Unhappy Lawyers; Why So Many?

Not surprisingly, there are thousands of unhappy lawyers who are new to the profession. After all, there’s plenty to be unhappy about if you’re unemployed and trying to pay back six-figure loans. But what about more-experienced attorneys who have stable jobs and little-to-no debt? Are they a satisfied lot?

A  2007 American Bar Association survey found that only 55 percent of lawyers were satisfied with their careers. In my opinion, this is because many of them become lawyers with vague or unrealistic expectations about what a career in the legal profession would be like.

Why Did You Go To Law School?

First, I’ve learned from my experience as a coach, that many seem to decide to become lawyers by default. I’ve coached well over 100 lawyers who came in all shapes and sizes — solo to big firm, rural to big city, consumer to business. During my first session with each lawyer, I ask a series of questions.

One question is, “Why did you go to law school?” The number one answer by far (and there is not even a close second) is, essentially, “I couldn’t think of anything better to do.” Some of my clients within the Jewish community even joke that “nice Jewish boys who don’t like the sight of blood choose law school.”

While my sample contains a good cross-section of lawyers, there is admittedly an element of self-selection that biases these results. In any event, I’m still convinced that a majority of attorneys go to law school by default, lacking any strong passion to do what lawyers do. (Full disclosure; yours truly went by default)

What Do Lawyers Do?

Little knowledge of what lawyers actually do is the second reason for unrealistic expectations. Did you know what lawyers do when you enrolled in law school? I certainly did not. We were all smart enough to realize that most lawyers don’t go to court every day, but what do they do on all of the other days?

Becoming a lawyer is not like becoming a doctor. Everyone knows what doctors do. When I started law school, I thought that I would become a labor/employment attorney. After all, I had majored in labor and employment relations as an undergrad. Did I have any clue what it would actually be like? Absolutely no clue.

In short, many lawyers decide on this career path hoping and assuming (based on absolutely no evidence) that it will be a financially rewarding and satisfying career. When those expectations fall short, it should come as no surprise that they wonder what went wrong.

Law School Does Not Help

Next in line for blame are the law schools, which only make a bad situation worse. We enter law school not knowing what lawyers do. How much more about that do we learn during the next three years? Not a helleva lot. Furthermore, law schools create the expectation that practicing law is going to be a great intellectual exercise. Yes, there have been times during my 30-year career that my brain has gotten a thorough work-out. Unfortunately, I wish it had been more often. I am sure that many of you agree with me.

 So This Is What It’s Like?

Finally, from the perspective of “outside looking in,” there are some lawyers who seem to have it good. They appear to have successful practices and significant financial rewards. One day, despite all this, these lawyers sit back in their fancy chairs and ask themselves, “Is this it?” The new luxury car and big courtroom win simply don’t bring the thrill they used to. Perhaps, those things never even brought a thrill at all.

I’m a lawyer, not a psychologist. I can’t say for sure why some attorneys are unhappy or what their expectations were at the time they entered the profession. Certainly, lawyers are not the only ones who realize that money rarely buys happiness, yet continue to toil away at not-very-meaningful work.

Don’t Worry; Be Happy!

Well, enough of the doom and gloom. I want to end this post on a more optimistic note. Most legal career counselors believe that it is rarely too late to make changes in one’s career. Lawyers are fortunate in that they have an extraordinarily wide range of choices. These include switching law firms, modifying practice areas, going in-house and going solo. There are also opportunities in fields related to law, such as e-discovery, bar association work, alternative dispute resolution and legal recruiting. Of course, you can also cut your losses and get out completely.

Change is not always easy and can certainly involve risk. But if you happen to be one of those unhappy lawyers, life is too short to simply accept the status quo. Do something to take charge of your legal career.

(photo: Businessman sitting at desk from Shutterstock)

Law School, Legal Careers

  • http://www.nashvillepersonalinjurylaw.com James Frazier

    Roy, I have been practicing 10 years now and my younger brother just finished law school and passed the bar. He’s been looking for a job for 3 months now (15+ if you include the last year of law school). We had a talk along the lines of your article today . His problem is that he can’t find work in the are of law he wants to practice. He refuses to accept a position in another practice area. He believes he will be unhappy. I’ve told him that at this stage in his career, income and experience need to outweigh happiness . He needs to learn what it means to be a lawyer. But be employed and keep an eye out for other opportunities.

