Adventures in Meaningful Work: Finding Purpose and Encouraging It in Others

March 31, 2023

Truly meaningful work means contributing to something greater than the self. At Morgan Lewis, we believe meaningful work contributes to the lasting well-being of our lawyers and professional staff.

In this installment of our ML Well Adventures in Meaningful Work series, Morgan Lewis Director of Employee Well-Being Adam Reiber explores with partner Sameer Mohan the importance of open dialogue, the role of mentorship and feedback, and the value in understanding each other’s perspectives.

AR: How can the firm better value its employees’ well-being journeys, especially in a hybrid work environment?

SM: We market and offer exceptional legal services. As such, our most important asset is our people. We have a strong stated vision of a supportive culture, which is an integral part of where we are today as a firm and where we want to be going forward.

We need to humanize the evaluation process, formally, in the office and remotely. In an effort to do so, we must try to create and support an open forum where more personal concerns such as individual happiness, well-being, goals, and overall career paths can be discussed.

More senior lawyers should be mindful to make certain these conversations happen with their junior counterparts, including outside of the formal evaluation process. For their part, more junior lawyers need to be open to engaging in this level of dialogue and take advantage of opportunities to do so in person.

AR: What makes your work meaningful to you?

SM: One of my most valued practices as a lawyer is developing client relationships. I’m fortunate to have developed a number of client relationships that have grown over 10, 15, and 20 years. There’s loyalty in these relationships and an understanding among our long-term clients that we’re really invested in their success and want to be true partners.

Secondly, it’s about being part of the global economy. As a transactional lawyer, I work on domestic and international deals. What I love is, for the most part, regardless of the type of law you practice, you get a chance to advise clients on key legal issues to help them make the most informed business decisions. In this way, we get a chance to be a small part of the global economy. I think that’s meaningful.

Truly though, looking back at nearly 25 years of practicing law, the most meaningful aspect for me has been helping more junior lawyers develop and grow and witnessing them become exceptional contributors to the firm. That mentoring or sponsorship, being a sounding board or resource to them, is an incredibly gratifying part of why work is meaningful to me.

Beyond providing meaning, I find that you have a responsibility, even as a senior associate, to your more junior colleagues to help them attain the best version of what they want to be in this profession. This includes spending time with team members doing substantive work or having conversations about their careers and navigating the challenges of being a younger lawyer in this challenging and often taxing career.

AR: There has been a lot of talk about generational differences in the workforce today. Can you speak to some of those differences and how you navigate them?

SM: On any given project you can have a legal team made up of four or even five different generations of lawyers, from Gen Z to millennials to Gen X to baby boomers. There could be something like a 40-year gap from the time the more senior lawyers on a team began as first-year associates and the more recent associates started their careers. From a life or career lens, that’s a vastly different experience, especially in a law firm environment.

In order to conquer the generational differences in the way cross-generational teams view work, the value of work, and the meaning of work, it’s important that we foster these conversations between junior, mid, and senior lawyers to break down these walls so that people better understand their experiences and are more in tune to the challenges of each other’s environments. It’s a learning opportunity for both. We are a uniquely flat organization, so it’s extremely important that these discussions happen. This discourse will lead to much more productive and happy teams.

When you feel your views, your visions, your goals, and your experiences are being valued and appreciated, and you’re being listened to, it goes both ways. We need to get our teams talking about (and listening) more than just the matter they’re working on.

AR: How does the firm view upward feedback?

SM: We’ve had an upward feedback process in place for our lawyers since 2019. Upward feedback is very important and a key component of evaluating the work of our partner lawyers. The results are reviewed carefully and those who are evaluated and are found to need improvement in certain skills—from overseeing lawyer teams to practice development to responsiveness—that’s shared with them.

We’re not afraid of going through this process. Every single one of us can work on something to improve our performance, which in turn improves the experience of our non-partner lawyers. This is where there’s a mutuality in this process. It’s not just about giving a grade or a score. It’s part of a larger effort to improve and enhance our culture from the partner perspective.

We’re not just checking the box.

