Working Hard: The Lawyer Religion

Lawyers love to talk about how hard they work. Who can blame them? Working — and billing — lots of hours is how most become partner. Working hard is the lawyer’s version of religion.

But there’s another side of the “working hard” talk. It’s used as a shield against criticism. As in, “I’ve been working so hard, you can’t imagine!” to a good friend whose birthday party you missed. Or to a spouse, “If I don’t work this hard, I’ll get a bad review.” The implicit judgment in this talk is that work should come before all else, that its place in the hierarchy of your needs is supreme.

It’s not too surprising that we make such a judgment without thinking. After all, American culture is rooted in Puritan thinking, and the Puritans were big on the idea of lots of work being a good thing: Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and all. While the Puritans equated hard work with spiritual salvation, and saw it as a benefit for the community, the rationale for hard work changed around the middle of the 18th century. Hard work became secularized, and became the means to material, rather than spiritual, success. That shift was highly convenient for those who owned factories and such during the Industrial Revolution.

Addiction of any kind isn’t too great for you, but workaholism of course gets a pass from the culture at large (see discussion above). Yet, workaholism functions the same way as drug addiction or alcoholism: it lets the addict avoid tackling the really sticky issues they need to, by giving them another, if unhealthy, focus. It feels better than feeling lonely, frustrated, angry, or fill in your favorite difficult emotion.

If you want to see how skewed this “work hard” perspective can become, but in a non-lawyer context, give The Devil Wears Prada a quick read. Yes it’s fluff and deliciously catty, but you might just see the lunacy of billable hours worship in a new light. Because really, billable hours obsessions are about as stupid as Manolo obsessions. (FYI, the movie supposedly changes the book’s ending. I don’t know, since it hasn’t made the top of my Netflix list yet.)

My point here isn’t that we should all lie about and sing Kumbaya, but that paid work alone simply is not enough for any one person’s life. As many others have pointed out before me, the unbalanced emphasis on work means that pro bono work, community involvement, family, hobbies, and yes, just contemplating your navel, are short-changed or just non-existent for many lawyers, particularly in BigLaw. Your soul needs and deserves more than billable hours, yanno?

So the next time you hear someone going on about how hard they’re working, consider what they may be using work to avoid. Particularly if that someone is you.

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