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May 9, 2002 -- No. 262

UNC law professor finds many attorneys dissatisfied with lives

By DAVID WILLIAMSON
UNC News Services

CHAPEL HILL -- Almost all surveys on what people think of the various professions rank lawyers at or near the bottom, despite knowledge that the law can be stimulating and quite lucrative.

And, of course, law jokes abound, such as this old one: Whatís the difference between a dead dog and a dead lawyer in the middle of the road? The dog has skid marks in front it.

Lawyers seem to enjoy such ribbing as much as anyone else, but many are becoming dissatisfied with their work, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill faculty member says. Itís not that they donít like what they do, itís just that they donít want it to crowd out almost everything else in their lives.

"Thereís a widespread perception that the practice of law is exacting unbearable personal costs," said John M. Conley, Kenan professor at the UNC School of Law. "This has different manifestations in different types of practices. People in big firms claim to be overwhelmed by the demands of billing hours, and when people in the small firms want to take a vacation, thereís no one else to do the work."

One member of a large Washington, D.C. firm told Conley she had just worked 12-hour days for the past 30 days straight and felt she had no life on the outside.

The UNC professor and anthropologist teaches what he thinks might be the only course of its kind in the United States, "The Law Firm," which shows law students the realities of the professional world schools such as UNC send them into. The idea came following conversations with Kenan professor of law emeritus and ethicist Paul Haskell, who also helped teach the course the first few years and a book by Michael Kelly titled "Lives of Lawyers."

Conley, who also teaches the course at Duke University, is completing a study of the subject. His investigation already has involved more than 100 hours of interviews with "interesting and very candid people" representing different kinds of legal organizations.

"Since thereís a great deal of talk going on about crises in the legal profession and that the mental health and ethics of lawyers and the economics of law practice arenít good, I thought Iíd organize what Iíve heard in a serious way and disseminate it," he said. "Iíll present the material June 1 in Vancouver at a meeting of the Law and Society Association, a large group of law and social science people who look at the place of law in society. "

Before long, his findings will become an article in a national law journal and, eventually, perhaps a book as well, the professor said. Among issues addressed will be the trend over the past decade or so of law firms merging into larger firms.

"If you see quotes from managing partners, for example, it often sounds like they spent about 10 minutes in business school," Conley said. "They will say all kinds of things about economies of scale and synergy, but nobody seems to ask beforehand whether those concepts really apply to law firms. Law firms donít have assets or products, but instead are only a collection of people selling their time."

Lawyers tend to be individualistic, and running a law firm could be compared to herding cats or, worse, juggling cats, he said. The larger the firms resulting from mergers are, the more likely problems will arise ranging from ego battles to more subtle disputes over values, marketing, work hours, aggressiveness and other issues.

"Questions come up about all kinds of things such as how are you going to govern the firm?" Conley said. "Do you want a pure democracy, a dictatorship or an oligarchy in which just a small group exercises control?"

Lawyers talk a lot about strategic planning and about how economics drives everything, but they spend almost no time thinking strategically about the economics of practice and admit they are not good at it, he said. None seem to have workable ideas about how to get around the "tyranny" of selling time and producing "billable hours."

Although they are paid well, younger associate lawyers are particularly vulnerable to the often-staggering demands partners put on them, Conley said. Many he spoke with felt that top partners were greedy in making seven- and even eight-figure salaries.

"A lot of people who arenít at the very top at the bigger firms think many problems in the legal profession are being driven by greed and senior partnersí insistence on making what others believe to be obscene amounts of money," he said. "Some have suggested that if you cut the salaries of those people in half and backed that through the system youíd have less personal and ethical pressures on younger lawyers in big firms, more professional behavior and more humane lives."

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Note: Conley can be reached at (919) 962-8502 or jmconley@email.unc.edu

Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596