How Money Saps Lawyers’ Creativity

I’m on a teeny, tiny little tear about materialism lately. If I were writing for the average factory worker, maybe this would be the wrong time to harp about the evils money can work in your life. But for law factory workers (aka, BigLaw), confronting materialism is important. If you don’t see it in your life, if will affect your choices and keep you stuck without your seeing why.

Lawyer caught in mousetrap

Creative lawyer, meet BigLaw money.

In other words, if you don’t see how the focus on the things shapes your attitudes, you will think that you can’t choose an alternative legal career that pays much less than the ridiculous salaries of BigLaw.

One of the ways we stay stuck is by clinging to the things we know—especially the ones that give us some modicum of pleasure. In initial coaching sessions, when I ask lawyers what gives them pleasure, they usually trot out lists of material goods and experiences that only money can buy. Rarely do I hear a client talk about the sun on his face, the smell of spring flowers, or time spent with a pet. I almost never hear clients talk about the pleasure of making something themselves, except possibly cooking.

We are all, regardless of Meyers-Briggs Type, current job or past training (or lack thereof), inherently creative beings. As I’ve talked about before, our culture and particularly our schools not only don’t know how to cultivate creativity, they actively crush it by about 5th grade. This is not that rant.

Cash Isn’t Creative

When you don’t have lots of cash laying around to buy a ready-made solution, you have to get creative to solve a problem. It’s that old saw, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” When you don’t have $400 monthly to spend on clothes and shoes, you get busy creating a different response to the dilemma of self-image. You search out less expensive alternatives. Maybe you figure out that you can buy some inexpensive decorative buttons and accessorize a $10 t-shirt into something fabulous. Maybe instead of $200 month for a personal trainer at the gym, you get a video and a friend.

Maybe you just plain old do without, seeing that you won’t die or even be all that miserable. Like me and cable. I found out that I could indeed live without my HGTV addiction, and actually get more done because I don’t have the easy out of TV distraction. Well, there is Netflix streaming, but somehow having to make an active choice and navigate through a couple menus seems to be a big enough hurdle that I usually don’t go there.

When you can’t have the exact thing or solution that you see in a magazine or on TV, you are forced to do something different. Something more unique, rather than the shiny nirvana waving in front of you. You might have to dwell in uncertainty for a while:

  • What is the essence of this thing that I really want?
  • What can I do without?
  • What happens if I can’t figure out a decent substitute?
  • Maybe I can figure out something even better. What could that look like?

Uncertainty is the birthplace of creativity.

Beyond the Shopping Cart

Creativity is not seeing something carefully staged and presented, and adding it to your shopping cart. Yes, you may end up with a new and interesting living space as featured in the Pottery Barn catalog, but it’s someone else’s uniqueness, not yours. We have confused the thrill of acquisition with the thrill of creating.

More fundamentally, when your response to a problem is to solve it with an instant, money solution, your creative muscles atrophy. You start to think you aren’t creative, and aren’t a decent problem-solver. You start to believe that money has to have your back, because you yourself are not up to the task.

I know, you’re saying, “But kindergartners are better than me at making stuff. Even if I did have the time (and I don’t), I want the stuff that looks good.” I get that. I’m not suggesting that we all give up our day jobs and learn carpentry, metalworking, farming, mechanics, gardening, painting, sculpting and sewing so we can live like pioneers. Though I do think a lot of that would be great fun and do us a lot of good. Like teaching resilience and self-reliance.

Create a Different Response

Instead, I invite you to focus on one area of your life where you tend to spend your way to a solution. Brainstorm about different ways to get there that involve spending little, if any, money.

There is a catch: you cannot insist on a perfect solution. See if you can spend half of what you normally would and get an 85% solution. And pay attention to the extras you get with the imperfect solution.

For example:

  • When your favorite heels or sandals are showing wear, don’t buy a new pair. Get the heels replaced, and cover up the worn parts with heat-set crystals, beads, clip-on ornaments, or paint. Or all of the above. Heck, Dr. Scholl’s painted, beaded and embellished sandals are all the rage, and they go for $250 a pop. You can re-work what you’ve got, and what you know is comfortable, for a mere $25. And have a damn good time doing it. Even if it doesn’t turn out exactly how you want, you still stretch and experiment.
  • Instead of signing an expensive gym contract, go to a park with a nature trail and climb rocks, walk off the path, use picnic benches for standing push-ups, and just explore. Forget about heart rate and focus instead on heart’s delight. Your core muscles and your spirit will thank you.
  • If you need a piece of artwork, make it. A prepared canvas, some brushes, a couple tubes of good acrylic paint, some interesting graphics from magazines or packaging, and some Modge-Podge, and you’re good to go. You don’t even need the graphics if you like a colorwash instead of a design. It’s an afternoon project at most, and no one else will have anything like it. Unless of course you offer to make someone another one after they admire yours.
  • If you’re tired of an outfit but there’s nothing wrong with it, go button and embellishment shopping. JoAnn’s and Michael’s are a great source for this kind of stuff, along with local specialty fabric shops and my favorite, thrift stores. For less than $15, you can create an expensive designer look—yours!

