How Much Is That Money Costing You, Unhappy Lawyer?

If I had $5 for every lawyer who told me they went to law school because it was a profession that you could make money in, I’d be bathing in Benjamins. On the other hand, I’d be on the street with a rattling cup if I depended on lawyers to recite the costs of making the kind of serious money that they do.

Life matrix

If your money square takes up a bigger chunk of your life than this, you can see what it costs you. Is it worth it?

Costs, you say? You mean like a professional wardrobe, lunches, commuting, right? No, grasshopper. You know me better than that. I’m talking about the cost of all that overwork on your body and spirit.

Breaking Overwork Down

Just for grins, let’s assume a you bill 160 hr/month. Yes, it’s way lower than what you bill. But realistically, and as borne out by evidence from the Business Roundtable studies, after about 6 hours of hard mental work daily, your productivity starts to decline markedly. (And remember, after only three 80-hour weeks, your productivity is so bad you might as well have only worked 40 hours/week; you’ll have gotten the same amount of work done either way.)

So yes, you can work out the exact amount of cash per hour you’re getting paid per hour, whether in salary alone or in bonus money. In general, if your salary is $250,000 and you work 65 hours week, you’re making $73/hour. (I’m betting that’s less than 1/3 of what your time is billed out at. Make of that what you like.)

But have you considered what you have to leave out of your life to make that money?

  • 3 extra billable hours a week = missing dinner with your kids because they were starving at 7 and couldn’t wait until 7:30; someone else walking your beloved dog (or, replacing your carpeting annually); no puttering in the garden; getting to sleep an hour later than you intended and waking up tired
  • 5 extra billable hours a week = losing chunks of life: the better part of a weekend; time to go for a long run; going to the farmer’s market; attending church; or spending an afternoon with a long-neglected friend
  • 8 extra billable hours a week = what exercise program? what good diet and better nutrition? what 8 hours of sleep nightly? I have children?
  • 10 extra billable hours a week = sex with my spouse? Yeah, I’ve heard of that. Interesting theory.
  • 12 extra billable hours a week = spending more time with the Starbucks barista than my family or friends

For all of you who are thinking, but, hey, that 12 hours week is only 2 or so more hours in the office daily—come now. You know perfectly well that those last 2 hours you’re re-reading sentences 3 or 5 times; you can’t get the words to flow; and you’re missing easy stuff like making a global change in a contract. Those 2 extra billable hours end up being more like 3 or 4 actual hours, because you’ve got to get dinner or go worship at the vending machine. And as the evening progresses you’re spending more time on Facebook or on “research,” as in a new job.

Working extra hours generally displaces two things: renewal and connection. Those are big concepts, so let’s break down what they are.

Renew or Go Psycho

Renewal can be simple, like enough sleep so you can function well. It’s also time spent not working, and playing. Play is incredibly important to a sane life, let alone a fulfilled life. As Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi discusses in Flow, people deprived of play, or flow, for a mere 48 hours exhibit all the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (which affects about 3% of the population).

Renewal comes in nearly as many forms as there are people in the world. But don’t confuse renewal with numbing out. Renewal makes you feel better, more alive. It fills you up. TV, our favorite way to numb out culturally, usually doesn’t do that. You may feel better because you were able to stop focusing on some pain and discomfort in your life—certainly that can be a relief. But when’s the last time you got to the end of a TV show, and thought that the world would be a much poorer place without that show?

Renewal is necessary because we’re human. Humans need renewal time to grow, whether it’s emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, or simply to repair the physical body. Yes, people can survive for a while without renewal, but they pay a very big price in both body and spirit. There’s a reason that depression and a whole host of stress-related maladies haunt the legal profession, and much of it comes down to lack of regular renewal.

And here’s the kicker: The more you’re living in territory that’s hostile to your true self, the more renewal time you need simply to survive.

I’m probably being too esoteric still, so let me give some examples of renewal in the lives of me and some of my friends:

  • Gardening
  • Cooking
  • Running
  • Dancing
  • Sewing
  • Knitting
  • Horseback riding
  • Scrapbooking
  • Woodworking
  • Soccer
  • Karaoke
  • Painting
  • Biking
  • Writing

These are just the tip of the iceberg, and a bit limited because I tend to hang out with more introverted, creative types, but you get the idea.

Connecting Your Dot to Others

When you feel like you’re the only dot in the ocean who is unhappy and flailing, that’s a sign you’ve lost connection with important others in your life. Brene Brown says that connection is the thing we are here on earth to do. It, too, comes in as many flavors as there are people in the world. Without robust connection to at least a few others (or if you’re extraverted, then to many others), we get depressed, lonely and isolated. We are tribal creatures, even the most introverted among us.