AR: What are your feelings on mentoring more junior lawyers?

SM: It’s something I enjoy as well as a responsibility. Not just because of seniority, but because it’s part of our culture and our aim to develop exceptional client service.

The very first associate whose work I was responsible for overseeing is now a firm client. It’s a relationship that we’ve cultivated for 20 years. These relationships are intrinsically important to the development of more junior lawyers and are good for business.

To be a role model and lead by example, we should be mindful about it every day. We should be asking ourselves every day, “What am I doing today that’s helping someone on my team,” whether it’s a first-year associate, a ninth-year associate, or someone at your peer level. Mentorship is significant from a number of perspectives. It may start with the intention of promoting happiness and satisfaction at work, but it also influences the quality of the work product and services provided, and ultimately, retention.

AR: Let’s talk more about that. How does having purpose correlate to providing exceptional client service?

SM: While important, your legal career has to be about more than demonstrating core competencies and meeting or exceeding billable hours. I find that if you just focus on closing a deal, settling a case, or finishing a project, that’s not looking at it from a holistic perspective. Our clients are very keen on having real legal partners and can tell when the lawyers they’re working with are not engaged. In terms of finding more meaning in your work, if you’re happier and you’re more focused you’re going to deliver a better work product and service. Our clients see that.

It all starts from that baseline. Are you happy? Are you finding meaning? Are you seeing the forest for the trees? Are you seeing how your role on a deal, litigation, or project team is additive to what we’re trying to deliver to the client? If we’re not doing a good job of laying out that road map for our more junior lawyers, we’re going to lose them.

AR: In the book “Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace,” the authors wrote, “Meaningfulness is not necessarily a purely positive experience. If we’re finding meaning in our work, we’re not necessarily feeling happy or cheerful. It can be quite hard. It can be challenging.” What do you think?

SM: I agree with that sentiment. Meaningful work is about more than just the positive results you’ve had in your career. Both your accomplishments and your failures build character. Personally, I’ve learned more from my failures than any successes I’ve had. It’s made me a stronger, more resilient person, and brings humility.

We all fail at some point. We all don’t meet the standards that we have set for ourselves or that our teams have set for us. It’s important to understand that your career won’t move in a linear, upward progression. It’s a series of steps forward and back, and ultimately, hopefully, the progression is more forward-moving than backwards. But the challenges, the impediments, the hurdles—overcoming those, learning from those—they’re also about finding more meaning from work.

AR: If you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be?

SM: Have more patience. Having the patience to understand that you don’t have to have it all figured out in year two, five, seven, or even 15. Patience is the one quality I think that can help you navigate the ups and downs of a challenging, high-pressure, stressful career like law. Figure out what you can when you can and have patience that all the other pieces will fall into place as a result of learning, developing, and getting guidance from colleagues and clients. You can’t underestimate patience in a career like this.

AR: How can Morgan Lewis employees leverage the firm’s well-being tools and resources?

SM: We’ve got great well-being-related training and online resources. The larger firm has working groups, lawyer networks, and industry teams: a bevy of communities to be a part of. And we know community is important to well-being. Lawyers and professional staff should do their best to take advantage of those resources, including by engaging in meaningful conversations and interactions with colleagues as often as possible.

AR: Why does legacy mean to you?

SM: We all have an opportunity to set a legacy for our firm. The best way to do that is by providing mentoring, guidance, and sponsorship, and by sharing feedback. It’s about spending time investing in the community of people within our organization so that we can continue to enjoy the culture that we have today, which was cultivated over decades. It’s the legacy of the Morgan Lewis employees who came before us.

Now, it’s our charge to continue that culture.

This discussion was hosted by ML Well. The firm’s ML Well program is a unique, holistic approach to promoting thriving through intellectual, physical, emotional, and occupational well-being coupled with an underlying emphasis on engagement and community. Learn more about ML Well.

Read more discussions in our Adventures in Meaningful Work series, including Contributing to Something Greater, featuring Louise Skinner and Gratitude, Perspective, and Giving Yourself a Break, featuring Wendy West Feinstein.