These are small solutions to small problems. That’s exactly where you need to start—with a less-than-earthshattering problem. You need to bulk up your creativity muscles, since they’ve been neglected for a while. You’ll be amazed how quickly you get creatively toned and fit if you keep tackling those small projects. And how those creative, problem-solving muscles can get used in so many parts of your life.

You may find yourself highly uncomfortable creating your own solutions. They might not feel enough–professional enough, polished enough, original enough. Maybe they actually aren’t. That’s fine, really, because you tried something different. You let yourself stretch outside your comfort zone. You gave your creativity muscles a much-needed workout.

More likely, though, it’s about feeling that you yourself are not enough, without the money solution to back you up. So let yourself dwell in uncertainty, and keep trying to create solutions that aren’t the easiest, most obvious thing. That’s how you let the Universe in to work magic in your life.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who used to be embarrassed to shop at thrift stores, but now adores their creative opportunities. She coaches unhappy attorneys on how to embrace their creative side to find solutions to their career and life dilemmas. See if coaching can help you with your dilemmas by trying a discounted sample coaching session. Email to set yours up today!

17 thoughts on “How Money Saps Lawyers’ Creativity

  1. My material standard of living (meaning spending on fun stuff) has steadily declined over the years.

    My high school and college days were the heyday of my materialism. I had time and money.

    Law school was a period of steady decline as I used debt to fund what remained of my standard of living.

    And now I’m married and in law firm world, where I keep my family expenses down to about $2,000 per month for a family of four (not counting the two 10+ year old autos we have). I suppose you can also count the $1,000 per month I’ve been losing in home equity for the last five years.

    My hobby is financial speculation, which is actually a second derivative of materialism. I enjoy trying to time the stock market. I sure learned my lesson during QE II. Don’t short the market when the central banks have that money pump on full throttle!

    I guess I’m kind of a variation of “early retirement extreme”.

    And flowers. I like to look at the pretty flowers on the trees and bushes. Sadly, they only last for about a week.

  2. JP, how is that a variation of “early retirement extreme”? That just seems like a fairly typical scenario for a lot of lawyers.

    • I generally save and invest 50% of my gross income, originally to debt and now to investospeculation. I’ve zeroed out every possible expense. Although I do have internet and basic cable.

      I’m not sure what happens when the U.S. inevitably defaults. I haven’t figured out whether we are going to get 100% inflation, full stop government spending, or something just plain weird.

    • Also, meaning that I’m not dependent on my salary for anything and if I were to become unemployed it would have zero impact on my family’s ability to survive at least until by kindergartner turned 18 (at least).

  3. I think the real story on lawyer materialism, which is only part of a subset of modern materialism, is that at some point in recent decades it completely consumed professionalism.

    Material standards were much different for most Americans up until some point in the 70s. People generally kept most things longer (save for cars, which wore out much faster than they do now), funded very few things with debt, and generally just got by with less. This isn’t to say that things were perfect by any means, but the societal focus was very much on family life and the things associated with family life. Getting a house was a big deal but a large number of people got by with buying a house after they were married and stuck with that the rest of their lives. That’s what my parents did. Another common occurrence was to buy a small first house and a larger second house, which very many people did. You didn’t find members of the middle class, which is where the overwhelming majority of lawyers were and are, buying castles like they do now. Everyone bought fewer toys. People didn’t buy hardly anything on credit.

    At some point in the 70s people started to get more hedonistic in their approach to life in general, which necessarily will result in a focus on money. You need a steady cash flow, or a pretty big source of credit, to be hedonistic. And that’s gotten worse. As income was conceived as disposable (nobody thought they had disposable income in earlier eras), for disposable purchases, everything became disposable. Ultimately people did. That’s part of the reason today that people cycle through spouses, near spouses, etc.

    Living for money is miserable. But a lot of lawyers are totally focused on it. In turn, because that’s miserable, they’re miserable, and they make people around them miserable. Living without enough money is miserable too. Part of the human problem is that because at one time money kept the wolf from the door for most, our instinct is to always try to acquire more, even at the point at which it becomes destructive.

  4. To add to this, when I was just starting out I practiced with a couple of lawyers who had started practicing in the very early 1950s. They both did very well and I suppose they may have died millionaires.

    But they were extremely modest in their approach to money, and if you’d known them only casually, you’d never have known how well they did. What I strongly recall about them is that they disagreed with the practice being focused on money, and let a lot of unpaid bills go out the door as they thought that doing anything about it all was “unprofessional”. If a client did not pay, they thought it unprofessional to do anything about it. It as beneath the profession. This view was very common at the time. The penalty for not paying a bill was not receiving further services, probably from anyone over time.

    Now, law firms will actually drive paying clients away over bill paying spats, and there’s CLEs on law as a business. It is a business, and always has been, but it’s not the profession it once was. As a lot of newer lawyers are attracted to the myth of a profession, it’s no wonder they end up disenchanted.

