Sign In
    Wisconsin Lawyer
    December 01, 2015

    On Balance
    5 Strategies to Make Your Work More Meaningful

    To find the true meaning of work, look within yourself, not in a dictionary. Try these five strategies to make your work more meaningful.

    Paula M. Davis-Laack

    winter forest“One cannot lead a life that is truly excellent without feeling that one belongs to something greater and more important than oneself.” – Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi

    I meet monthly with some friends and business colleagues – all of us either own our businesses or are consultants on some level. At one meeting, our topic of discussion was meaning; specifically, the golden-circle exercise based on Simon Sinek’s hugely popular TED talk called “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” Sinek’s theory is that too many companies talk about what they do and how they do it, when instead, they should lead with why they do what they do. The why is so important because it evokes emotion and connection in people, which in turn inspires them to buy your product or follow your message.

    Even though I know I most certainly have a why behind my business, it became very hard to put that why into words because it’s always been more like a feeling: a gut feeling I have that drives me to jump out of bed each day and keep moving forward. And ultimately, it was my husband who verbalized this feeling. He said, “It’s hope. You give people hope.”

    If you had to do this same exercise for your own law practice or practice group or for your firm, what would the answer be? Why do you practice law? What is the purpose behind the brick-and-mortar building you call a firm?

    Practicing law is more than just providing “relentless client service,” a phrase I read with increasing frequency in firm marketing materials. For many lawyers, practicing law is a way to solve complex problems – problems that society turns over to us to solve. For litigators, it’s about giving people hope when they’re at their lowest point. For transactional attorneys, it’s about connecting clients to their dreams of owning and growing a business. How much of the why shows up in how you communicate with current and future clients, colleagues, and staff?

    Why Meaning Matters

    Meaning is closely linked with intrinsic motivation, and studies show that not all goals and aspirations are equally beneficial for psychological health and happiness. In one such study, researchers compared adults who chose life goals with extrinsic aspirations (based on money, fame, or image) with adults who chose life goals with intrinsic aspirations (personal growth, close relationships, community involvement, or physical health).

    Paula Davis-LaackPaula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is the founder and CEO of the Davis Laack Stress and Resilience Institute, an organization that educates attorneys and professionals about how to better manage stress, prevent burnout, and build resilience. She is the author of the e-book, 10 Things Happy People Do Differently.

    The adults with intrinsically motivated goals reported higher levels of life satisfaction and well-being and lower levels of anxiety and depression after attaining their goals.

    The adults with extrinsically motivated goals reported higher levels of anxiety and depression after reaching their goals. They thought achieving these “profit” based goals would make them happier, but in the end, it didn’t.1

    Meaning also is boosted when employees connect to their “end users.” Many lawyers have regular client contact, but that’s not always the case. If you are a young associate in a large law firm, it might be months before you actually meet a client. Companies that place enough emphasis on end-user connection see some amazing results:

    • Dr. Adam Grant and colleagues worked with University of Michigan call center employees, whose job it is to make cold calls to alumni to ask for money. One of the groups in Grant’s study got to meet and talk with a scholarship recipient. The recipient talked about how much the scholarship had changed his life, and he thanked the folks in the call center for their hard work. Once the call center workers realized the effect of their work, they became motivated to work harder; in fact, their weekly revenue increased 400 percent!2

    • When a patient’s photo was included in the file received by radiologists, they wrote 29 percent longer reports and achieved 46 percent greater diagnostic accuracy in scanning exams.3

    • When nurses assembling surgical kits met the health-care practitioners who would use their kits, the nurses worked 64 percent more minutes and made 15 percent fewer errors than those nurses who did not meet the end users.4

    Meaning matters in other ways as well. People who believe that their lives have meaning and purpose share a host of healthy benefits: they are happier, feel more in control of their lives, feel more engaged at work (and high engagement usually means less burnout), and report less depression and anxiety and less workaholism.5

    Five Strategies to Meaningful Work

    Regardless of the type of law practice you have, there are concrete steps you can take to make your work more meaningful. Here are five strategies:6

    1) Prioritize respect and trust. Trust is built and maintained with traits like shared values, reliability, predictability, consideration, and openness. It’s hard to capitalize on (or even find) meaning in workplaces in which disrespect and lack of trust exist.

