Escalation of Commitment- An Insight into the Risks of a Legal Practice

Escalation of Commitment- An Insight into the Risks of a Legal Practice

Law students in Pakistan are led to believe that they too can achieve greatness at law firms around the country. The average student/practitioner lives in reverence of the handful who dominate the legal profession and this lot usually comprises of famous litigators and few corporate law firms. However, while glorifying the profession itself, prospective students/practitioners are rarely informed about the challenges that are to come forth or their likelihood of success. The following is an attempt to guide prospective students as well as brothers in arms who have taken up the mammoth task of practicing law.

Neither the mounting costs of the law degrees, nor the years required within the profession i.e. post qualification experience are contemplated by a prospective student/practitioner. The rigors of the profession are added to by the experience of law firms which will: pay an associate just enough so that the expenses may be met but will charge clients far much more for services by the same associate; unavailability of basic labour law protections or benefits i.e. you’re an associate/independent consultant not an employee (check your status from your withholding agent/your employer); your accommodation and mode of travel shall always differ from a partner; and lastly it is abhorrent and disrespectful to even think of expecting money from a senior who is spending time training you. You may be a local or foreign graduate yet you will find yourself at the same starting point with more so similar pays. Why, when and how this happened and why this practice is exclusive to the noblest profession is beyond the comprehension of the writer. Notwithstanding the circumstances stated above perhaps the most disheartening aspect is the slow growth within the profession. This of course does not take into account the gifted individuals who happen to know or have an uncle/father who know a successful lawyer or happens to be one himself.

The realization by a legal practitioner as to the misspent effort would vary as per his/her circumstances i.e. to determine, that to remain committed to the existing course of action is not warranted anymore. Simply put, the amount of years that you take to realize that law is perhaps not the best profession for you would vary upon the individual. When a person is heavily invested in an outcome, it is called an “escalation of commitment”, defined by Barry M. Staw in his paper, ” The Escalation of Commitment To a Course of Action” wherein he raised the following question:

“Many of the most difficult decisions an individual must make are choices not about what to do in an isolated instance but about the fate of an entire course of action. This is especially true when the decision is whether to cease a questionable line of behavior or to commit more effort and resources into making that course of action pay off. Do individuals in such cases cut their losses or escalate their commitment to the course of action?”


Staw concludes that the most injurious personal decisions can come in the shape of sequential and escalating commitments. Individuals have a tendency to become locked in to a course of action, throwing good money after bad or committing new resources to a losing course of action.

Unfortunately, perseverance is not necessarily the key to success every time. Though the market forces will marginalize lawyers from the profession but most lawyers regrettably are relentless in their pursuit despite repeated failures and will end up spending the best years of their life on this course of action waiting for their silver lining. This escalation of commitment becomes irrational when the reward from the goal does not come near to covering the expense involved.  Lawyers might feel the need to be more committed to the objective to which they have invested time, effort and money. Consistency would demand to persist and rejecting the course of action would seem inconsistent.

According to Yacov Trope, Nira Liberman, and Cheryl Wakslak in the Construal level theory  ( when individuals focus on the distant future, they tend to conceptualize events abstractly, devoid of tangible features. Simply put, the logistical complications are often overlooked or misunderstood when the focal point is the benefit. A practicing lawyer might take five, ten or even fifteen years to realize that the cost exceeds the benefits. Most lawyers will not even grasp that they are lost in the abyss. Their self-esteem won’t allow them to acknowledge that they might not attain greatness let alone success in the legal profession. This is especially true for the old lot who have spent so much time in the profession and who are unyielding in their pursuit. As for the young and directionless practicing law with an optimistic outlook of the world, such legal practitioners need to realize a law practice at the end of the day is a means to an end. It is true that some might view law as a vehicle for change but for most, it is a business like any other no matter how noble the profession might be.

You must have the willingness to walk away; cut your losses which is most rational course of action possible. Consequently, therefore, unless you are used to a frugal living or you want to bask in the sun of misery, a law practice might not be the best profession for you. There is great need to foster the right attitudes in students and professionals from the beginning by keeping expectations reasonable and providing alternatives instead of running after a mirage.

Having realized that you are lost, or have lost, you have the option to start over. Indeed, the legal profession provides you with skills which may be utilized elsewhere. The practice of law is a journey of changing one’s spirit, heart, and self-worth. I pray that you are fortunate enough to find something good.

Sarjeel Mowahid

Author: Sarjeel Mowahid

The writer is an advocate of the High Courts of Pakistan and can be reached
at [email protected]