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The happy lawyer

01 Jul 2018 / Wellbeing Print

The happy lawyer

A friend rang me the other day to ask if I would speak to her daughter who was applying to college and was interested in doing law. She asked if I would recommend it as a career.

Unfortunately, the answer to that is less than equivocal. According to a recent article published by the American Bar Association (ABA), “many attorneys admit to the ultimate regret in choosing a career – they’re sorry they became lawyers.

For each of them, it’s a personal tragedy. When such sentiments pervade an entire profession, it’s a societal disaster.”

Of course, there are unhappy people in every profession, and lawyers are not the exception. However, it is sobering to look at the statistics measuring just how unhappy lawyers are.

ABA findings

The often-cited Johns Hopkins University study of more than 100 occupations found that lawyers top the list for the incidence of major depression. Researchers found that lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than the average person.

According to the ABA:

  • The rate of suicide among lawyers is higher than among all other occupations – the National Institute of Safety and Health in the US found that male lawyers aged 20-64 are more than twice as likely to die from suicide than men in other occupations,
  • As many as a quarter of lawyers suffer from psychological distress, including anxiety, social alienation, isolation, and depression,
  • The rate of substance abuse among lawyers is double that of the US national average, and
  • 15-20% of all US lawyers suffer from alcoholism or substance abuse.

Moreover, 70% of lawyers responding to a Californian lawyers’ magazine poll said that they would change careers if the opportunity arose.

Desperately seeking Susan

Take Susan (not her real name), for example, a senior associate in the banking department of a leading firm.

She is on the last lap leading up to closing a high-profile acquisition finance deal and has been working till 11pm on most nights for the last few weeks. She has just learnt that closing will be delayed due to a last-minute issue.

“I’ve been working all out, and just about holding myself together till closing. And now I still have to keep going.”

And that’s a common scenario, associates working at high intensity find themselves having to keep pushing themselves past breaking point. And there is no rest – after this deal closes, it’s on to the next one, and yet another closing.

Most nights, Susan gets home after her three-year-old is in bed. There’s hardly any time to talk to her husband, as all she wants to do is to fall into bed.

Even during holidays, she is on conference calls and dictating memos and drafting clauses in contracts. “I’m burnt out. I wish I could change jobs, but I don’t know if any other legal job would be better. Plus, I don’t even have time to look around or do up my CV.”

Susan feels she can’t take a pay cut, with a hefty mortgage over her home in south Dublin. She’s holding out for the bonus in a few months, and thinks she is on the cusp of making partner soon.

“Maybe things will be better next year,” she’s been thinking, but a year has turned into five years. Time goes quickly.

“How did I get here?” she wonders.

The expectations/reality gap

This unhappiness can be ascribed to what one internet commentator calls ‘the expectations/reality gap’.

Susan signed up for law school as she was not clear what else she wanted to do. She was told that the law degree was very flexible but has not found this to be the case. Many lawyers stumble into the profession by default.

Many are not suited for the job. Being a lawyer is seen as prestigious and exciting, working in court in trials, with dramatic perceptions fuelled by television and film.

The reality is that a large part of the work can be boring (to some or many) – reading and rereading dense contractual documents and cases, drafting documents, working with demanding clients where there are high stakes, considerable conflict, and long hours.

“Often, I am arguing with the other side on a point that is important from a legal perspective, but my client doesn’t even particularly care about.” Susan doesn’t find her work meaningful. But she feels trapped and helpless, as if she has lost control over her own life.

Hey Joe

Then there is Joe, who was recently made a junior partner. Again, there was disappointment.

“I thought when I finally made partner, life would get much better. But there’s no let-up – now there’s more personally at stake as a partner and fresh pressure and competition to bring in work. And I’m finding I’m not hugely better off financially.”

The equity structure in his firm is such that much of the rewards and the power to make decisions are still in the hands of senior partners.

“I’ve made many suggestions about things we can do better, but I don’t feel it makes any difference: the partners are very slow when it comes to change.”

When I wondered if the environment was one where he felt respected, and where he felt valued and where he could thrive and develop, he paused, thoughtful.

