Lawyers Should Do These Things to Build a Better Life

The log that the deceased lawyer kept of his recent drug doses.

Two weeks ago, a distressing article appeared in the New York Times,describing the life and death of an intellectual property litigator at one of Silicon Valley’s preeminent law firms who, unbeknownst to everyone around him, was a serious drug addict and, in fact, relied on his drug habit to be able to perform in his job. While I have never used or abused drugs, I understand how law firm culture could drive someone to desperate measures.

At Peter’s memorial service in 2015 — held in a place he loved, with sweeping views of the Pacific — a young associate from his firm stood up to speak of their friendship and the bands they sometimes went to see together, only to break down in tears. Quite a few of the lawyers attending the service were bent over their phones, reading and tapping out emails.

Their friend and colleague was dead, and yet they couldn’t stop working long enough to listen to what was being said about him.

I have read numerous responses to the New York Times article, but I think this ABA Journal article is the best response to date. The author, Kim Wright, outlines eight action items for lawyers who want to take control of their life and practice. Here is my favorite:

Redesign your law career or law firm based on who you are and the people you want to serve…. If you are a solo, you have more power to do it quickly…. One task that I often assign is to create a rating system for new clients. Ideal clients “earn” points, and clients who don’t fit your values have negative points. As your practice shifts toward a more values-based practice, the minimum client score shifts accordingly until all clients are a fit.

I became a solo practitioner for exactly this reason. I can be selective in the cases I take on and the clients I serve, customizing my practice to match my own values, interests, and priorities. I can also control the size of my practice; keeping my workload to a manageable size leaves me time to refresh myself, so that the clients that I do take on get my best work.

I only hope that my friends and colleagues who have not yet found a way to navigate and manage the stress that often comes hand in hand with the practice of law take heed of the Times article’s cautionary tale.