Richard Larkins is a happy lawyer.
The stereotype of lawyers as professional depressives is so pervasive that Richard’s happiness seems almost a radical act.
How can he be a happy lawyer?
“I found an area of the law that fits my personality,” Richard explained. “It’s like a really complicated jigsaw puzzle. I have to figure out the economics of the situation, how the law works, and what the equities are. I also have to understand people’s motivations. Plus, I’m dealing with complex, code-oriented material. It fits who I am and how I like to work.”
Richard is a tax partner at Ernst and Young who has been practicing law for nearly 30 years. Like most professionals, Richard faces countless challenges in his work life. “Don’t make me out to be Pollyanna,” he admonished. “There is plenty of pressure in my job. I still have to bill my time. I still have to demonstrate that I am helpful to my clients. If I’m not getting calls, it means I am not being helpful.”
Despite the challenges — and maybe even because of them — Richard has found happiness in the profession. His happiness is not the stuff of fantasy, luck or willful blindness. Rather, he created happiness for himself by designing a career that plays to his strengths.
A Sexy Career Path?
By the time Richard was a junior in High School, he had already decided he wanted to be an accountant.
It wasn’t a “sexy” career, but it was exciting for him.
“I took a basic accounting class and liked it. I’m a neatnik, so it appealed to my sense of order and balance. Every debit had a credit, and everything had to be in its right place. It’s an ordered system and it made sense to me. I ended up getting a good grade in that class.”
Before stumbling on accounting, Richard thought he might become a journalist. But once he found accounting, the pieces of his life plan began to fall into place.
He attended the University of Washington where, again in his junior year, he discovered a passion for the Internal Revenue Code. “My [tax] instructor, Bill Resler, was really dynamic, and it all came alive for me. At that point, I knew I wanted to be a CPA. I wanted to focus on tax,” Richard said.
Life As An Accountant
Richard’s first job after getting his CPA license was in the tax practice of Arthur Andersen in Seattle.
It was there that he suffered his first career setback.
The problem began when he realized he wasn’t getting the juicy, complex puzzles he enjoyed — those were all being funneled to the lawyers. But why?
In principle, there is a great deal of overlap between the work of CPAs and that of tax lawyers. Both professions can crunch numbers and file forms as well as dispense tax advice. The only real difference is that CPAs cannot represent clients in court, but given that Richard had no interest in litigation the distinction hardly mattered.
Yet, he would soon find that the reality of tax practice was different from these general principles.
“CPAs tend to have practices that focus more on crunching the numbers and filing returns. They can provide advice,” Richard acknowledged, “But the tendency among clients is to go to lawyers when they want advice. So the accounting firms hire thousands of lawyers, and when the really cool questions come in to research they give it to the lawyers.”
After two years of dealing with the situation, Richard opted to go to law school. “I decided I liked tax, but it would be more fun to be a tax lawyer than an accountant.”
Richard arrived at Northwestern Law School with a plan.
“I am generally a planner. The plan doesn’t always go as I envision,” he admits. “But that’s ok. I’m flexible”.
The plan was to become a tax lawyer, so Richard took tax courses, code courses, and general business and commercial law courses.
He dipped his toes in areas others considered more “sexy,” including Mergers and Acquisitions, but quickly realized he did not find the work intellectually engaging. Nothing could shake him from the desire to become a tax attorney.
Then, Richard graduated law school in the middle of a recession.
To Be Or Not To Be A Litigator
While he was lucky enough to get a job at a prestigious Chicago law firm, Richard quickly learned there was not enough tax work to keep him busy.
He found himself working in the firm’s general litigation practice instead.
The plan was falling apart. Richard knew that he had to make a decision. He could veer off course and commit to litigation, or he could course correct.
For Richard, it was an easy choice: He decided to leave the firm. But Richard worried that accepting another law firm position might land him in the same predicament. There was only one place he could be assured of getting the tax work he craved: The Internal Revenue Service.
The economy was in a recession. The IRS had at least 3,000 applications for the job Richard wanted — and the Federal Government had just ordered a hiring freeze. Despite all that, Richard got the job. It turned out to be his dream job.
“I worked in the national office where all the rules are made. It was a fun job. I got to sit with some very smart people and help decide what the rules were going to be. I was working on issues that mattered to everybody, and not just to my clients. For the first time, I was having an impact.”
He stayed at the IRS for several years happily engaging in tax policy work. But then he got a call from the Department of Justice. He was being recruited to become a special advisor to the Assistant Attorney General for the Tax Division.
It was an exciting opportunity, but once again the job promised to pull Richard off course. The focus would be on litigation, an area not in his portfolio at the time.
But this was an offer he couldn’t refuse. “My boss would be the highest ranking African-American woman in the Clinton Justice Department. And I was being asked to serve as her advisor on all aspects of the Internal Revenue Code. Who wouldn’t say yes?”
Professors vs. Zealous Advocates: Navigating the Legal Terrain
The years at DOJ would prove radically different from Richard’s past experience. His primary job was to run an interagency group to determine whether the Department would appeal certain complex, high-profile tax cases. Richard’s first warning that things operated differently at DOJ came from the interagency meetings.
“At the IRS, our meetings were very cordial and very professional. But at Justice, people would shout at each other and pound on the table!” Richard remembered with a laugh. While the policy experts at the IRS were known for their deliberative and academic style, the Justice Department’s litigators were more of the traditional “zealous advocates.”
Richard had to quickly learn to navigate this more unpredictable environment. He earned trust by mastering the issues. “People really did appreciate that I was prepared and thorough, and that I had fully studied the materials and really understood their arguments.”