    2) Incorporate more autonomy. Attorneys who have autonomy feel empowered and have a sense of control over their time and daily work-related choices. Having an autonomy-supportive partner, general counsel, or manager is strongly tied to well-being, while working with partners or managers with a more controlling style is, predictably, demoralizing.7

    When people are connected to bigger-than-self goals, they are more hopeful, curious, grateful, and inspired. Not surprisingly, they also show greater well-being and satisfaction with their lives.

    3) Have a clear idea of how the organization functions and your place within it. Meaningful work is fostered when lawyers understand how their strengths, interests, and abilities help them do their work well and support the organization’s mission. In turn, the organization should understand how it makes a positive difference in the larger community and beyond.

    4) Interview your clients. How many of you know the story behind the work you get from your clients? If the work has been passed down the chain within a firm, the “why” behind the matter can get left in the dust in favor of explaining the factual legal work. If my dad hired you to help him acquire a parcel of real estate, would you know that he made his money building a plastic injection molding company that started in an old farmhouse? When you know the story behind a client, the work takes on a new level of importance.

    5) Have a “bigger-than-self” goal. A bigger-than-self goal is less about the objective goals such as billable hours totals; rather, it’s about how you see yourself within your community (which could mean in your firm, your company, or the larger legal community). Ask yourself what is it that you want to contribute and how you want to make an impact. When people are connected to bigger-than-self goals, they are more hopeful, curious, grateful, and inspired. Not surprisingly, they also show greater well-being and satisfaction with their lives.8


    The legal profession needs to up its game when it comes to changing the narrative about why law matters. Great leaders lead with meaning, and the best workplaces ensure meaning is front and center in their culture. When people feel as though they are engaging in work that is personally meaningful, both lawyers and law firms succeed.


    1 Christopher Niemiec, Richard M. Ryan & Edward L. Deci, The Path Taken: Consequences of Attaining Intrinsic and Extrinsic Aspirations in Post-College Life, 73(3) J. Res. Personality 291-306 (2009). See also Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us 142-43 (New York, NY: Riverhead Books 2009).

    2 Adam M. Grant et al., Impact and the Art of Motivation Maintenance: The Effects of Contact with Beneficiaries on Persistence Behavior, 103(1) Org. Behav. & Hum. Decision Processes 53-67 (2007). See also Adam M. Grant, “Outsource Inspiration,” in How to Be a Positive Leader 22-31 (Jane E. Dutton & Gretchen M. Spreitzer eds.) (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc. 2014).

    3 Y.N. Turner, I. Hadas-Halperin & D. Raveh, Patient Photos Spur Radiologist Empathy and Eye for Detail. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, Chicago, 2008.

    4 Nicola Bellé, Experimental Evidence on Relationship between Public Service Motivation and Job Performance, 73(1) Pub. Admin. Rev. 143-53 (2013).

    5 Michael F. Seger, “Meaning in Life,” in Handbook of Positive Psychology Second Ed. 679-87 (Shane J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder eds.) (New York, NY: Oxford University Press 2009).

    6 For more on some of these strategies, see Bryan J. Dik, Zinta S. Byrne & Michael F. Steger, “Toward an Integrative Science and Practice of Meaningful Work,” in Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace 3-14 (Bryan J. Dik, Zinta S. Byrne, & Michael F. Steger eds.) (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association 2013)

    7 Lawrence S. Krieger & Kennon M. Sheldon. What Makes Lawyers Happy? Transcending the Anecdotes with Data from 6200 Lawyers, FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 667 (2014).

    8 Jennifer Crocker & Amy Canevello, “Consequences of Self-Image and Compassionate Goals,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology Vol. 45, 232-73 (Patricia Devine & Ashby Plant eds.) (New York, NY: Elsevier Publishers 2012). See also Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress (New York, NY: Avery 2015). McGonigal uses the term “bigger-than-self” goals in her book.

Join the conversation! Log in to comment.

News & Pubs Search

Format: MM/DD/YYYY