    • Ronnie

      I agree as well. When I graduated in 2005, I said that out of 100 options, family law would be 111. Well, guess what? I graduated with no job, did temp work for a year and ended up at a solo family law firm, because I really wanted to learn how to PRACTICE law from the owner, and planned to transition to another field after 3-4 years. Six years later, and I’ve owned my own family law firm for 2 years. I was adamant that I’d want nothing to do with it, and it turns out that I genuinely love it. That’s certainly not always the case, but if I hadn’t stepped outside of my self-imposed box, I would’ve never known.

  • http://www.royginsburg.com Roy Ginsburg

    I tend to agree with you. Unfortunately, one can’t be too choosey in this lousy job market. You say that your brother “believes he will be unhappy” in certain practice areas. I would want to further explore why he believes that. What is he basing that on? It is hardly unusual for a new lawyer to think that they will love a certain practice area and guess wrong. Your brother may also be guessing wrong about the practice areas he’s shying away from.

  • http://www.passthebaton.biz Susan Gainen

    I agree with Roy that one part of the source of lawyer unhappiness is that so many went to law school because it was “random grad school.” During the 17 years that I worked at the U of MN Law School career office, I often thought that the Randoms were close to 25% of many classes. In their defense, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

    With “random” as the driver into the legal profession, it should surprise no one that so many lawyers are unhappy. Roy is right: take control of your career. Put yourself into the driver’s seat.

  • Jake Peterson

    Roy and Others,

    Thanks for posting. I think this is an issue a lot of people repress or otherwise turn a blind eye to because it is difficult to admit that you’re career doesn’t make you happy or fulfill your vocational goals . But that’s obviously not healthy, as it is critical for people–including lawyers, certainly–to assess their careers and objectives fairly often to ensure they are in line with their values.

    I graduated from law school in 2011, which is something I’ve wanted to do since high school. But I met numerous “defaulters” who entered law school for the very reasons you discuss in your post. They’re very smart and capable people, and this path probably seemed like an excellent and sure way to guarantee a challenging, rewarding career. Many legal professionals no doubt realize this, but many are also frustrated with the job for several reasons. I would be very interested to read statistics on job satisfaction among various demographics: age, gender, background, and certainly the reasons people went to law school.

    I searched for a job essentially from August 2009 (my 2L year) until April 2012 when I obtained a clerkship with a state judge in Minnesota. (That’s 2 years, 8 months!) I seriously love my position; I’m excited to get up in the morning, to work side by side with a terrific judge, to observe court proceedings, and, especially, to research and write complex legal briefs. My job does present daily challenges and intellectual exercises, so it keeps me sharp and motivated. But the pay obviously isn’t great (certainly not good enough to pay off my loans), so I will be restarting the search in six months or so. I only hope I can find another rewarding job that I love, but time will tell. I’m afraid that I will have to sacrifice job satisfaction because jobs are not easy to come by these days.

    Thanks again for this thought-provoking post. Also, I attended the recent CLE you presented called Law Practice for Sale, albeit by webinar because I wouldn’t have made it to William Mitchell in time for the event. You offered a lot of indispensable advice about a very hot topic in the legal practice. I really enjoyed your presentation!

  • http://www.chronicwellnesscoaching.com Laurie Erdman | Chronic Wellness Coach

    Great post Roy. I was one of those lawyers who left the profession. It just never fit no matter how hard I tried or wanted it to. I went to law school to help people. I never felt like I did. And even when I did, I had to ask at what cost. The toll on my happiness and health were tremendous.

    The good news is that I eventually did learn to balance it all and have it all. Yes, even before I left the profession. I learned the lessons you shared here. But I also learned not to take life so seriously. I also learned to put myself first. That is my health and happiness first. When I did that, I became a better lawyer.

  • Patrick Flynn, Jr.

    Another thing to consider is that there may be a particular personality that is drawn to the legal profession, and that a larger percentage of such persons drawn are hard wired to be unhappy, or depressed, than persons within the general population or in other professions. Statistics shared by a presenter at a conference this weekend back this up. He also suggested a book: “Lawyer, Know Thyself: A Psychological Analysis of Personality Strengths and Weaknesses” (Law and Public Policy) by Susan Swaim Daicoff.

  • Chris O. Nwaorah

    This is a great blog. I would add that thinking outside the box is and should be one of the most important quality of anyone in any profession and not necessarily for lawyers.

    There are doctors, engineers, lawyers, psychologists, etc. who turn to business, politics, NGOs, Consultancy, Management, Investment banking, etc. etc. Why must one hit his head on the wall when there are too alternatives out there? One just need some luck. I know, it’s a problem for those who believes in rigidity and hold-life too tight and closed.

    Open up the box and have a field day in whatever profession you choose.