Is Being A Lawyer A Bullshit Job?

Sarah kicks off a new series on today’s podcast with Annie Little, another lawyer career coach. Annie has been on the podcast a few times in the past, like the episode on ADHD. She founded her company, JD Nation, and helps lawyers find better jobs, both in and out of law. In this new series, the two of them discuss the book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber and dive into some of the book’s observations. This first episode covers why you should care about this book and answer, “Is being a lawyer a bullshit job?”

The Beginnings of the Bullshit Jobs Conversation 

Annie found this book first when reading a blog post from Tara McMullen, someone that was fundamental for Annie starting her business. Tara referenced a 2013 essay called Bullshit Jobs that went viral. David Graeber had written the essay on a whim, sent it out, and it went viral. It gained so much popularity that he decided to write a book about it. 

Graeber is an anthropologist. His work takes many conversations, finds common themes, and ties them to sociological and anthropological understandings. He covers the thought that is shared by many corporate employees, including lawyers, that “my job is such bullshit.” Annie couldn’t just read this; she needed to talk about it and immediately reached out to Sarah.

Their upcoming episodes aren’t trying to persuade people that their job is bullshit. It’s more about the author’s interesting conversations with corporate lawyers and finding that many of them characterized their job as bullshit based on the criteria he set out. Annie and Sarah aren’t saying that anyone’s job falls into this category, but they have observed plenty of lawyers who have wanted to leave a toxic workplace or leave law entirely because they have felt this way. 

Many lawyers experience feelings of being stuck but not feeling entitled to complain because they make a good living and think something is wrong with them if they aren’t satisfied. Annie often thought that her activities were pointless and wondered how no one else noticed this. But she wasn’t alone. 

What Exactly is a Bullshit Job?

Graeber says, “A bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence, even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” 

This idea can be common in lawyers, especially when they hear that it’s how things have always been or that there are “reasons” to do it a certain way with no explanation. Sarah points out that a job can also be soul-crushing, even if it feels like there is some purpose. People are confused because they know their job makes them feel terrible, yet they don’t leave. 

Many newer associates in Biglaw find themselves doing a lot of cut-and-paste transactional work, but they don’t want to complain because they are making good money. The cases aren’t anything they are passionate about, and even sometimes things they disagree with, but they need the billable hours and have to hit targets. Graeber points out in the book that bullshit jobs can have little societal value and might even be harmful, and many lawyers can relate to that. 

What’s Next In Exploring Is Lawyer a Bullshit Job

Bullshit Jobs breaks down the four specific impacts faced by people in these positions. This podcast series will share Sarah and Annie’s conversations and how they’ve seen and experienced those impacts. Lawyers are great at making themselves feel like they are the problem, but Graeber describes how jobs can make it hard for people to feel like they can make a change.

It’s important for people to understand that they are not alone in these feelings and experiences, especially as lawyers. Learning that these situations happen outside of the law can also enlighten others. Changes in this cycle might be possible if more people are informed and aware. As leadership positions transition to millennials and future generations, there might be ways to break through and make positive changes. 
Tune in to these conversations for the next few weeks to learn more.

If you’ve been considering joining The Collab but are interested in working with Sarah Cottrell 1:1, learn more about The Collab Plus program. You’ll get everything you would get inside the Collab, plus an 8-week action plan created by Sarah just for you.

Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.

Today I'm kicking off a series of episodes, conversations with my friend Annie Little who is another lawyer career coach, talking about the book Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber, and specifically talking about some of the observations that that book makes that are really relevant and helpful for those of you who are lawyers and are thinking about leaving.

Annie and I will explain more as we get into the conversation. Today is our first part of the conversation. It's the intro. We are going to be telling you why you should care about this book and what it has to say. Also talking about answering the question “Is being a lawyer a bullsh*t job?” Without further ado, here's my conversation with Annie.

Okay, Annie, I'm really excited to have this conversation. We're going to be talking about this book, which is called Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, but we're also going to be talking about some ideas on how they relate to lawyering and the things that we've seen. First of all, a couple of things, one, can you introduce yourself for people who haven't listened to any of your previous episodes? Then talk a little bit about how this book got on your radar because you're the one who told me about it.

Annie Little: Yeah. I'm Annie Little, a former lawyer just like you and I'm a lawyer career coach, I founded JD Nation, my company, 10 years ago. Used to be a lawyer, but I love working with lawyers now to help them find better jobs, whether it's staying in the legal profession or leaving.

You may know me from other episodes like the ADHD episode on Former Lawyer, and [inaudible] ones that we've done. That can explain how I came around to this book a little bit too, because I have a bajillion different interests. I came across this book because I was reading a blog post from Tara McMullen.

She was somebody that helped me when I started my business way, way back in the day, and she, like me, was a religious studies major and so I really appreciate her interdisciplinary approach to talking about business, the history of business, and all that kind of stuff.

I was reading one of her long-form blog posts because I'm a nerd and she referenced an essay called Bullshit Jobs that came out in 2013 talking about how it went viral. I vaguely remember that because that was when I left the legal profession and my daughter was born.

