Semantic satiation is the formal term for what happens when you repeat a word until it loses its meaning. I've certainly reached semantic satiation on the two words used most often in today's news: "stimulus" and "bailout." What the heck do those words mean anymore? It seems that every family unit other than mine is getting a "bailout" and that the "stimulus" should somehow make everything better. But I couldn't even begin to articulate how those concepts actually are supposed to work to fix what ails the economy. And I really don't feel stimulated by the new laws that went into effect this past week.
As frustrating, confusing and disconcerting as the economic environment is for me, I am quite sure it is exponentially more worrisome to young lawyers. Each week another round of layoffs is announced, and I know they hit the young lawyers the hardest. When I ask that demographic about how they are doing, they put a happy face on it and cheerily reply, "Well, I haven't been laid off yet!" It seems only yesterday (okay, it was about a year ago) that the chief goal of those Gen Y workers was to convince us old folks that to keep them, they must be allowed unlimited flexibility in when, where, and how much they would work. Plus a lockstep annual raise of $10,000 to $20,000, plus a bonus if they worked a 2000 hour year. At the time I often grumbled that all we needed was one good recession to fix that mentality.
Sadly, we are not in "one good recession;" this is a horrible economic readjustment that will color our remaining careers. The economic crisis has dramatically altered everyone's mindset—those of us who've dutifully squirreled away a 401k so we could ratchet back our frantic work schedules in our 60s, only to see it evaporate; those who just started families and were looking forward to a work environment that valued "balanced hours," only to see our spouse/significant other (or self) laid off entirely; those who finally bought a dream house only to suffer buyer's remorse and realize it's not worth the price paid. It is not easy to find anyone in the legal profession who isn't facing a real attitude adjustment.
Gen Y may have the biggest adjustment to make. They can no longer expect a "B" just for showing up. There are no longer trophies for everyone on every team, because darn it just being on the team is worth a prize! That wasn't real in their childhood, and it certainly isn't now. In the real world, nobody gets a raise just for hanging around. The economics of the last decade weren't real, it was all an illusion. Now the curtain is lifted and the reality of how to earn a living stares us all in the face.
The new, old reality: earning a living is hard work, and those who work the hardest, the smartest, and add the most value, will be the most likely to achieve financial stability. I also believe that there are certainly going to continue to be impediments for some groups (women, working mothers, the disabled, minorities, and so on), and some of those hard won diversity gains will be put to a real test in this environment. And for some, health crises or just plain bad luck will undo years of really hard work; there are no guarantees even for hard workers.
Financial security is most likely to come to those who ask, every day, in every task, is my work the best it can be? The answer to this economic environment is a constant question: how can my work be better? What more can I do to help this client? Are there any other ways to solve this problem? Have I added real value to this project?
Work-life balance is a luxury, not an entitlement. There are no trophies just for being. There is real competition out there: for every client, there are many excellent lawyers wanting to help. Now, more than ever, good enough, isn't.
Better sign off now. I need to get back to work.