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A Good and Happy Lawyer

07.31.14  |  By Marian C. Rice

This article was published in the American Bar Association’s Law Practice Magazine, Volume 40 Number 4, July/August 2014.

An unhappy lawyer will never be a good lawyer. He or she will never deliver to the client the level of service deserved or fulfill the ethical obligations of competence, diligence and prompt communication required by the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and just plain business sense. A lawyer dissatisfied with his or her career choice will cut corners to get the job done, will not respect the overarching principles of confidentiality and freedom from conflicting interests and will fail in mentoring the attorneys whom he or she supervises. In short, the prospects of satisfaction for an unhappy lawyer are bleak.

News during the third week in January this year justified the stance of attorneys who are determined to be dissatisfied with their careers. In just one week, three news stories were reported reflecting the depressing side of a profession that has already borne the brunt of too much denigrating humor. CNN led the trio with the eye-catching headline of “Why Are Lawyers Killing Themselves?” Noting that lawyers are 3.6 times more prone to depression than the general population, the CNN report detailed the stories of attorneys and their families who struggled with the immeasurable tragedy of suicide. Further, the report ranked lawyers fourth in proportion of suicides by profession. This happy news was followed five days later by a New York Times story on the bankruptcy filing of a recently “de-equitized” partner of a top Wall Street firm whose woes were touted as emblematic of a “glut of service partners” whose talents—without attributed clients—were “not economically viable.” Completing the trifecta was the annual U.S. News & World Report coverage of the 100 Best Jobs, issued two days earlier, in which the legal profession dropped from No. 35 to No. 51 in one year, citing a below-average mobility opportunity coupled with little flexibility and high stress. Given the previous two news stories, a ranking of 51 out of 100 did not seem that bad until, as the legal blog Above the Law noted, the legal profession was ranked two levels below that of nail technician, a field touted as a “thriving industry.”

The Public Perception of Lawyers

Such reports feed the perception that attorneys are generally dissatisfied with their lot in life and, if given the opportunity, would change careers. But they do not tell the whole story. It’s true the practice of law isn’t for everyone. It is a stressful profession that requires a person to maintain perspective when confronted with endless deadlines and the daily woes of clients whose problems may not be solvable. While the business aspects of the practice may not be the reason attorneys chose their path, the pure practice of law—the ability to fashion a solution for someone who needs help—is deeply satisfying. Although the nail technician may be part of a thriving industry, helping clients resolve a seemingly endless variety of legal issues is far more rewarding than the nail technician studying the cuticles of yet another client. We are members of an ancient and honorable profession, serving the laudable dual purpose of assisting the administration of justice in our society and promoting the interests of our clients.

So why is it that lawyers are generally perceived as being unhappy in their chosen profession? Like many other workers, attorneys complain about the details tangential to the actual practice, but they love the mechanics of the job itself. Being in a profession in which “pessimism is considered prudence,” lawyers focus and talk about the more tedious aspects of the practice. We have to stop that. Most lawyers find satisfaction in their profession. We have to project that to the outside world—to recast our decision to be lawyers as a gratifying choice.

Being Happy

Dan Bowling, who holds faculty appointments at Duke Law School and the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program in positive psychology, postulates six choices attorneys can make that will reinforce their position as happy lawyers. Paraphrasing the choices Bowling has identified, and jumping off from there, I postulate that, if you want to be a happy lawyer, you’ll make the following choices:

  • Look at the big picture. A career is not defined by a single adverse decision or promotion denied. Every issue of adversity provides an opportunity for growth.
  • Laugh—a lot. No client wants to hire a goofball, but there’s no reason not to laugh. Make your workplace an environment where humor is valued.
  • Wipe away that tendency to pessimism. An attorney expressing eternal optimism will have difficulty managing client expectations, but there’s nothing wrong with injecting a healthy—and reasonable—dose of optimism into the attorney-client relationship.
  • Concentrate on what needs it: work, family and friends. We are a generation of attorneys with attention deficits. Technology connects us 24/7 to our clients. The constant demands of a profession built on deadlines often cause attorneys to neglect other areas of their lives. Use technology to give you time to devote to family and friends, especially when they need it.
  • Avoid becoming stagnant. Whether this means breaking up the workday with a little exercise or imbuing your weekends with a nonlegal pastime you enjoy, doing the same thing day-in and day-out can be draining. Mix it up.
  • Engage your colleagues in positive relationships. Avoid the spiraling grousing sessions detailing the insurmountable obstacles of the profession. Join bar associations and network with other attorneys, both within your area of practices and outside your chosen field.
  • Give back to the profession. Attorneys are uniquely suited to volunteer their services to close the ever-widening access-to-justice gap. Nothing feels better than helping a client who has no ability to seek help on his or her own. Our colleagues also require our assistance. Volunteer to assist lawyers who need support.
  • Become a good lawyer. Yes, skills in your chosen area of practice are a must, but being a “good lawyer” goes beyond knowledge of legal principles. Stephen W. Comiskey, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, set out a laundry list of attributes all lawyers should possess in a publication first seen on the Internet in 1997. In A Good Lawyer, now published as a Kindle e-book, Comiskey set forth sound bites that perhaps seem simplistic (and a little dated) at first glance, but taken together provide a framework for understanding the many and different ways an attorney truly can become a good lawyer. From reminding an attorney that important information should be delivered in-person to chiding an attorney not to expect thanks from a client (but to cherish the kudos when they do come), this work conveys the depth the role of an attorney plays in a client’s life and the importance of the profession. And all without citing a single legal precedent.

A recent study, What Makes Lawyers Happy? Transcending the Anecdotes with Data from 6,200 Lawyers, was undertaken by Florida State University law professor Lawrence Krieger and University of Missouri psychology professor Kennon Sheldon. They compiled anecdotal data from 6,200 lawyers in four states and concluded that “a happy life as a lawyer is much less about grades, affluence and prestige than about finding work that is interesting, engaging, personally meaningful and is focused on providing needed help to others.” According to the study, attorneys with the lowest income, the lowest grades in law school and public service attorneys had stronger autonomy and purpose—and were happier—than those in the most prestigious positions, and with higher grades and incomes. These findings mirror the conclusions of a May 2013 study reviewing the perceptions of 50 years of University of Michigan Law School graduates. In his working paper entitled “Satisfaction in the Practice of Law: Findings From a Long-Term Study of Attorneys’ Careers,” David L. Chambers found that “overall work satisfaction is much more closely related to perceptions of the social value of their work and the quality of their relations with co-workers than it is to their satisfaction with income or with their prestige in the community.”

In other words, happiness as an attorney depends more on the value of the attorney’s work to his or her clients and collegial interaction than external sources such as money, recognition or fame. We can choose to be happy lawyers—and should.

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