I clicked on the link in her huge blog post, or whatever, I went to and I was like, “How do I not remember this better?” Then I saw that David Graeber, who's the author of it, just had written it on a whim, sent it out, and just went absolutely viral. It went so viral that he decided to write a book because people wanted to talk about it more. It was just basically talking about, and making explicit I think what so many corporate employees, including lawyers, and just really across all sorts of industries, this underlying sense of “God, my job is such bullsh*t.”

He’s an anthropologist, and he was able to articulate some of the different things by talking to tons and tons of people and tying it into some of his sociological and anthropological understandings, which I just find fascinating. But of course, in classic me form, I'm reading it and I can't just read it and enjoy it. I have to talk about it to anybody who listen, including you so I've blown up your Voxer reading this and I'm going into these anthropological and discussions on capitalism and I'm like, “Sorry, I hope that was interesting for you, Sarah.”

Sarah Cottrell: And I was like, “This is super interesting. Actually, I think we should talk about this on the podcast.” As always, this is just like Sarah and Annie's Voxer conversation live. There are so many things, but I think probably I'm going to title this episode something like “Is being a lawyer a bullsh*t job?”

To start with that, I want to be clear that is not in fact something that I am trying to persuade people of and I know that's true for you as well, because we've talked about this. But the thing that's really interesting because, of course, I got the book and read it after he recommended it to me, is that the author does talk about interviews that he did with lawyers, and in particular, corporate lawyers who identified or characterize their job as a bullsh*t job based on the criteria he set out.

I think this is interesting and helpful. But also, I think that one of the things that I want to be really clear about is that part of the way that a bullsh*t job is described or defined is there's a subjective component. As we're talking about this, I think there are really helpful things to pull from some of the research that he did.

Also, I know that Annie and I both are not trying to tell you that your job is bullsh*t if you don't feel that it is, however, I think what she and I have both observed in working with lawyers who are either wanting to leave a not great job or a toxic workplace or leave the law entirely, is that there are a lot of lawyers who do feel this way about their job and also feel like they shouldn't feel that way. Would you say that’s fair, Annie?

Annie Little: Oh, 100%. I think that's a big part of the cognitive dissonance that makes it so hard for lawyers, and this was myself included, where you're like, “I don't even know what I should do. Is this normal for me to feel this way? Is it just me feeling this way? Am I just a wimp?” I feel like that contributes to the stuckness and it makes it really hard for us to see a path forward.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think especially for lawyers who started out or are currently in large law firms who are making a lot of money, especially can have this sense of like, “I shouldn't complain. I'm not entitled to my feelings.” That is actually one of the phenomena that he talks about in terms of the experience that people have in a bullsh*t job.

We'll get to that later but I think that maybe at this point, it would be helpful to do the lawyerly thing and define the term more specifically, which means I'm literally going to read for everyone this brief working definition that he created of a bullsh*t job so that you understand what we're talking about when we talk about this.

Here's what he says, his working definition of a bullsh*t job is the following: “A bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence, even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

Okay, Annie, tell me your thoughts about that definition and when you read it, how you saw that connecting to the experience of lawyering.

Annie Little: Yeah. I mean, at least I know this stood out, but it still stands out to me now, having to maintain this front where it's like, “Nope, my job is not pointless or my job is not bullsh*t.” I felt like it was having to play this game of, “Yeah, my job is hard and yeah, sometimes it feels like I'm not really doing stuff that's particularly meaningful. But again, to that point of it's a good job, I have no right to say it's not a good job or whatever.”

I felt like I was taking crazy pills. I was like, “Does anybody else not see this?” I'm married to a lawyer too so I'd be like, “I don't like this just seems,” and he'd be like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's bullsh*t.” I'm like, “But we're still just going to play along.” That's just my personal oppositional list too where if I identify something as being off or inauthentic in some way, I have such a zero-tolerance approach.

For me, that was one of the hardest things because when I would see something about my job, my firm, or the legal profession at large, if I did bring it up to somebody who might be more senior to me, they were basically telling me, “You're taking crazy pills,” like, “What are you talking about? No, this is just the way it's always been or we have our reasons for doing it. Just because you think this is inefficient or meaningless doesn't mean it's true.” For me, that was what felt most bullsh*t about being a lawyer.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think the other thing that similarly can happen is even if you do see some purpose in your job, there can still be this sense because I can remember feeling like, “Wow, this is horrible,” not so much about the purposelessness or not of the job, but just the experience of this job for me is soul crushing. That seems to be true for a lot of people.

Feeling so much confusion about how can we talk about this being so terrible, and yet that not result in people being like, “And yes, I want to get out,” which is not to say that there aren't considerations and factors that you have to [say], but for me, that was the piece of it that felt just this is the logical outcome of seeing how bad this is for you as a human being should be deciding to go do something else, and the fact that wasn't happening was very disorienting. In the same way that I think he describes in the book the way that he defines what a bullsh*t job is, it was that experience for me.

