Lawyers and the Economic Red Shift

Posted on Categories Legal Education, Legal Practice

Dalton Conley, a sociologist at NYU, has an op-ed in today’s New York Times arguing that something novel has happened to the life of leisure: it isn’t very leisurely anymore. “[I]t is now the rich who are the most stressed out and the most likely to be working the most. Perhaps for the first time since we’ve kept track of such things, higher-income folks work more hours than lower-wage earners do.”

Conley hypothesizes that this intriguing development is the result of greater disparity in incomes at the top end of the scale — what he calls an “economic red shift.” That is, the richer you are, the faster people at the wealth level just above you seem to be pulling away. Combine that with the fact that people usually define their socioeconomic status in relative terms — i.e., how they compare to the Joneses — and you have an explanation for why hours increase with income. Or, as Conley puts it, at higher income levels, “the opportunity cost of not working is all the greater ( … since the higher we go, the more relatively deprived we feel).”

Law students in particular should pay attention to Conley’s article, because the phenomenon he’s describing — long hours of work over holidays such as Labor Day weekend — describes the life of most lawyers I know. And I can also confirm from my experience that, somewhat counterintuitively, the more senior lawyers if anything work harder than their junior associates. The old joke is true that law firm partnership is like a pie-eating contest in which the reward is more pie.

But I disagree with Conley that this is due primarily to relative income disparities, at least for lawyers. I think the explanation is due more to the internal status rewards that come from working.

For one thing, based at least on my anecdotal evidence, the hours lawyers work seems uncorrelated with income. Many public defenders, prosecutors, government attorneys, and public interest lawyers rival or exceed their private practice colleagues in terms of hours worked. When I was in practice, I worked alongside in-house counsel (the Nirvana for hard-worked law firm associates) that matched my efforts hour for hour. Most federal judges work long hours, even though they gain no extra pay by doing so. What explains the heavy workloads of most lawyers?

No doubt a desire for more income is part of the explanation, and possibly the sole explanation for some attorneys. But I’ve long thought that there is a different explanation for why most lawyers work so hard, that goes beyond income or relative wealth — lawyers are a self-selected group that tend to define their self-worth by how hard they work. If you listen closely to a group of attorneys complaining about their workloads, there’s a strange dual quality to it. On the one hand, they really do wish that they had more free time. On the other hand, lawyers often tend to get into a bit of a bragging contest about who is working harder. The person whose life is the most insanely unbalanced wins.

My hypothesis, then, is that there is an internal reward, at least for lawyers, that comes from having a lot of work to do — the amount of work confirms the importance of that person’s role in society. Some large corporation’s future in part depends on the attorney’s efforts, or government liability, or some criminal defendant’s time in prison, or some crime victim’s desire for resolution. The lawyers I know tend to both be outwardly cynical of these efforts, but I think inwardly proud of them. Like predestination theorists, they view the amount of work that they have as a signal of their professional status as lawyers.

This is why I warn law students that striking a proper work-life balance will be one of the most difficult aspects of their careers. That’s partly because it’s difficult to say no to senior attorneys or clients making demands on their time. But that’s also partly because it’s difficult to say no to themselves.

7 thoughts on “Lawyers and the Economic Red Shift”

  1. I like to talk to students about the subtle way in which this works. At least in the big firm environment (and the one I worked at was hardly a sweat shop), long hours tend to take on a moral value. Lawyers tend to see their self worth as bound up with the institution and the approval of their colleagues. The health of the institution is inextricably tied to how much of your life it can take, so billing fifty hours each week is regarded as virtuous.

    I agree that this can create a professional culture that goes beyond a context in which working more means more money. I have to say, however, that, when I went in-house, it did not take me long to view my life differently.

    Ultimately, I came to work as hard as I did before (and I work even harder now) but the extra effort seemed to be directed to things that I wanted to do (as it is now).

  2. I tell my students that big law firms are a good choice for people who are naturally workaholics. For everyone else, big firms have the risk of socializing them to become workaholics, and this creates significant tension among people with other values. Eric.

  3. Ambition (and greed) can be the fuel of harder work, as can visionary passion or intellectual engagement. The why of it seems to matter. Indeed, the why of it helps to define whether it is even “work.” For most of us, family/friends and relaxation should receive lots of our time, but our life’s work may well warrant lots of time, too, especially if we do it with satisfaction rather than resolve.

  4. “For one thing, based at least on my anecdotal evidence, the hours lawyers work seems uncorrelated with income. Many public defenders, prosecutors, government attorneys, and public interest lawyers rival or exceed their private practice colleagues in terms of hours worked.”

    To be fair, though, it seems as though the number of cases on the desks of those four categories of lawyers tend to be significantly greater than the average lawyer’s caseload. I may be wrong; I don’t have a great deal of experience with private firms. But isn’t it a topic of contention that the budgets are constantly being trimmed for the Milwaukee County D.A. and P.D.’s Offices? That they can’t hire new staff because they can barely afford to keep the old staff? And yet they constantly get more and more cases per year? One would think that all of those things would inevitably cause greater hours for those lawyers, not merely a desire to be a workaholic.

  5. I agree that “lawyers tend to see their self worth as bound up with the institution and the approval of their colleagues.” From my limited experience, some lawyers seem paranoid that they will receive disapproval from their colleagues. While this increases the lawyer’s industriousness, it also leads to a stressful, unbalanced life.
    Those in the legal profession are often dealing out and receiving subjective judgments. Possibly this paranoia is no more than a good attorney wanting subjective judgments about him or her to be favorable. I encourage lawyers and future lawyers to think and speak positively about their colleagues. There are many reasons to speak positively, but an important reason is to reduce the stress that your colleagues face.

  6. From the point of view of someone who’s level of income does depend on how fast you work or how efficiently your work I can attest to the pressure to work all the time…

    It used to take a great deal of effort to leave the blackberry behind and not bring the laptop. Not so much anymore.

    Add to this the demands that clients across the spectrum add (wanting their answers now or yesterday) and you have a recipe for always being connected and racing.

    It takes a conscious choice to choose to slow down and control your workflow. I wish I learned that in law school.

  7. I’ve written about the increasing workload of successful Americans in my book, The Middle-Class Millionaire: The Rise of the New Rich and How They Are Changing America.

    I’ve also looked specifically at the working life of lawyers–in particular, private client lawyers since they top the charts of other professions in terms of the average work week.

    To see a copy of that report, go to:

    Lewis Schiff

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