Happy Lawyers? Finding Happiness in Trying Times

Valentine’s Day is right around the corner: a joyous time when people are supposed to be happy and celebrate the things in their lives that they love. This concept seems a bit ironic for lawyers. We’re supposed to be heartless, unhappy pessimists. Moreover, when stories about unemployed law school graduates and the plight of lawyers continue to plague the headlines, how are we supposed to be happy as professionals?

It seems like we hear about all of the negativity surrounding the legal profession on a daily basis. What we don’t hear about, though, is those who have managed to find happiness in the law, in spite of the turbulent conditions of today’s legal economy. As lawyers, do we have a choice when it comes to being happy? If so, how can we find happiness, that which has been so elusive to others in our profession?

Recession rhymes with depression

Lawyers suffer from higher rates of alcoholism, divorce, depression, and suicide than any other profession. The recession certainly didn’t do the legal profession any favors in terms of lawyers’ mental health issues. In fact, in 2009, the demand for lawyer assistance programs grew exponentially. While it is said that money can’t buy happiness, for lawyers, the opposite seemed to be true. When lawyers lost their jobs and their salaries, they also lost any sense of happiness that they may have had.

These unhappy lawyers may have fallen victim to hard times due to the state of the economy, but they also succumbed to one of the top five myths about happy lawyers. A high salary does not automatically lead to happiness.

When lawyers become slaves to high salaries, happiness declines in turn, based solely on the money-centric pathway that is cultivated by their materialistic wants and needs. Given the state of the legal job market, it seems that having expectations about money that are too high may actually be the number one cause of unhappiness in lawyers.

The key to finding happiness

In these hard times, the American Bar Association is making crucial efforts to instill in lawyers a new sense of faith in the legal profession. The February issue of the ABA Journal features stories about lawyers hunting for happiness and lawyers who actually love their jobs.

So, what does the ABA think is the key to finding happiness in the law? It sounds cliché, but the ABA advises that in order to be happy, lawyers should do what they love.

Nancy Levit and Douglas O. Linder, the co-authors of The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law, note that:

Love makes us happier than anything. We generally think of love as it relates to our feelings for another human being, but it is also possible to love your job, to pay attention to your work, and respect its traditions and noble goals.

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once said that work worth doing is the secret to a happy life. Although we as lawyers can’t force ourselves to be happy, we can certainly make a conscious effort to try to achieve happiness. It may seem like a lofty goal, but we can try to find “work worth doing,” that is, work that interests us, and more importantly, work that we love. After all, according to The Happy Lawyer:

The happiest lawyers tend to be those who do work that they think make the world at least a marginally better place. [A]ttorneys experience ‘the greatest source of disappointment in practice’ when they feel that they are not contributing to the public good.

The ABA Journal’s article on lawyers who love their jobs proves both The Happy Lawyer’s and Justice O’Connor’s sentiments: happy lawyers do what they love, and what they love makes the world a better place. Ruth Carter, a guest blogger on Legal Blog Watch, said of the article:

[N]one of the contributing lawyers said they loved being lawyers because it made them rich or feel important. Happy lawyers are in this profession because they like being of service to people who need someone to fight on their behalf.

Making the choice to be happy

For lawyers, making the choice to be happy seems like an obvious one, but it isn’t always the one that is most readily available. In today’s economy, some lawyers will fall prey to the money trap, while others still will take a job just because one is available. On the whole, choosing happiness may be more difficult than it sounds, simply due to the fact that lawyers are not frequently offered the opportunity to do what they love.

It takes a sense of bravery to bypass some of the seemingly desirable pitfalls of the legal profession which can lead to unhappiness — money and power. In order to choose and find happiness, however, lawyers must try to overcome these materialistic desires in favor of a more untraditional form of success: love for what they do.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/23065375@N05/2247354856/)

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  • Excellent points in this article. Justice O’Connor was exactly right in that the key to happiness is to be doing work that is worth doing. I love my job and wouldn’t trade it for anything but, then again, I got in to this profession because of my love for the profession itself — not the money I may or may not earn from it. That is, I often hear people tell unhappy lawyers to find happiness by remembering what made them go into law in the first place. I’m sure you’ve heard the same. That’s not always helpful, however, because by and large the legal profession has often been reputed as one of the handful of professions that people could get into if they wanted to earn a lot of money. Ergo, a lot of people got into it for one reason and one reason only: money. Therefore, when either the money goes away or they have enough money to be secure, there is no longer anything to love about it because there never was in the first place — to those lawyers there was never any work worth doing — only money. My hope is that everyone privileged to be in this wonderful profession will find a true passion for the work we do and the clients we serve for they deserve nothing less.

  • Staci Zaretsky

    @Shawn – Thank you for the wonderful comment!

    With regard to the happiness of lawyers in general, the ABA released this piece today which states that lawyers are some of the happiest professionals around. Professionals from several fields were polled, and we’re the tenth happiest of all. So we’re totally happy, right? Actually, only ten professions were polled for the rankings… so doesn’t that still put lawyers in last place in terms of happiness? Sad.

    http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/legal_profession_ranks_10th_for_happiness_jobs_website_says/