Not SHOCKED That Lawyers Didn’t Make Forbes’ List of Most Meaningful Jobs? Maybe We Should Be.

What’s the difference between a jellyfish and a lawyer? One’s a spineless, poisonous blob. The other is a form of sea life. What do you call 25 skydiving lawyers? Skeet. With whole books and websites devoted to murderous and insulting jokes like these, I probably shouldn’t be surprised that lawyers didn’t make Forbes’ recent list of the 25 most meaningful jobs that pay well.

It wasn’t such a surprise that the top 15 jobs were mostly health care professionals. But even drill operators in the oil and gas industry made the list, with 75% reporting that they feel that their jobs are meaningful. I have nothing against drillers, but it seems that a helping profession like law should be more competitive with healthcare professionals when it comes to meaningful work.

Lawyers are not Thriving

Lawyers’ absence from the Forbes’ list was a sad reminder that a great and noble profession isn’t living up to its potential for generating purpose and well-being for its practitioners.  Firm management experts like Bruce MacEwen (2013) view big firms as at a crossroads where surviving and thriving in the future will depend on a vibrant firm culture that incubates innovation, is resilient to setbacks, and is propelled by engaged lawyers who are committed to a shared vision of the future.

Far from teeming with thriving lawyers motivated to invent a new future, the legal profession struggles with high rates of mental health disorders, alcoholism, work addiction, and sleep-deprivation that rob many of its professionals of their mental and physical wellness. Incivility is on the rise and job dissatisfaction and attrition run rampant, with women leaving at twice the rate of men. The public views lawyers as as greedy, arrogant, and dishonest.

In short, the legal profession is not thriving. Firms that continue to ignore that any changes are needed may find it increasingly difficult to compete in the future.

Emphasizing Meaning and Purpose Rather Than Only Profit

At least one contributor to this failure to thrive appears to be a loss of focus on meaning and purpose. What would you say is the core purpose of lawyers and law firms? Assuming people talk most frequently about what they care most about, then the inevitable conclusion must be that most law firms’ core purpose is to maximize profits for current equity partners. It’s a recurrent theme from law firm leaders and the media.

For example, perhaps the most closely watched performance measure in the legal industry is the profits per partner (“PPP”) metric, which The American Lawyer began publishing in 1985. The average PPP for BigLaw went from $324,000 in 1985 to $1.6 million in 2011 (Harper, 2013). This remarkable growth has created ever-rising expectations. A 2012 survey reflected that 58% of all BigLaw partners said they should be better paid (MacEwen, 2013).

Critics have complained about PPP as misleading as a financial performance metric and also as driving selfish, irrational, and destructive behavior. Indeed, the focus on short-term profits has become so intense that it is eclipsing alternative values. Law firm leaders have become hell-bent on doing anything to improve their ranking on the PPP list (Harper, 2013). Many even fudged the numbers: One report reflected that 22% of the top 50 firms overstated their profits in 2010 to inflate their PPP ranking (Harper, 2013).

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, many commentators criticize the legal profession as having lost its soul. The profession has largely disintegrated, they say, into a collection of producers of billable hours with no sense of duty to a higher cause. They contend that the demoralization of the legal profession and loss of purpose beyond making money explains, in part, why so many lawyers are dissatisfied with their work.

Baby Boomers’ Role in Building Materialistic Firm Cultures

Steven Harper (2013), a retired BigLaw partner-turned-critic, opines that the Baby Boomers who are leading the firms have “made a mess of the legal profession. Time and time again, the focus on shortsighted metrics has sacrificed long-term vision” (p. 208). Another critic agrees, summing up in one word the reason that the law-firm ecosystem has changed so dramatically in a single generation: “greed” (Scheiber, 2013).

While there surely is blame to go around, Baby Boomers are part of the story. Boomers have been characterized as being hypercompetitive, working long hours, and scoffing at work-life balance (Rikleen, 2014; Retzloff, 2010). Studies find them to be materialistic and focused on external rewards (Retzloff, 2010). They are aggressive in seeking to get ahead and expect rewards such as advanced titles, more money, special parking spaces, and large private offices (Retzloff, 2010). Boomers routinely have foregone family obligations in favor of their commitment to organizational goals and pursuing materialistic rewards (Retzloff, 2010).

But I share Harper’s (2013) optimism that nothing that has occurred is inevitable or permanent. New choices can be made. Firms can choose a new path toward thriving—to live up to what they can be at their best. The influx of the Millennials may advance this agenda. The generational dynamics that shaped current law firm culture are likely to generate increasing tension as Millennials—the 86 million Americans born from 1980 to 2000—continue to inundate firms and question prevailing values (Rikleen, 2014).

More Money Doesn’t Always Equal Happiness

I do not mean to suggest by the above that I think that law firms are crawling with greedy materialists (though some lawyers certainly fit that description). But I do suggest that many lawyers—who tend to be achievement-oriented—become captured by their competitive cultures where money is virtually the only symbol of success.

