Correcting the Mismeasure of Firms

overworked.jpgShow-me-the-money measures of profits-per-partner and median associate salaries have dominated law firm rankings. The good folks at Law Students Building a Better Legal Profession [Refirmation] are improving the system by painting portraits of firms that go beyond the bottom line. Their press conference today focused on pro bono opportunities and diversity initiatives. I hope that they continue the project in other areas, particularly by encouraging some calculation of “hourly wages.” Who knows, perhaps people at the “lifestyle firms” may be making more per hour than grinding peers.

The Refirmation Program deserves support for exploring quality of life issues. There’s a good deal of evidence that lawyers are facing increasing job stress, which can be defined as follows:

Two characteristics define a high stress job . . . . one, you have to do more and more things with less time and fewer resources. Two, you have little control over your work procedures or authority to make decisions on your own. These conditions generally reflect the tasks of lower-level workers and have been shown in numerous studies—most prominently in the long-running Whitehall Study of British civil service workers–to have a detrimental impact on health and longevity.

So avoid cardiovascular distress, and support firms with heart! A few notes on the broader implications below the fold. . . .

The Refirmation project is part of a larger initiative to question joyless economism and the crude measures of well-being (such as GDP) that legitimate it. As Courtney Martin observes, many important thinkers are urging a questioning of our economic priorities:

[W]hat does “quality of life” even mean to us overworked, exhausted, overwhelmed, and often unfulfilled 21st-century citizens? An informal survey of recent popular books indicates that Americans are deeply concerned with our dwindling contentment: Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, and Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman (to name just a few).

All of these authors, in one form or another, argue that quality of life is typified by fulfilling work, general wellness, and deep, authentic connections to others. They also all confirm the old adage that money doesn’t buy happiness, which is certainly not a shock to any of us who have had the misfortune of seeing the dysfunction among wealthy individuals up close and personal. (I am reminded of a boss I once had who lived in a deluxe apartment in Greenwich, Connecticut, and gave herself plastic surgery once a year as a Christmas gift, but had no family or friends to spend the holidays with.)

Martin may be a bit too optimistic here; in a rat race for positional goods, money may mean a lot more than we’d like it to. Still, I hope efforts like Refirmation’s gain traction and become increasingly popular among lawyers. For what’s the alternative? Perhaps only an iron cage of ever more billable hours. Or (to continue in a Weberian vein) “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart . . . [imagining they have] attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”

Photo Credit: Ben Harris-Roxas.

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