Big-firm lawyering is a decidedly profit-making enterprise. Therein lies both its appeal and its
crisis. A lawyer in a firm can have a good life both professionally and personally, but a large
proportion of lawyers complain of overwork and strained personal lives. Many responses to the dissatisfaction have been offered, including “quit griping.” Last year the American Bar Association (ABA) responded more thoughtfully with a book, “Raise the Bar: Real World Solutions for a Troubled Profession.” I wrote a chapter for it and think the book has good insights and practical advice.

This year a Jesuit priest wrote an entirely different book that nevertheless gets to the nub of many of the troubles addressed by the ABA. The author, Donald Kirby, is the former director of the Center for the Advancement of Values Education, a program at New York’s LeMoyne College. His book, “Compass for Uncharted Lives,” describes Kirby’s efforts over many years to incorporate the teaching of values in educational institutions. Although he focuses on undergraduate colleges, his book also gives brief attention to medical, business and law schools.

I had a “what if” moment when I got to Kirby’s passage about law schools. What if the themes of both books could somehow be brought together? If the ABA is searching for real-world solutions to a “troubled” profession, and if Kirby’s compass for uncharted lives can address some of those troubles, maybe the ABA could add another “solution” to its list. Given the radically different nature of each book, it takes a few steps to see how they complement each other, but the effort could pay off.

The ABA book identifies several aspects of legal practice that make life tough for lawyers: the billable hour, nonexistent or ineffective mentoring programs, the competition for partnership and the economics of big law firms. These are significant matters, but they are essentially external to the individual.

Kirby’s book, on the other hand, focuses entirely on internal things–the personal values of each individual. He doesn’t attempt to tell you what your values should be. Instead, he offers a process by which schools can help their students discover their own values, thereby improving their chances for fulfilling and meaningful lives. For example, if an undirected yet ambitious young person becomes an attorney because he can’t think of anything else to do, some law firm is likely to have an unhappy lawyer down the road.

A firm can try all manner of the ABA’s “practical solutions” to make him happy, but those approaches will not work because they are aimed at his external life on the job, not his internal life. A new law firm personnel policy can’t fix the problem because this particular lawyer (take your pick): should never have become a lawyer in the first place, should really be an in-house counsel, should be in the non-profit sector, should be teaching, etc.

My hope is the profession can make use of Kirby’s approach to figure out a way to funnel the right people into law schools (and, conversely, to funnel the otherwise future unhappy lawyers out), and, once the right people are training for the law, assure they choose the practice areas best suited to their inner selves.

This is a tall order and will require the acceptance of some hard truths about the profession. But as the authors of the ABA book know, something has to be done. Clearly, the firms have to make the day-to-day practice of law more satisfying by adopting practical solutions. We also have to consider that not everybody is cut out to be a lawyer and not every lawyer is cut out to be a billable hour machine.
The profession needs confident and self-aware recruits and, lacking them, a front-end culling system. The result will be happier lawyers and clients, leading to more profitable firms.