Finding Happiness at a Law Firm – Building a Portable Book of Business


As a litigation partner at a large firm and a law school professor who teaches law firm practice, I am often asked whether I like practicing law. I also often hear law students and younger lawyers wonder what they can do to find happiness working at a law firm.

My answer to these questions reflects my own happiness as well as my observations about which law firm lawyers generally are happy. In this article, I intend to share the secrets I’ve found for law firm happiness. Also, I hope to provide the reader with some practical advice for how a lawyer can find the path to this El Dorado.

The Secret(s) to Law Firm Happiness?

There are actually two secrets to happiness for law firm lawyers. First, regarding law practice, happy lawyers normally have a portable book of good clients or client-referrers who continue to refer legal work. Second, happy lawyers usually have something that motivates them outside of their law practice.

Good portable business.

For most law firm lawyers, a portable book of good clients or referral sources is crucial to long-term happiness. A lawyer who can generate their own work will have the relationships that allow direct communication with the clients. This will allow the lawyer to learn not only what the client needs but why. It provides an opportunity for the attorney to understand the client as well as their business. These lawyer-client relationships give meaning to the lawyer’s practice.

Further, lawyers often work long hours, particularly when the client comes to see the lawyer as an important ally and source of guidance. During those long hours, some good lawyer-client relationships grow into professional and personal friendships that can nourish the lawyer’s soul.

A portable book of good clients also gives a lawyer control over their own workplace and career. Although law firms are often compared to pyramids, perhaps a better image would be a Viking longship. Lawyers who have business, and thus their own longships, can decide who crews the ship and where the ship will go. Lawyers without business are usually left to pull an oar on someone else’s ship.

Experience has convinced me that a lawyer with freedom to go – or

not – is usually much happier than someone who lacks that freedom. Plus, law firms can more readily dispose of a mere oarsman, an action that the firm believes is necessitated by the economic slowdown and other factors, than for a firm to dispose of a lawyer who will take client work to the new firm.

Further, having a good book of portable business ensures that a lawyer can protect their turf if the lawyer feels the lawyer is

being mistreated or slighted. If necessary, that book allows the lawyer to take their clients to more verdant pastures. Law firms are often difficult places to work. Having portable clients who will follow a lawyer helps ensure that a lawyer will be able to command respect. After all, if such respect is not forthcoming

with reasonable effort, the lawyer can leave. The portable book of business ensures the lawyer will never be trapped.

An Outside, Balancing Interest.

While a portable book of good clients is normally crucial to lawyer happiness, it is not the only requisite for happiness. “Law,” Joseph Story warned, “is a jealous mistress.” If allowed to spread without a check, law may drain the life out of a lawyer and leave a hollow shell. Therefore, most lawyers need a counterbalance, something else that motivates them and makes them happy outside the practice of law. Thus, a prudent attorney will cultivate some life outside of the practice to provide a check upon and respite from the law. This outside activity may be an active family life, or strong friendships,

or a major hobby or avocation. What this second interest is matters less than that it exists.

Some lawyers will focus more on the outside interest than on their law practice and find happiness in such an arrangement. For these lawyers, having a portable book of good client work may be less important, particularly if the lawyer serves as a

key lieutenant to another rainmaker.

Such arrangements may work, but many have been seriously challenged by recent economic turmoil. The remainder of this article focuses on how to develop a portable book of good clients. The reader will have to determine how to cultivate

the second requisite for happiness, the interest outside law that balances and checks the lawyers’ law practice.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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