Annie Little: Yeah. For me, in talking to other people, I didn't work in Biglaw, I worked in boutique firm, so I was doing sophisticated work, so there was plenty of stuff that fall into this category, but knowing people who worked in really Biglaw, Amlaw, these types of places, even though they were very low, we were newer associates, they felt like they were doing a lot of cut and paste type work in the transactional area and they were like, “Is this for real?” I mean, fun, I’m making a ton of money.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, “Did I really go to law school to copy and paste, is that what we're doing here? To turn a Word doc into a PDF?”

Annie Little: Right. Then on top of it, they'd be like, “Plus, even though I'm pretty far removed, I'm building on these matters, which are helping a merger happen, which is going to create a monopoly in a certain area.” I remember somebody talking about the merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster and they were like, “Uhh,” and it was like, “Yeah, I had enough work to do the past few months and I hit my billable targets, but ew.”

It’s like that part where in the book he's talking about part of bullsh*t jobs is that they have little to no societal value, or taking it a step further, they're actually harmful. I think that's another part of it where we get that cognitive dissonance again, how do we talk about this without just throwing up our hands and being like, “Fine, I'm just not going to be a lawyer anymore”?

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, and I also think a piece of that is the idea of make work in the sense that there are people who have this sense of like, “If not my whole industry, then many components of this industry are essentially like a self-sustaining thing, but not in the sense that it's creating something that was but that it's creating its own work.”

The reason I think this is all so important is that I know you and I both see people really struggle with some of the emotional impacts of being in a job that they're experiencing in this way that ultimately makes it hard for them to actually think about making a change. Because, as lawyers, they've so internalized certain expectations that they feel essentially they are wrong for feeling the way they feel.

This book breaks down some specific impacts, common to basically all people or most people who are experiencing their jobs in this way that you and I have seen in the clients that we work with as they're trying to figure out what it is that they want to do next.

Basically, what we're wanting to do is for the next several weeks, we are going to be sharing conversations where we're going to talk through where he identifies four impacts. Essentially, we're going to talk through each of them and how that might be showing up for the people who are listening, what we've observed in terms of that, and maybe some ways to think about those things and to also give people a sense that they're not alone in feeling these impacts.

I know that you see this all the time as well, most lawyers, if nothing else, are great at making themselves feel like they're the problem, and if something isn't working for them, they need to fix it. Essentially, I think both you and I have seen people experience the things that he describes in this book, in terms of the impacts, the emotional, psychological, mental impacts of working in jobs like this, and also we've seen those specific impacts really make it difficult for people to feel like they can or should make a change.

I think part of the point of this conversation and the episodes that we'll be releasing after this in talking about these different impacts that he talks about in the book is essentially to help people know that they are not alone if they're experiencing this. Tell me your thoughts about that. What else do you think people need to know about why we're going to be having this conversation?

Annie Little: Yeah, well, for me, something that was really interesting as I was reading this, the book is massive, so apologies, Sarah, you muddled your way through it, but because I saw how large it was, I was like, “Oh, do I really want to read this?” but I saw that he used corporate lawyers as examples so many times throughout that I was like, “Okay, I feel like this is going to be relevant,” but I wasn't sure if everything was going to be relevant to lawyers, and I found that it is.

For me, maybe this is just me, but I found that really enlightening and it was almost freeing because, for me, I often felt like this stuff was very unique to the legal profession. To be fair, there are aspects of being a lawyer that are unique that very few, if any other professions, have. It almost gave me hope that these patterns emerge in all kinds of other industries and professions so that it's not like, “Oh, it's just this clunky, archaic legal profession that's dealing with this stuff.”

It's never going to change because it's so insular. Seeing that there are other, and I hate that other people are enduring such crap, that lawyers are as well, they may not have those same resources that lawyers do to talk about this stuff or to make a change, but I was like, “I feel like this could be perhaps the legal profession, though it's often slower to catch up, that this is part of a larger not movement, but social change, as these things are going to be happening in other professions to change things a little bit, that the legal profession is going to have models of what could potentially be done.”

Not that that's going to happen soon, but as leadership starts to shift more to millennials, I think that that's going to be really big. That's always my thing, for anyone who wants to stay in the legal profession, I think it's really important to be talking about this stuff so that when millennials are getting into, and other generations too, but primarily millennials getting into these leadership positions, being able to identify these sorts of problems and start to experiment with ways of doing it differently, having that awareness about it and not going in blindly with, “Well, that's just the way we've always done it. Yeah, it was really awful for me but too bad, pay your dues and move on.”

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, and I think just having that experience of if you're looking around your workplace, your legal workplace, and you're like, “Why are we doing things this way? This feels totally unreasonable,” people might complain about it, but they're not really doing anything to change it, I want people who are in that type of position, which let's be real, we know are a lot of lawyers, to know like, “Hey, you are not making things up. It's not like you just don't get it, the experience that you're having and what you're observing is real and it's not just you.”

Thank you so much for joining me for this. I am really excited. Next week, we will be talking about why, when you're in a bullsh*t job, one of the things that can be a result is misery based on ambiguity and forced pretense. Stay tuned, everyone.

Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven't yet, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law at Until next time, have a great week.