The lessons he learned at DOJ would help him weather the storm of the coming years.
Things Fall Apart
Leaving the Justice Department was bittersweet for Richard. He had come to love the frenetic pace of his job.
But in Washington, high-powered government jobs disappear from one election to the next. The change in presidential administration gave Richard the opportunity to get back on track with his career goals.
Now, the goal was to secure a partner-track position either at a law or accounting firm.
He took a job at Dewey Ballantine focusing on financial services, but when the law firm lost its most important client in the sector, it was time to re-evaluate. He moved on to KPMG for three years before being recruited back to Arthur Andersen — this time, in their national office in Washington, DC.
He had come full circle. Arthur Andersen was Richard’s first training ground as a CPA. It was there that he had made the decision to become a lawyer. It seemed fitting to earn his way into a partnership at Arthur Andersen.
At first, things seemed to be going well. Richard did excellent work, and his relationship with colleagues and clients could not be better. He went up for partnership in 2002 all but assured of a positive outcome.
And then Enron happened.
A well-respected, multibillion dollar publicly-traded company revealed itself to be little more than a shell propped up with fraudulent accounting practices. And the accounting firm that certified Enron’s deceptive securities filings was none other than Arthur Andersen.
Enron would quickly fall into bankruptcy, and millions of investors and employees lost everything they owned in the process. The once-respected multinational conglomerate was now the punchline of endless jokes on the late night comedy circuit. “Wouldn’t it be great,” Dennis Miller quipped, “if all of Usama bin Laden’s money was tied up in Enron stock?”
But Enron’s legal troubles were no laughing matter to the senior managers who orchestrated the company’s demise: They soon faced criminal prosecution and lengthy prison sentences.
Arthur Andersen’s downfall would not be far behind.
Things Fall Apart: Take Two
On March 14, 2002, the Justice Department announced the first ever indictment of an American accounting firm. Arthur Andersen faced obstruction of justice charges for shredding certain Enron-related documents. The jury issued its guilty verdict just three months later. The conviction would later be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, but the damage had already been done.
While Richard’s division had absolutely nothing to do with either the Enron scandal or the acts leading up to Arthur Andersen’s indictment, it would prove of small comfort as the firm buckled under the sheer weight of the dual scandals.
“I was there on the very last day when they turned out the lights,” Richard remembered. It was a shocking end to a promising dream. But Richard had little time to mourn as he joined the 36,000 Arthur Andersen employees scrambling to find new jobs.
A Long And Winding Road
For a man who likes to make careful plans, landing in such foreign territory was a contingency beyond imagination. While Richard knew his specialized knowledge was sufficiently in demand that he was certain to find a job, the real question was whether he would have to postpone his dream of becoming a partner.
He met with several accounting firms and received two job offers; but as for partnership, he was assured only that his candidacy would be considered “in the normal course.”
He began to resign himself to the fact that he would have to start over to achieve his partnership goal. He had just one interview to complete before he could move ahead with the next phase of his career.
The meeting with Ernst and Young’s managing partner would turn out to be the biggest surprise in a year full of surprises.
Richard walked into the partner’s office expecting the usual pleasantries preceding a grueling interview. Before he could even sit down, however, the partner remarked: “I understand your issue is partnership. It’s done. You come here, and you’re a partner.”
After an interminable silence, Richard could only reply “let me take a seat!”
Finding Happiness in the Law
The legal profession is facing a crisis of unhappy lawyers.
For some, law was simply a bad choice and the best decision would be to leave the profession. For others, the possibility remains to find meaning, purpose, and even happiness in the practice of law. But how?
Richard Larkins’ experience provides at least one possible response.
While it is easy enough to discount one person’s experience as “anecdotal,” in truth the research on happiness is bearing out Richard’s intuitive approach. Martin Seligman, the preeminent expert in positive psychology, has studied the demoralization of lawyers in the profession. His research suggests three main factors accounting for the problem: pessimism, low decision latitude, and participation in a “giant win-loss enterprise.”
Seligman defines pessimists as those who view negative events as stable and pervasive — “It’s going to last forever, and it’s going to undermine everything.” Those with low decision latitude believe they have little choice or control in their work lives. And a “giant win-loss” enterprise refers to the winner-take-all approach of most legal disputes.
According to Seligman, many lawyers suffer from all three factors. In other words, these lawyers see their problems as all-consuming and unlikely to change. They feel powerless to affect change at work. And they believe “law is a big business in which billable hours, take-no-prisoners victories, and the bottom line are now the principle ends.” Such a worldview breeds unprecedented levels of unhappiness, depression and anxiety in the profession.
Part of Seligman’s prescription for change suggests a course of action people like Richard have already adopted for themselves:
Every law firm should discover what the particular signature strengths of their associates are. Exploiting these strengths will make the difference between a demoralized colleague and an energized, productive one.
Richard Larkins found happiness in the law by having a plan. As early as high school, Richard was discovering and honing his “signature strengths.” After college and law school, he set out to design a career that played to those strengths.
Richard’s plan could not protect him from life’s messy unpredictability. He had to learn to bend and reshape the plan so that he might take advantage of unexpected opportunities and regroup from unforeseen failures. But for Richard, having a plan is the only sure path to success . . . and happiness.
“I am not a ‘let’s just see what happens kind of person’,” Richard concludes. “At any point in time, I have a plan. I’m flexible, but I have a direction I think I’m going. I have interviewed countless law students, and I am always surprised at just how few of them have a plan.”