You know, I started with nothing but myself, my wife and law partner in an office; we built the firm that led the area in family law cases; then we moved into consumer bankruptcy, expanded it to five offices in two districts filing well over a thousand cases a year; and, then we left it all to move home and practice automatic stay violation litigation together, alone.
In my alone time I think of other practice niches and fantasize what it would be like to do something else.
After telling one lawyer my long trip back home and my other interest he joked (I think) that I was "such a loser". I countered that I was not a loser because I had really tried. I worked long, hard hours. I dedicated myself to that consumer bankruptcy firm. I told him "I'm not a loser. I'm a failure. And, that is much different".
All kidding aside, it dawns on me that one of the reasons for my waywardness is that I am working to avoid burnout. Oh, it is a terrible plague that takes many lawyers, as well as other professionals, down.
Not only can burnout occur among Third Wave attorneys, carpet commuters or home office lawyers, just like it can to any lawyer, but I have to wonder how many Third Wave lawyers and law firms have gotten their start because of big law burnout. Just being tired of clients, colleagues, partners, the commute to and from town, the late nights and lost weekends from home, and putting up with the whole law firm bureaucracy and practices has to be enough to cause a lawyer to burnout and dropout of that rat race.
I just read an interesting article in the New Yorker magazine (online of course) entitled Can't Get No Satisfaction. It concerns itself with burnout.
The article covers terms like depersonalization, or the symptom of burnout that causes you, in our case, to pull away from your colleagues, staff, partners and the like. This depersonalization has to be one of the first steps of leaving big law for the Third Wave practice. You begin to feel bored and depleted. You think there has to be something better. It becomes time to make the move.
According to the New York Bar Association, turnover rates among mid-level associates in this city’s law firms is 36 percent. The whole system is predicated on burnout.
In 1981, Maslach, now vice-provost at the University of California, Berkeley, famously co-developed a detailed survey, known as the Maslach Burnout Inventory, to measure the syndrome. Her theory is that any one of the following six problems can fry us to a crisp: working too much; working in an unjust environment; working with little social support; working with little agency or control; working in the service of values we loathe; working for insufficient reward (whether the currency is money, prestige, or positive feedback).
It seems to me the first two of the six problems will most probably result in burnout in big law leading some to try a Third Wave practice. However, the working with little social support, little agency or control is probably more conducive for Third Wave burnout.
The saving grace or the benefit of a Third Wave practice I found in this take in the article: "Michael Leiter, a lovely Canadian fellow and frequent collaborator of Maslach’s, has elegantly called burnout a “crisis in self-efficacy,” which to me suggests that head-banging feeling of struggling mightily for too little or (worse) nothing in return. Ayala Pines, a researcher in Israel who’s looked at burnout in all sorts of inspired contexts (including marriage), rather heartbreakingly sums up the problem as “the failure of the existential quest”—that moment when we wake up one morning and realize that what we’re doing has appallingly little value."
Having been in both places, I can tell you that this feeling most occurs in a Second Wave law firm or practice in which you do not see the big picture as you are relegated to working a small task of a larger organization.
Farber often calls burnout “the gap between expectation and reward." I can tell you that in a Third Wave practice this gap is greatly cut.
I found it interesting that Ayala Pines, the Israeli researcher has shown that people in fiercely individualist societies are more prone to burn out. “I once did a study comparing Mexican college professors to American college professors,” she says. “The Mexican burnout rate was lower. To them, the kind of lifestyle you describe in New York is insane. At noon, you come home, eat, and see your family. It isn’t even a question.”
A home-based practice in which you eliminate these outrageous commutes and time commitments, leave time for you to be more family centered and better regulated. It is the benefit of a Third Wave practice.
As the article notes:
"The great paradox of efficiency is that the more we speed up, the more acute our frustrations when we’re forced to slow down. Is it not possible that these ambient frustrations function as chronic stressors, and—in some subtle but crucial way—contribute to feeling worn out? Americans, Gleick writes, spend an estimated 3 billion minutes a year waiting on hold with the software industry; they race to airports only to wait for hours; they start to jitter inside elevators if the doors take more than four seconds to close. (Elevator engineers even have a term for how long it takes—door dwell—before people start jamming their fingers on the door close button, which is usually a placebo, a function already disabled by litigation-conscious building managers.)
'Gridlocked and tarmacked are metonyms of our era,” Gleick writes. “To be gridlocked or tarmacked is to be stuck in place, our fastest engines idling all around us, as time passes and blood pressures rise.
If one of the surest recipes for burnout, as Michael Leiter has said, is the sensation of inefficiency—particularly if we’re still expending energy and seeing little in return—then there may be something about the modern office that conspires to burn us out. In 2005, a psychiatrist at King’s College London did a study in which one group was asked to take an IQ test while doing nothing, and a second group to take an IQ test while distracted by e-mails and ringing telephones. The uninterrupted group did better by an average of ten points, which wasn’t much of a surprise. What was a surprise is that the e-mailers also did worse, by an average of six points, than a group in a similar study that had been tested while stoned."
By modern office environment of course the author is describing a Second Wave office environment.
Certainly burnout can happen to big law or Second Wave practices and Third Wave practices, but I believe all things being equal those gravitating toward Third Wave or home-based practices are, at least partly, fleeing the burnout of big law.