Lawyers with a purpose are happier lawyers.
September 6th, 2019
Contributor: Chris Attig
If you hear the phrase, lawyers with a purpose, what is your immediate reaction?
Do you roll your eyes? Yawn? Close this page and find something else to read?
I'll be honest, the first time a business coach told me that my law practice needs to have a purpose, I was paralyzed.
"Finding my purpose" is something I have struggled with since grade school. I remember in 8th grade, I took one of those job skills tests, to help me figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life.
Okay, let's be honest, taking a test like that in the 8th grade wasn't my idea.
Apparently, a nun thought I so lacked a sense of "purpose" in my life at the ripe old age of 14 that I needed this test to bring me in line and find a purpose.
The results were apparently so inconsistent that they couldn't identify any one career I might have a proclivity for.
When I almost failed out of college after my first semester, guidance counselors and professors all told me I needed to get a sense of purpose.
I've always struggled with that concept: Purpose. It's almost always spoken about in the singular. Nobody asks you what your purposes are. There is so much in life I want to do and experience that I don't want to limit myself to one thing.
At various points in my life, I've wanted to be a soldier, a writer, a teacher, a husband, a father, a judge, a legislator, a grandfather, a farmer, a baseball player, a helicopter pilot, an astronaut, and a hit man.
Yes, when I was 6 years old I told my grandfather - a formal and proper man who was a reporter of debates in the US Senate for 30 years - that I wanted to be a "hit man" when I grew up.
That's the "down-side" of letting a child read too many books of his own choosing, I suppose.
I may or may not be some, any, or all of those things in my short time on earth, but I know this. I won't be limited to doing only one thing.
That malaise I experienced as a child continued into my early days as a sole practitioner in the legal profession. I handled a little personal injury, a little family law, a lot of employment law and the occasional patch of legal advice to small business owners.
So when a business coach told me that I needed to define my law firm's purpose, I locked up. I did my best to side-step the question.
I shrugged it off as some corporate patois that wouldn't really make any difference in my daily work.
I have since come to believe otherwise. As the owner of a small law firm, it is vital that I know my purpose.
What is purpose?
Some folks have a specific thing they want to achieve in life. A job they want to do or an accomplishment they want to fulfill.
Some folks have always wanted to provide legal services to the elderly. Some folks are a natural at the podium arguing in an appellate court. Others seem called to provide a particular type of service, whether veterans lawyers or estate planning attorneys.
Those jobs are not our purpose though. They are merely a vehicle that we use to fulfill or express our purpose.
The lawyer's purpose is something much, much more substantial.
It is the way we want to experience our little blink of life.
The things we do - or don't do - every day are either a fulfillment or a denial of that purpose.
At one point in the not too distant past, I was working 80 - 90 hour weeks to churn out 3 federal appellate briefs a week. Was I fulfilling some great purpose?
Not me. Someone else might have been, but not me.
My purpose, which is deeply and intensely personal to me, involves living in the light.
Years ago, I went to law school to escape a warehouse job where I never saw the sunlight. I sure as heck am not going good to build another warehouse to work in as a lawyer.
In that scenario, the work I was doing was contrary to my purpose. And it showed. I was a miserable old sock, who had little nice to say about anyone and even less time to say it.
This is why the saying "work-life balance" is meaningless drivel. If I am struggling with balance in my life - as I clearly was working 90 hours a week - it is because the work I am doing prevented me from fulfilling the purpose I aspired to.
Why would I want to keep that insane work dynamic in balance with the rest of my life?
Purpose is not something we do.
It is the reason we do the things we do.
When our purpose and actions are aligned, happiness is the more likely outcome.
Have you ever heard the Prayer of St. Francis?
St. Francis of Assisi is a Catholic saint, and the founder of the Franciscan Order, a religious organization akin to monks. Now, he didn't write the particular prayer attributed to him, but take a read by clicking here.
Had this been written by St. Francis, it may well have been a statement of his purpose. His purpose was to become a channel of peace.
There are a million ways he could have fulfilled the purpose of becoming a channel of peace. Starting the Franciscan order was just one way to fulfill that purpose.
What is your purpose?
Defining our purpose is not something that comes easily to many folks.
Essential as it is to having a profitable law firm that prioritizes the well-being of the lawyer, it is going to take trial and error to uncover, express and understand our purpose.
One place you can look for your purpose is in your actions.
Look at the things you do in your life that give you joy or pleasure. List as many as you can think of. What binds them together? Do they all share a common thread in the way that you experience life?
If you are struggling, today, to find things that give you joy or pleasure, go back to your childhood.
Look behind the activity to find what it was about the experience that you truly enjoyed.
What did you enjoy doing most as a child?
For me, one thing I enjoyed was bird watching.
I'm not a bird-watcher presently, though, nor do I have any desire to join the ranks of the ornithologists. I don't see myself finding joy traipsing through the woods with a pith helmet and binoculars, looking for the orange-beaked platypus swallow.
What I loved about the activity as a child, though, was being outside. I was away from the stress of growing up, soaking in what to me seemed the endless wildness of the forest behind our house.
Understanding why I liked that activity as a child uncovered a clue to my purpose which, as a I mentioned, is tied up with the idea of "living in the light."
You might also look for your purpose in the frictions of your life.
The friction I am talking about is the negative feeling you experience when you are doing something you do not want to be doing. You may experience this friction with dread, procrastination, forgetfulness, feelings of overwhelm, avoidance, etc., etc.
Those actions that you don't want to do or be doing are invariably in friction with your purpose.
Explore the friction when it arises.
Why is this action causing my friction? What is it about my purpose that this action does not agree with? Why do I have negative feelings doing a particular task?
Why is purpose so important to a lawyer's well being?
More than anything else, the people I've known who have committed suicide shared something in common. They either lacked a sense of purpose in their life or lacked the skills or tools to overcome the frictions of life to uncover their purpose.
Beyond that, there are other reasons to have a purpose. For example, having a purpose allows me to act with intention.
We had a saying in the Army: "Move like you got a purpose, soldier."
What we meant was that we should carry ourselves in a particular job like there was a point to what we were doing.
When you find your purpose - or even as you "narrow the funnel" and explore for your purpose, you are able to act with intention.
Trying to choose whether or not to hire a client? Does this client allow you to further your purpose? Whatever your answer, your decision is easily made.
Trying to decide whether to stay in private practice or join an in-house corporate counsel team? Which position most fulfills your purpose, now? Would one of the positions have a better likelihood of fulfilling your purpose today or a few years from now?
Having a purpose allows us to act with intention.
When lawyers with a purpose act with intention, our decisions come more easily.
We feel empowered with the autonomy we need to cut our path through life and through the practice of law.
In a word, having a purpose makes us happier lawyers.