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Weary Attorneys Forge Careers Outside BigLaw

Erin Coe law360.com

One theme running through the stories of many of the attorneys interviewed by Law360 about why they moved on from the law is they were on the hunt for happiness and fulfillment in their work, and they kept coming up short in their law practices.

Professionals used to view happiness and satisfaction in a career as a luxury. It was considered icing on the cake as they kept their heads down, put in their dues and paid back their debts. But those factors have become higher priorities for many in recent years.

"Across industries, there is more of an expectation that people not just get a paycheck out of a job, but satisfaction, happiness and a good feeling about their contributions," said Deborah Epstein Henry, founder of consulting firm Flex-Time Lawyers LLC. "What makes up an employee who is going to be promoted and retained is a more complex set of factors than what it used to be."

Lawyers aren't known for being happy, and that can have a major impact on the people around them. While the general population has a 10 percent rate of depression, the rate is 28 percent among lawyers, according to a February study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association's Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs.

"Lawyers can be miserable people who are not supportive, and it can be a drag to work with people who hate their lives," Brown said.

Changes within the legal industry have created a tougher work environment at law firms. It’s harder to make and stay a partner as firms narrow the top of the pyramid and put a greater emphasis on productivity; there is increased pressure on lawyers to develop business and not just focus on doing good work; clients have more leverage to be selective with the law firms with which they work and the rates they pay, which can lead to lawyers working more for less and becoming overburdened; and lawyers are tethered to technology and expected to be on call for clients and partners.

"As the business of law firms changes and becomes more about the bottom line, the lack of flexibility will continue to drive people to leave in waves for various reasons, such as they are no longer a fit for what the demands are or they don't enjoy it and want to look for something else," said Sarah Van Steenburg, managing director of Major Lindsey & Africa LLC’s associate practice group in Washington, D.C.

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