Don’t believe me? Well, if you’ve ever felt shame in your entire life, there is your proof. Shame is the feeling that we have done or thought something that will get us excluded from the tribe. If we weren’t tribal, we wouldn’t care about that. As Brene Brown has written about in The Gifts of Imperfection, we all have shame about something. Unless you’re a true psychopath.

Connection takes time. Yes, you can have an instant connection with someone. But if you don’t invest time into that instant connection, it fades. And lawyers with their time-deficient lives don’t get to spend time making or maintaining connection.

When I was a new associate 20 years ago, I remember a mid-level associate baldly stated that the only people who were still her friends were those who could tolerate her dropping completely off the radar for weeks on end. Granted, that was in the pre-Internet days. Yet even with texts, Facebook and Twitter, it may be easier to keep in touch now, but it still requires time. While obviously the difficulty that lawyers have maintaining connection isn’t new, the Crackberry culture makes it far worse than it used to be. (Though I don’t think the longing for connection is why so many old geezer partners still have their secretaries print out their email for them to read.)

So it comes down to this: All that extra work may earn you a pile of money. You might want to keep in mind what it costs, though, as you keep telling yourself that you can’t afford to take one of those lower-paying alternative legal career options.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer whose first post-lawyer job had a 40-hour work week. It was so wonderful she’s been trying to cut down her hours ever since. If you want to decrease your work hours and increase your career and life satisfaction, try a sample coaching session with Jennifer. Email her today at to schedule yours.

8 thoughts on “How Much Is That Money Costing You, Unhappy Lawyer?

  1. Did you see that TED banned the presentation on the fact that bajillonaires don’t create jobs?

    “Multi-Billionaire venture capitalist Nick Hanauer appeared at a TED conference (invitation-only for powerful and creative business and political leaders) in March, and said things that this kind of audience was not used to hearing.

    “Rich people don’t create jobs,” he told the TED audience. “An ordinary middle-class consumer is far more of a job creator than a capitalist like me.” His point: if the rich–who, since 1980, have increased their wealth three times faster than the rest of us, while having their taxes cut in half– haven’t been creating jobs, then clearly that “rich job-creators” theory is bogus. If we want the economy to grow, the answer is obvious: tax the wealthy.

    TED officials initially told Hanauer they would post the talk online, as they do most other speeches. But then they changed their minds, calling his remarks about income inequality too “political.” While not aired on the TED website, they finally released Hanauer’s talk this week, and it has quickly has gone viral. ”

  2. Your blog is superb. I work in biglaw in London and I am taking the necessary steps to leaving. I had my first job interview last week (a government role) and if I am successful I will need to seriously consider the implications of the pay cut. At the same time, I will have to also consider the gains I will make in my lifestyle and the free time I will have to pursue my geniune interests. Your blog gives me hope and also provokes me to remember the world that exists out there!

    • Glad you found the post helpful, Peter. I can tell you that the amount of energy you gain when you stop doing work you hate has to be experienced. It’s like getting 5 extra hours in your day.

      • I’ve been thinking about leaving law for a long time now and your posts inspire me. I didn’t think about the other costs of doing such miserable work with miserable people and you’re exactly right. I feel completely drained at the end of the day.

  3. Great post. I work in the legal field and I think attorneys often think that if they just work extra hard now, later in life they can retire comfortably and live the life they wanted. The only problem is, by the time they retire, they are old, tired and they don’t really know how to do anything but work anymore. And I absolutely agree with you about reduced productivity after many hours of work. There is a reason why Germans work 20% less hours per week than Americans do. Not only can you get more productivity out of people but you may be able to create more jobs.

  4. If you are thinking about leaving, make a plan and DO IT! After practicing law for 13 years, I went back to school to get a library science degree (online, so I didn’t have to relocate) while working part-time in a school library. We had to pinch pennies: stopped eating out, bought off-brand, shopped thrift stores, clipped coupons, drove old cars. Now I’m a full-time teacher & librarian & love it. You can do it!

  5. Yeah, they kicked my butt out of the law.

    Glad they did it, I think. I can sleep at night and not have a sore jaw from clenching all night long.

    It was a good ride (in a sense) while it lasted, but I’m glad it’s over. Now, if I can just reassemble my psyche so I’m useful to someone again, that’d be nice.

  6. Pingback: Simple Tips for a Less Stressful Lawyer Life | Leaving the Law

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