly on good days, because time ceases to exist.

From the forum letter, it appears that time weighs heavily on the writer for two reasons, one of which relates to expectations of life in a profession, the other to the timing of a legal education in most students' lives. The author asks, "Where...do we draw the line between work and life? How does one avoid slipping out of 'working to live' and into 'living to work?'" The question seems to assume that the choice is between disassociating work from life or becoming a "workaholic." We have argued that the professions have offered, at least traditionally, an opportunity to connect with something larger in life through one's work. Whether that continues to be so is the topic of much discussion in these columns, but many argue that the possibility still exists through good career planning. Even "working to live" assumes a large measure of dignity and meaning when it involves meeting serious obligations and responsibilities, as another forum participant has remarked.

Why, then insist on the dichotomy? In 1983, Judge Harry T. Edwards delivered an address on "Seeking a Satisfying Life in the Law," in which he stated, "If I have a formula for satisfaction, it has been to attempt to focus on the problems of life rather than the problems of lawyers." He went on to say that unless one's practice of the law reflected a concern for something ultimately transcending the law, the search for satisfaction would be illusory. He did not see himself as being particularly idealistic, only practical, nor did he search for meaning in exalted specialties; he felt there was satisfying work to be done in every phase of practice.

The forum author quoted above rightly points out that once the learning curve of competency building starts to flatten out in some modern legal organizations, the only enrichment is that of the owner/partners. Absent feelings of mutual obligation and gratitude in such an organization, the logical choice is to leave in search of more immediately satisfying work. However, it is also possible to commit more fully to the organization and thereby discover new levels of satisfaction. One is reminded here of commitment in intimate relationships, where sooner or later one must decide whether to make that extra investment, and in doing so passes through the doldrums to a new level of relationship.

The analogy brings us to the second reason why time at work might weigh heavily on an associate: the associate is young. The forum author complains that "Many of us are in our late twenties ...attempting to balance work and life, in the hope of squeezing out just a few more years of twenty-somethingish fun. The impetus for doing so is that the middle years of our twenties were spent in musty law libraries and buried in voluminous casebooks, with little opportunity to see the outside world. These precious years are the last opportunity for many of us to flaunt the vestiges of social irresponsibility and freedom." He has a point, of sorts. I work in a law school, and I have noticed that even in this cloistered setting many students struggle to balance the musty with the frisky. Sadly, that they feel compelled to do so reflects undergraduate experiences lacking a quotient of wild oats and intellectual spontaneity. Often, having hewed to the straight and narrow of carefully calculated achievement in college, students arrive at law school ready for a rich college experience. In three brief years, they then are ejected into the work world still regretting adventures missed.

They would be amiss, however, if they assumed that law school or legal practice precluded adventure or an "opportunity to see the outside world." Whether or not "the vestiges of social irresponsibility can be flaunted" to good purpose in the law (some would even argue that), exposure to new experiences is certainly possible. Granted, debt burdens may constrict the freedom to explore, and work burdens may significantly inhibit social life and the search for a mate. If so, the argument is all the more compelling for spending some time employed between college and law school, acquiring the experience and resources for making the most of life, love and work. For the author is right: to wake up at 35 with only work and partially paid loans to show for the last ten years is a waste --- of work and of loans. If, as someone once said, "work is love made visible," then a full life involves balancing two kinds of love. The real balance we need to achieve is between the two vital forms of life that Freud deemed necessary for mental health, "leiben and arbeiten," love and work. If so, my tactics for making time pass quickly in traffic fail to apply, for neither red or green lights will last long enough!

By Mark L. Byers, Ph.D., Center for Professional Development and the Law