    • Many of the problems of BigLaw today come from this same trend, this same drive for the bottom line above all other concerns.

      Pyramidal partner/associate staffing, high associate leveraging for greater partner profits, lockstep seniority and billing increases, up-or-out policies for senior associates and ruthless cutting of under-performing partners. All of these are major sources of dissatisfaction for attorneys in today’s BigLaw environment.

      And that’s just the internal operations of the firm. Don’t forget the externals: high, and ever-increasing, billing rates charged to clients. Charging clients for the hours spent training junior associates (assuming the junior associates receive training at all), assigning half-trained associates to clients’ work, inflexibile adherence to hourly billing (which even clients who are willing and able to pay high fees detest, due to the unpredictability of fees).

      Yes, we provide valuable services to our clients. But there’s a better way to do it. Legal practice is a business. But it must be possible to provide such services without frustrating our clients and burning out our staff members.

  5. Materialistic over-consumption, as described in this post, is one form of disfunctional relationship with money that is common among lawyers. But I think another dynamic, mutually exclusive with the one described, is also common. This is a fear-based relationship with money.

    As background, I think that several types of relationships with money are possible. And each one, taken to an extreme, can lead to disfunction. Here are a few:
    1. Money as a means to buy the things you want – when taken to the extreme, materialistic consumerism.
    2. Money as a means to security – when taken to the extreme, compulsive saving and miserliness.
    3. Money as a means of investment and wealth creation – when taken to the extreme, gambling.

    I suspect that the same risk-averse tendencies that lead many people to law can also feed into an extreme “money as security” mindset. This can lead to compulsively saving money for some future ‘rainy day’, and a fear of leaving the safe, secure, miserable job.

    So yes, you need to watch out for run-away materialism. I’ve certainly seen enough practicing attorneys putting on the golden handcuffs of high-expense lifestyles, who now ‘need’ the high income to support themselves.

    But I’ve also seen the compulsive savers, who don’t spend the high income that they’re earning, but don’t gain any joy from their careers or lifestyles. They live to work, and work to save.

    A healthy relationship with money is vital to mental health. And I think it’s particularly hard to maintain for lawyers working in BigLaw. I think BigLaw selects for people with disfunctional money relationships. How else can people stand the abuse of BigLaw life, just for the big payoff?

  6. I think another item to be listed to Polybius lists as #4 (or #5, if we accept JonLaw’s #4) is money as a measuring stick.

    This is common in all sorts of occupations, so it’s far from unique to the law, but it is a very common aspect of firm life, and it isn’t uncommon amongst lawyers out in general practice for that matter. That is, lawyers tend to merit their entire self value based upon income.

    There are actually a fair number of lawyers who are really good at the law, but who are not all that good at being businessmen, who don’t really do all that well economically, and the overall level of attorney income is far below what the general public supposes. But I suspect the overall level of income is also below what many individual lawyers imagine about everyone else. Lawyers tend to obsess about how much money the imagine other lawyers to be making. And in some cases, they spend as if they are making more than they do, to keep up their place on the measuring stick.

    What this has tended to do is to aid in the conversion of a middle class occupation in which a person’s status was based on being a professional, and therefore presumably smart and learned, into one in which everyone judges them based upon presumed wealth alone. As the presumption of wealth rarely matches the reality, the individual lawyers walk around feeling that their own self worth is diminished.

    • This is why I always like to know how much money people make and how much they are actually work in terms of net worth for comparison purposes. You can’t stop with “presumed” wealth and income. You have to get down to “actual” wealth and income!

      And if you go bankrupt? Well, that’s really a form of death and complete life failure, isn’t it?

      That’s probably a hold-over from high school when you were constantly comparing IQs, GPA’s, and SAT scores to see where you ranked and how valuable you were.

      I’m pretty sure that’s the emotional/competitive component to all this.

      So, on a more serious note, why is presumed wealth so important, but it is incredible rude to inquire as to actual wealth?

      I tell people all the time that lawyers are, on the whole, relatively poorly off economically.

      • “I’m pretty sure that’s the emotional/competitive component to all this.”

        No doubt, and all people across all eras are prey to it, no matter how stupid they may realize any one external measurement of success may be. It isn’t always money, but there’s always something that is supposed to signify success, even if it really does not.

        “I tell people all the time that lawyers are, on the whole, relatively poorly off economically.”

        That’s very true, but for some reason it’s really hard to get others to believe. That’s one reason that there are so many unhappy lawyers. People who are not lawyers, including law students believe that lawyers are rich, believe that law is exciting and fun, etc. and reject any assertion to the contrary as mere grousing that will not apply to them.

  7. I think I’m going to make this into a math equation.

    Social Value = (Net Worth + Annual Income + Credit Limit) x (Name of Undergrad Attended + Name of Graduate School Attended + Historical Social Prestige of Profession)

    So, if you are a modern materialist seeking to increase your Social Value, you can either increase your income or access to credit or you can go to a better school, or get a better profession.

    Now I can reduce my value as a human being to a simple straightforward number and determine how I rank when compared to the rest of humanity.

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