A narrow, materialistic focus can be damaging to firms and their lawyers. Research has shown that intrinsic motivation and values are more predictive of well-being than extrinsic motivation and values (Krieger & Sheldon, 2014). People who focus primarily on extrinsic life goals are less happy and more depressed than those who focus more on intrinsic goals (Moller et al., 2006). This means that lawyers who are motivated primarily by their care for their clients and community likely will be happier than those who primarily are motivated by stockpiling money and striving to be king or queen of the mountain. A recent study of a large number of lawyers reflected that those with more extrinsic values were less happy than lawyers’ with intrinsic values–and lawyers in large firms were the most extrinsically-oriented.

This is not to say that money has no role to play in happiness. Life satisfaction is higher in countries with higher GDP (Seligman, 2011). Making more money, however, rapidly reaches the point of diminishing returns (Seligman, 2011). Below a certain threshold of wealth needed to satisfy basic needs, increases in money and in life satisfaction are closely related. But above that threshold, it takes more and more money to produce an incremental increase in happiness (Seligman, 2011). Therefore, if you already are above the safety-net threshold level of wealth, there likely are better ways to maximize your happiness than devoting most of your scarce time on this earth to trying to increase your earnings (Seligman, 2011). This seriously undermines the implicit assumption apparently held by most law firm managers that the narrow quest to maximize profits is laudable because more money equals more happiness for its lawyers and staff.

Articulating and Living a Purpose Beyond Profit

So how can law firms begin the transformation into positive law firms? Articulating a statement of intrinsic purpose is a first step.  Even though many lawyers aren’t fighting for obviously-valued goals such as civil rights or caring for the poor, they  have much to be proud of.  Fundamentally, business and other private lawyers help societies grow and thrive. They help to maintain a well-ordered society in which individuals are able to pursue their private interests, goals, and dreams—which often serve the public good (Silver & Cross, 2000).

People use private law to take charge of their lives and build the world they want to live in (Silver & Cross, 2000). Ideally, lawyers are like “architects, engineers, or builders” who “design and create structures” that are “as real and as important as buildings, bridges, and roads” through “which human beings live, interact, and prosper” (Silver & Cross, 2000, p. 1459). Imagine a future in which law firms cultivate a culture that allows lawyers to feel purpose-driven, full of life, and fulfilled; clients feel well cared-for and valued; and communities are elevated by firms’ contributions.

The “Statement of Firm Principles adopted by Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, & Garrison LLP is an impressive example of a mission statement that focuses on intrinsic values. Its themes include interdependence, excellence, close relationships and friendships, community involvement, preserving a healthy life, innovation, imagination, wholehearted dedication to the best interests of clients, work performed with care and craftsmanship, integrity, readiness to always help when needed, and building a law firm in which all associated with it take pride.

Building Positive Identities

But articulating a purpose is only a first step. Positive law firms also must walk the talk by living their purpose and cultivating meaning. They can start to do so by creating work cultures that influence lawyers to construct positive identities through their work and membership in the firm. Meaning is created (or not) by the process people go through to construct their own identities and make sense out of their environment. People construct their identities by continually trying to answer the questions “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” (Pratt & Ashforth, 2003). Work cultures affect how people answer those questions. How people construct their identities, in turn, affects their behavior (Roberts & Creary, 2012).

For example, social experiences can shape a person’s positive view of herself as a mentor, which then increases her attention to performing acts consistent with that identity (Roberts & Creary, 2012). Thus, through social interactions, people can re-shape a culture and create and validate new meanings that, in turn, influence behavior (Pratt & Ashford, 2003; Roberts & Creary, 2012).

The practical impact of all of this is that law firms can cultivate meaning and influence lawyers’ motivation and behavior by taking steps to build cultures and develop socialization practices that shape lawyers’ positive identities. Currently, a partner’s most celebrated role is fee-generator. Aspiring positive law firms will start framing lawyers’ roles as not only generating revenue but also as truly caring for clients, each other, and the community—which are intrinsically meaningful values.

The Obstacle of Lawyer Skepticism

Dr. Larry Richard (2002), a consultant with an expertise in lawyer personality, has profiled over 1,000 lawyers. He found that, in large firms, the trait of “skepticism” is consistently the highest scoring trait among lawyers. They average around the 90th percentile compared to the general public’s average at the 50th percentile. Those with high skepticism scores tend to be cynical, judgmental, questioning, argumentative, and somewhat self-protective (Richard, 2002).

Giving this high level of skepticism, law firm leaders initially may face backlash trying to craft such a mission statement. A few years ago, I sat in a firm partnership meeting for over an hour while many colleagues scoffed at the very idea of a mission statement while the rest shredded its (uncontroversial) substance in painstaking detail. It never was adopted. Firm management consultant Bruce MacEwan (2013) tells of a 90-minute skirmish among law firm leaders on whether to change the font size on the firm’s letterhead.

