I often get super-annoyed at the Wall St. Journal’s Career section. Mostly, it’s because of their huge blind spot about the abuse that companies heap on employees in the name of profits, and how they defend a heap of dysfunctional conduct by managers as “the way business is.” I know, duh, the WSJ is the bastion of corporate America and all, but I still get annoyed. (We won’t even go into my feelings about the Law Blog and its often pathetic commenters.)
Still, I felt compelled to read a recent article on Superjobs: Why You Work More, Enjoy It Less. Cause, yanno, it seemed like it might say something useful about overwork. And it did, in one part, give a nod to the stats on the sleep disruption that occurs if you work more than 14 hours a day, and even (gasp) suggested that work needs to be limited to less than 10 hours daily. No doubt every New York BigLaw firm is meeting right now to make that happen.
But mostly, the article was about overworked, stretched employees. The article led with a story of a pastry chef who was, er, asked to help out with handyman tasks like tiling the restaurant kitchen, when his boss found out he could do that sort of thing. That was the heart of the article—employees who had to take on tasks completely outside their areas of competence. For example,
engineers going on sales calls, accountants pitching in on customer service and chief financial officers running a division on the side.
I’m not so sure I want my customer service delivered by an accountant, because too many of the people who are actually hired for their customer service skills suck. Then again, maybe accountants couldn’t be worse.
Be that as it may, the article framed some of this working way outside their competency as employees doing “whatever it takes to help their company compete.” Translation: anything to keep my job. (Prime example of why the WSJ annoys me. But I digress.)
Overwork or Opportunity?
This happens to some extent in law, and has for a while: Associates who help put together dog-and-pony shows are just one example. It’s often called by the dreaded “non-billable hours” moniker.
In smaller firms, attorneys often end up taking the lead on technology projects, because they see the glaring need to upgrade from Windows XP and have a blog, while the firm leaders—usually the ones whose secretaries print out emails for them—don’t.
On the one hand, pitching in on these extra tasks sucks, because you’re already working too many hours and law firms rarely reward non-billable hours effort by attorneys. It’s conveniently forgotten at review time, and you get dinged for not meeting billable hours minimums.
On the other hand, it might be a great idea to jump up and volunteer for some of these tasks, and say to hell with the billable hours quest. You can learn new, non-attorney skills that might come in quite handy in an alternative legal career search. Marketing experience can be helpful in almost any line of work, for example. So can understanding social media tools. Public speaking is also a good skill to have, regardless of industry.
You could, even, look around your firm and see what kinds of non-billable projects need doing. Then ask yourself whether any of them match a nascent interest of yours. You could use that as a springboard out of law, if you’re a little purposeful about it.
Or, you could be like me and stumble into your opportunity. I co-wrote an article for Legal Times when I was at my last firm, and that article was a prime writing sample that helped me land a job with a legal publisher. I didn’t take on the article with the idea of creating a writing sample, but it worked out that way.
Look at these extra tasks as a way to give the Universe a chance to help you out in your alternative legal career search. Hell, if you need it, you have my permission to focus more on those tasks than finding billable work.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches unhappy attorneys on making lemonade from lemons as they transition to their new careers and lives. Find out how to do that with a discounted sample coaching session. Email Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule yours today.