Paul Revere

And then there is Paul, a sole proprietor, who has been finding it hard to keep his business above water.

As a man, he feels he needs to be able to provide for his wife and their children in the manner that they have been used to. She is no longer working outside the home.

There is an expectation that their lifestyle, with a second home in Spain and private schools, must go on.

His business was badly hit in the financial crisis, and he is still dealing with its legacy, along with all the challenges of running a sole proprietorship.

He feels desperate, but doesn’t know how to tell his wife that the pressures of work are getting to him.

He feels isolated, as they have drifted apart with the long hours he is putting in to keep things going. The strain of keeping up the appearance that all is well is taking its toll on him, and he finds himself drinking more.

The lawyers in the examples above suffer from ‘low decision latitude’, feeling trapped and powerless in a situation of high pressure and stress from which they have no escape. In a way, a lawyer’s unhappiness is unique, because it reflects the typical personality traits of our profession.

Many of us are perfectionists, high achievers, hardworking, highly driven individuals who push ourselves beyond all tolerable limits.

It is our job to be pessimistic and see the worst-case scenario in situations. Might it be said that what makes us good lawyers makes us unhappy human beings?

Satisfaction

According to a study of lawyer satisfaction by Krieger and Sheldon, the things that lawyers think will make them happy long-term in the profession (for example, money, prestige, making partner status) are exactly the opposite of what actually does lead to lawyers’ wellbeing and has no statistical correlation with happiness.

Other data show that mental health issues increase as the lawyer becomes more successful – in direct contrast with other professions where, the more successful one is, the less likely one is to experience mental health issues. This is a tragedy for the legal profession and for lawyers and their families. 

The solution begins with the firm and what it can do differently.

The Kieger-Sheldon study suggests that long-term wellbeing is most strongly correlated with the level of autonomy, mastery, and relatedness lawyers feel they possess in their work environment.

But legal work is becoming increasingly specialised. Junior associates often handle a small part of a much larger deal and may feel they have very little influence over the work and minimal control over their time.

Autonomy

Restoring a sense of autonomy to the individual would reduce this stress. Junior partners need to feel a sense of inclusion and belonging in the broader partnership of the firm. An associate’s self-confidence can be enhanced by training and positive feedback.

When there is ‘psychological safety’ in the work environment, the lawyer feels accepted and can trust it is safe to express his opinions, to take risks, and can discuss errors and speak about potential or actual problems.

On a personal level, what can a lawyer do to be happier? The answer isn’t about ‘work/life’ balance or exercising more.

Putting aside more time for friends and family and activities helps, of course, and exercising more will lead to healthier and more attractive lawyers (at least one hopes!). But the question warrants a deeper exploration.

Permission to explore

For all those lawyers who are unhappy and wish they were doing something different, perhaps it might be a good idea to give yourself permission to explore the possibility of switching careers.

The very act of giving yourself the choice is an acknowledgement that the more vulnerable part of yourself is hurting and that you are unhappy. Identifying that you still have a choice can make you feel less trapped and more willing and happier to remain a lawyer.

Your exploration is an act of self-care. Sometimes that is all you need, and a complete switch away from law will not be necessary.

Perhaps a change to a different type of law (for example, general practice rather than corporate law) or a different context (such as in-house rather than private practice) is what is required.

Lawyers are immensely talented people working in what may be extremely limited jobs – our risk averse nature may hold us back from discovering an alternative path.

The seeker

It is important to seek meaning in what we do – that what we do adds value to our clients and to the world, if possible. We may not be saving the world but, if we are satisfied that what we do does some good, the difficulties we encounter feel worthwhile.

And then, no matter what our discomforts, we might see our job as a structure within which we have the opportunity to relate to people and interact with the world.

Many lawyers who are suffering do not seek help. They may believe that they can manage on their own. They may be afraid that seeking help would negatively affect their personal reputation.

However, it is important to recognise when we are in pain and extend to ourselves the kindness and compassion that we might readily extend to others, to have faith that we have the power to change things, and that relief can be found.

Ho Wei Sim
Ho Wei Sim is a banking professional support lawyer with Dillon Eustace and is an accredited psychotherapist