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In the new Small Law Firms section of “Above the Law,” an anonymous lawyer (pen name: Valerie Katz) who moved from a big firm to a small firm, collects some marginal evidence that attorneys at smaller law firms are happier than those at big firms. She provides little in the way of rationale, other than an average of six less hours worked per week. Mind you, Ms. Katz professes that she is still unhappy—even at a smaller firm. 

I think she raises some important issues here, but after reading her column, and a similar one at lawyerist.com, she makes the phrase “happier than a big firm lawyer” sound like a 400-pound man, pointing at a 500-pound man, and saying, “I’m skinnier than that guy.” True, but not all that meaningful.

To some extent, I can see how an ever-increasing lack of job security would make the anxiety level for a BigLaw lawyer higher than, say, a solo practitioner. With the gap in pay between star partners and average partners more than doubling over the past decade (12:1 at some firms), 90% or more big firm lawyers have become fungible assembly line workers. Most solos realize that they have to control their own futures.

As you say, however, there are plenty of unhappy small firm lawyers. We don't get anywhere by comparing relative levels of unhappiness. Read Jane McGonigal’s, “Reality is Broken:  Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World” and you’ll understand why many lawyers – at all levels – are unhappy. 

It’s not about saving the world; it’s about feeling unfulfilled in your work. How many lawyers can make the following statement truthfully? “The type of work I do is incredibly engaging. It energizes me; I can’t wait to start the day.”

As in many businesses, the verifying data comes from the IT department. Talk to an IT director at a law firm, and he or she will tell you about lawyers spending 200+ hours a year playing Mafia Wars and FarmVille in the office. Might this suggest that lawyers are using video games to get the fulfillment that’s missing in their careers?

It’s not about the profession of law, per se; it’s about the work. 

Most lawyers, worker-bees and rainmakers alike, have accepted the types of cases or transactions that have landed in their laps. Whether at firms of two lawyers or two-thousand lawyers, worker-bees basically do whatever work the bread-winners procure. 

Rainmakers engaged in decades of undirected marketing and sales activity (counting on a twenty-year bull market for legal services to do the business development work for them), and accepted most any kind of business that came their way.

How many lawyers do you know who have declared, “This is the most satisfying transaction/case on which I’ve ever worked. I want to do this exact type of matter every day of my career,” and then actually made it happen? For most of you, the answer will be “None,” because very few lawyers have truly done so.

Mike O'Horo