A Big Idea For Thriving Lawyers: Meaningful Work

By Anne Brafford

Article originally published here in Law Practice Magazine, July/August 2019, The Big Idea Issue, The Thriving Lawyer column

Because work is such a dominant aspect of our lives, many of us seek to build meaningful lives through our work. Most people identify having important and meaningful work as the most valued job feature. When work is meaningful, we are motivated to fully invest ourselves in it. The results are, for example, better job performance; higher job and life satisfaction; cohesion with colleagues; work engagement; persistence; and lower stress, anxiety and depression, to name a few.

What is Meaningful Work?

Focusing specifically on work engagement, meaningfulness is indispensable. Multiple studies have found that meaningful work is the biggest driver of work engagement, which is a form of workplace thriving in which people feel energetic, resilient, a sense of meaning and purpose, optimally challenged and absorbed in their work tasks. High engagement contributes to many organizational (e.g., client satisfaction, productivity, profitability, retention) and individual (e.g., better mental health, job satisfaction, job performance, reduced stress and burnout) outcomes that lawyers and law firms care about.

After all that, you may be asking what the definition is of this vital resource called “meaningful work.” You might worry it’s out of reach for you. Since we can’t all be legal aid lawyers, does that mean the rest of us are doomed to gloom? Not at all. Meaningful work means our work has significance, contributes to the greater good and facilitates personal growth—all of which describe lawyers’ work.

Meaningfulness is created (or not) in an ongoing dynamic process and is not context-specific—which means that anyone can work on creating more of it in any type of job. Whether we experience our work as meaningful is impacted by, for example, the work we do, our perceptions of the importance of our work in the wider world, social interactions that give us a sense of belonging, feeling that we have a positive impact on others and having a sense of fit with our firm’s values and mission. Other people have a big impact on whether we experience work as meaningful—in the way they treat us, how they frame our work (e.g., as helping our clients versus fulfilling billable hour targets), the articulation of firm values and more. Through our own daily behaviors that are big or small, conscious or unconscious, each of us has a huge impact on ourselves, each other and whether meaningfulness is enhanced or diminished. Meaning-creation is a team sport.

The Lack of Well-Being in Some Law Firms

While the scientific consensus is that meaningful work matters, many firms haven’t gotten the memo. In part this may be because our humanity too often has been overlooked in a profession that narrowly favors rationality and logic. Perhaps more than other professions, we’re trained to ignore parts of our humanity, such as connection with others, meaning and values. This blind spot to the full scope of well-being may help explain why many lawyers experience ambivalence about their work and are not fully thriving.

Whatever the full explanation, many firms’ dominant focus is on profitability, which stokes toxic work cultures. Research shows that, when people are encouraged to focus on money, they switch to a so-called calculative mindset, which has been shown through multiple studies to damage benevolence (including empathy and caring) and trigger selfish behavior and cheating. This means that firm members’ empathy will decline as their attention is continually pulled into a calculative mindset about, for example, billable hours, revenue, profits, realization rates and the like. Similarly, a focus on competition and power “turns off” our ability to behave with benevolence, such as building relationships and showing kindness.

It probably goes without saying that toxic work cultures drained of kindness and meaningfulness can devastate lawyer well-being. A large body of research has found that an excessive focus on extrinsic aspirations (e.g., money-making, fame, social recognition) is associated with depression and other signs of poor well-being, while intrinsic aspirations (e.g., personal growth, close relationships, helping make the world better, being healthy) are tied to psychological health and high-quality motivation. One law firm study, for example, found that an excessive focus on the bottom line and a competitive work environment were related to lawyers’ depressive symptoms and anxiety.

Balance is Needed for Well-Being

Before the chief financial officers and similar types in our audience get too annoyed with me, please let me underscore that I am not saying that profitability isn’t important. Lawyers work hard and want to earn a nice living. But, in many firms, the balance between people and profits has gotten out of whack. And the harm is not only to lawyer well-being—it also undercuts law firms’ diversity initiatives. Research has shown that, compared with men, women are more attracted to intrinsic aspirations and are more likely to leave when their work is not meaningful, when they do not feel valued and when high-quality relationships are not a priority. These findings are so consistent, across so many studies, that there is a movement in workplaces and academic institutions in the male-dominated STEM fields to cultivate a more communal environment and reputation. The legal profession might learn from these promising efforts.

If more law firms accept the challenge to foster a greater sense of meaningfulness in their workplaces, lawyers will have a greater chance to thrive. They will be more likely to be healthy, energized and enabled to be their best selves for their clients, colleagues, communities and families. Perhaps the current cliché that, on their deathbeds, people never wish that they had worked more eventually will give way to physicist Stephen Hawking’s view that “[w]ork gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it.”