As a group, lawyers are skeptical, do not like to be led, and think they know best (MacEwen, 2013). The result is a lack of innovation and progress (MacEwen, 2013). Perhaps industry warnings that firms must evolve into the 21st Century or perish will help temper this skepticism and finally allow progress. The warnings at least should motivate law firm leaders to try. The influx of Millennials may provide a more open-minded audience for purpose-driven messages.

Practices to Foster Purpose and Meaning

In addition to helping shape positive identities, some examples of practices that can help foster meaningfulness include the following:

  • Articulate intrinsic values. Emphasize a mission focused on intrinsic goals and values beyond making a profit (Pratt & Ashforth, 2003).

  • Reinforce intrinsic values. Reinforce how lawyers’ and staff’s work serves an intrinsically valued purpose. For example, find ways to communicate to lawyers how important their work is to clients. Research shows that one way to cultivate meaning from client service is to structure jobs to more closely connect employees with the beneficiaries of their work (Grant, Campbell, Chen, Cottone, Lapedis, & Lee, 2007; Grant & Berg, 2012).

    In one study, researchers invited college scholarship recipients to speak about the value of their scholarships to students who worked for the college soliciting donations to fund those scholarships Grant et al. (2007). The researchers found that meeting a single scholarship recipient motivated an average caller to spend 142% more time weekly on the phone, resulting in an average increase of 171% in revenue raised. The average caller’s weekly donations increased from $185.94 to $503.22 (Grant et al., 2007).

    Applying this research to law firms, consider asking clients to speak to lawyers about how they’ve benefitted personally and professionally from lawyers’ work.This is different than the typical client panel in which in-house lawyers primarily talk about ways that lawyers have blundered or irritated them.

    Similarly, partners can set aside time to communicate to associates and staff (for whom partners are the “client”) about how their work benefits the partners and clients and its level of importance. Likewise, partners can reinforce to each other how their work helps clients, each other, and the firm as a whole.


  • Recruit for fit with values. Use recruitment and selection processes to find people who have a good fit with the values the firm espouses (Pratt & Ashforth, 2003).

  • Socialize values. Establish structured orientation programs that socialize newcomers into the firm’s values and foster a sense of belongingness and pride in firm membership (Pratt & Ashforth, 2003).

  • Reinforce values through mentoring. Establish mentoring programs to teach and reinforce firm values over time.

  • Other ideas. In a recent article in Fast Company, Jessica Amortegui provides other helpful examples of building more meaning into work and its benefits.


As lawyer-bashing has progressively become a societal sport, the view of law as a noble profession largely has been lost—not only by society but also by lawyers themselves. It is time for lawyers to stop laughing at the jokes that demonize them and start re-fashioning the profession, reclaim its dignity, and rebuild its reputation as a calling in which individuals can flourish.


Grant, A. M. & Berg, J. M. (2012). Prosocial motivation at work: When, why, and how making a difference makes a difference. In K. S. Cameron & G. M. Spreitzer (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of positive organizational scholarship (pp. 28-44). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Grant, A. M., Campbell, E. M., Chen, G., Cottone, K., Lapedis, D., & Lee, K. (2007). Impact on the art of motivation maintenance: The effects of contact with beneficiaries on persistence behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 103, 53-67.

Harper, S. J. (2013). The lawyer bubble: A profession in crisis. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Krieger, L.S. & Sheldon, K. M. (2014). What makes lawyers happy? Transcending the anecdotes with data from 6200 lawyers. The George Washington University Law Review, Vol. 83 (2015 Forthcoming); FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 667.

Moller, A. C., Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2006). Self-determination theory and public policy: Improving the quality of consumer decisions without using coercion. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 25(1), 104–116.

MacEwan, B. (2013). Growth is dead: Now what? Law firms on the brink. New York, NY: Adam Smith, Esq., LLC.

Pratt, M. G. & Ashforth, B. E. (2003). Fostering meaningfulness in working and at work. In K. S. Cameron, J. E. Dutton, & R. E. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline (pp. 307-327). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Retzloff, D. H. (2010). Understanding generational work values to create effective multi-generational work teams (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. AAI3538856)

Rikleen, L. S. (2014). You raised us – Now work with us: Millennials, career success, and building strong workplace teams. Chicago, IL: American Bar Association Publishing.

Roberts, L. M. & Creary, S. J. (2012). Positive identity construction. In K. S. Cameron & G. M. Spreitzer (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of positive organizational scholarship (pp. 70-83).  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Scheiber, N. (2013, July). The last days of Big Law: The money is drying up—and America’s most storied firms are terrified. The New Republic. Retrieved from

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Free Press.

Silver, C. & Cross, F. B. (2000). What’s not to like about being a lawyer? Yale Law Review, 109, 1443-1503.

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