My recent post on performance reviews got me thinking about the competitive nature of lawyers, and the way in which they invariably compare themselves to their peers. It is a sad fact that lawyers are almost compelled by their profession, and the way in which it assesses performance, to compare themselves to others, and this brings with it an incredible amount of stress and anxiety for almost all lawyers, regardless of their speciality, position or the firm they work for.
To take a simple example, the classic billable hour. I remember all too vividly the feeling of not meeting my billable hour target despite long hours and weekend work, while others in my team appeared to met and exceeded their target with ease. It made me feel insecure, inadequate and worried for my job.
The irony, of course, is that there were times when I did exceed target, and those that were exceeding target fell behind. Suddenly, roles and perceived ranking were adjusted. The next week, adjustments happened again. And it keeps on going in its insidious and destructive way, like some sort of workplace anxiety tornado.
The billable hour is the standard measure for workplace performance, and I know that many lawyers cannot help but sneak a peak at their peers’ hourly figures to see how they compare. Quality of legal service, skill in negotiation, client business development; none of these things matter when we can simply use billable hours to rank ourselves with other lawyers in our team or firm.
What exacerbates this behaviour, in my view, is the personality of those who gravitate towards the law. They are all high achievers, used to long hours alone studying and working, relying on their own skills and ability to achieve. Some lawyers I’ve worked with in the past also admit to fear of failure as the biggest driver for them at school and university, and that fear led to a singular focus on achieving the highest possible results in tests and assessments.
Getting into law at university is not easy (although perhaps not as hard as it once was, although that’s another topic for a later day). Once you enter law school you are competing against some of the very best and brightest, who have also got into law school because they are focussed and, usually, competitive (whether with others, or with themselves). And that continues through into the law firm environment. All lawyers are highly intelligent, and many have very similar personality traits.
The result is that we end up comparing ourselves to people who are almost a mirror image of, well, ourselves. I’m not saying that lawyers are all the same. Of course, we are all beautiful butterflies who have our own strengths and weaknesses, our own personal lives, our own history and our own future. But, I am sure you will agree, we are also all highly driven and inherently anxious about how we rank against our peers, because that’s what a law firm environment does to people like us.
I have been there. The fear and anxiety has not left me just because I work for myself and have no-one to compare myself against any more, whether by way of billable hours or otherwise.
And I cannot offer any solutions or suggestions to others who feel this way.
What I can say, and what I hope anyone reading this who feels this way, is that you are amazing. You are talented, driven, kind, intelligent and friendly. You would not have got into a law firm if you didn’t have these qualities. I know you can’t really judge yourself on your positive qualities as easily as you can your supposed negative qualities, but please try it once in a while. Remind yourself that you are comparing yourself to the best and the brightest, and to people who are all too close to the type of person you are. And guess what? You’re equal to them, but also unique and incomparable. It is your own individuality that is the true measure of your personal success and your success as a lawyer.
I know it sounds trite, but make your own internal performance goal one that focusses on your many positive qualities. And remind your colleagues of their positive qualities too – trust me, they are just as anxious, concerned and stressed as you and would love encouragement. Help them, help yourself, and continue being amazing.
Wow, I’m a really bad motivational writer. And hey look, I just did what I told you not to do. Told you it never really leaves you, but I’ll try and focus on my positive qualities instead. I’m kind to puppies, I guess.