Baseball, Data and the Unhappy Attorney

I was an unhappy attorney – unhappy enough in my first law firm job that I was looking for an exit even before I found out that I passed the bar exam.  The road to being a “recovering attorney” has taken me through a number of careers in and around the legal industry, and each has made me far happier than my first law firm experience long ago.

There are a lot of unhappy attorneys and the numbers grow every year.  That said, there is hope for reversing this trend.  

Although many of you might disagree with me, there are a lot of happy attorneys.   Thanks to the data from 2000+ lawyers who took part in The Right Profile’s Attorney Trait Study, we actually understand the many profiles of happiness across 26 different practice areas and 12 practice settings. The reason that this is important is that we can now use this data to help attorneys, law students and even prospective law students find their best career fit without the painful, gut-wrenching stumble that often takes attorneys through multiple firms or even out of law altogether.  The lack of guidance that prevents many from finding their proper fit in law also keeps many attorneys in law much longer than they would like to be (and much unhappier with their lives overall) as ever increasing tuition bills drive decisions to stay in a law firm role as long as possible to help pay down a mountain of student debt.  Sometimes the fit issue is minor as well – an attorney only needed to be in a different practice area to be happy, but the firm needed to fill slots in another group at the time of hiring.  One quote that I read from the Chief Talent Officer (CTO) of a 3800+ attorney firm said “From day one—and even sooner—even the youngest associate at a law firm should have a specific individual career plan in mind.  If you wake up at year six and start to think about your career in the law, you have waited far, far too long.”

So here’s the rub – the “specific individual career plan” that the CTO above is mentioning is almost as illusory as a World Series victory has been for the Chicago Cubs for the past 100 years (and that is coming from the vantage point of a fan who has lived within three miles of Wrigley field for over 25 years).  No career counselor or practicing attorney is going to know what your best career plan is because success in law and its various practice areas and settings can take many shapes and involves many variations in traits, mindset and interests.  No one visible trait is tied to success, career longevity or happiness.  Much like baseball and the new wave of management that embraces data to help decide the best batting order or defensive shift, data available on the tie between attorney traits and career satisfaction by practice area and settings can be used to improve the odds for an individual attorney’s successful career.

High levels of skepticism are common amongst attorneys, but this characteristic probably works against them in finding their best fit in the legal industry and setting a career plan.  Much of an attorney’s future plans are rooted in the past and draw from what has always been done.  As such, many law students and young attorneys will instead follow the tradition that attorneys are generalists and should fill whatever role is needed by their first employers.  For many, that practice area will become the attorney’s career-long specialty, regardless of whether it is a good fit.  The “specific individual career plan” that every young attorney should have is left to luck.  But, like the NLCS Chicago Cubs of 2015, change can come quickly and with a willingness to embrace data, analytics and change.

Jeff Banister, the new manager of the Texas Rangers, made an interesting comment to the Dallas Morning News at the start of the 2015 season.  When discussing his plans to have no set batting order and to weigh the opposing team’s pitchers and a number of other factors into the specific lineup for any given game, Banister said “We hang onto tradition. But is it tradition, or is it truth? You’ve got to seek the truth. If the numbers say the same thing year after year, there’s gotta be some truth to it, right?”  The numbers in law say the same thing every year, and that is that law schools, law firms, students and attorneys can all do a better job in aligning specific mindsets, traits and interests with the practice areas and settings in which those individuals are most likely to succeed. The data and the analytics are available – it’s time to seek the truth.
Mark Levin is a “recovering attorney” who spent nearly 20 years in the legal industry in roles ranging from full-time practice to head of marketing and business development for two Chicago-based law firms to business development consultant and coach for numerous firms and attorneys. He is the co-founder of and