I feel self-conscious sometimes about the pessimism of this column with regard to law as a career path. That pessimism reflects what I see every day in my practice – miserable lawyers.
My experiences might be skewed as a result of self-selection. It makes sense that unhappy lawyers would seek a psychotherapist who is a former lawyer and writes a column like mine, and it makes sense that these same unhappy lawyers would write me letters and post comments on my site about their (mostly unhappy) experiences.
Also, in fairness, the country is in the midst of a deep recession. It’s hard to be happy at any career when you can’t find a job, or half the offices on your floor are empty and there isn’t enough work to go around and you’re worrying about whether you’ll have a job next week. I see clients from other industries who are also affected by the economic downturn, such as folks in the fashion and retail world, many of whom are struggling with long-term unemployment, and even bankruptcy and foreclosure. They’re not exactly brimming with high spirited fun either.
The difference is that those people love what they do. They’re just out of work.
With lawyers, even the ones who have well-paid jobs seem – mostly – unhappy.
Nevertheless, in keeping with this week’s theme of cheerful good times, we’re going to ignore them – and talk about happy lawyers. Bouncy, perky, downright merry, good-time lawyers.
I have seen a few happy lawyers. They exist, and they tend to fall into two groups.
The first group work in criminal law. I’ve met Legal Aid attorneys, prosecutors and even lawyers doing white collar defense, and they are often happy and like what they do. These are the guys who grew up wanting to be Atticus Finch or Perry Mason. They typically love their jobs, and are proud of what they do. Some Legal Aid lawyers have described their careers to me as a calling – they are deeply committed to their vital role in our society.
The other happy lawyers are the guys with lifestyle jobs – the ones who work normal hours, report to reasonable, supportive supervisors, and generally don’t mind being lawyers. Some quirky small practices fall into this “lifestyle” category. I’ve run into lawyers who specialize in employment contracts for fashion designers, run a “beverage and alcohol” group at a smallish west coast firm, or handle bi-lingual business for Chilean corporations operating in the US. It’s not so much about the work, but the laid-back, supportive atmosphere of these places. Going off the beaten path tends to let people relax – maybe because there’s less competition. I’ve seen a similar effect with lawyers who work in federal agencies and sometimes in-house counsel jobs, where – at least compared to big firms – the culture is friendly, the hours reasonable and the supervisors supportive.
Those two groups are the happy lawyers. They love the law, or at least don’t especially mind it.
The rest of the attorneys I treat – the vast majority – not so much.
So…what are the lessons to be learned from observing happy lawyers?
Here are some big ones:
You must escape the “billable” hour. Neither of the happy groups was obsessed with the “billable hour.” They don’t make a lot of money, so they can relax, and concentrate on the work.
Criminal lawyers often sincerely care about their clients, whether they are protecting an indigent defendant’s civil rights, or assisting law enforcement by prosecuting a criminal. This is important work, and it means something to them beyond a paycheck.
The lifestyle lawyers might not be quite so inspired, but they enjoy a pleasant environment with colleagues who respect and appreciate them.
One requirement for happiness, law-wise, is not working late or on weekends. It’s that simple. You need a life. A little fun with your colleagues helps, too. A bi-lingual lawyer from the Chilean-American firm told me the folks in his office get together for tapas and sangria every week. There’s no pressure to attend – it’s just a chance to unwind with friends and share a laugh. If you work at a big law firm, that might sound like an opium dream – but it exists. Remember, in the non-law world, colleagues become friendly and go out for dinner and drinks all the time. And they leave work at five. And no one yells at them. Really.
You must enjoy law. If you don’t like legal work, you’re not going to be happy doing it every day. That should be a no-brainer, but many people, when they go to law school, have no concept of what practicing law means, and you can’t acquire that knowledge by sitting in lectures or memorizing doctrine for exams. Plenty of law students talk about enjoying law school, or “learning to think like a lawyer” – but few know if they really – honestly – enjoy the day-to-day work that lawyers do. It isn’t for everyone. Some unhappy lawyers simply hate the work. It is detail-driven and if you’re not the type, can bore you to tears.
The criminal lawyers I’ve met usually enjoy the combative, exciting work of negotiating pleas and making a case in court. The happy lifestyle lawyers typically don’t mind the work they’re doing or actually like it.
In fairness, it’s tough sometimes to tell whether it’s the work that’s the problem. It’s easy to get caught up in the intellectual excitement of drafting a complex brief or memo, or preparing for a tense deposition, or sitting in the midst of a negotiation with millions of dollars hanging in the balance. Even doc review isn’t so bad if there’s a friendly atmosphere and interesting people to work with. But even interesting work stops being enjoyable when you put in eighty hour weeks, sacrifice having a social life and receive little or no appreciation for your skill or dedication.
Don’t compete with the pack – go your own way. Law can be endlessly competitive, and it’s easy to get caught up in fighting for that big law firm position and lose track of your own priorities. Most criminal law folks go their own way early on. They might be in the minority at the top law schools, but if that’s where your heart leads you, follow your gut – you might find happiness.
If you’re looking for a lifestyle job, it’s better to start early, too, since they’re hard to find. If you want a specialized boutique, or an in-house job in a particular industry, or a federal agency that concentrates in one area of law, do whatever you can now to tailor your resume to their needs.
Summary: Two big lessons – know yourself, and take care of yourself.
You should be in law because it speaks to who you are, and you honestly enjoy some aspect of the work lawyers do. Pursuing money or prestige isn’t going to make you happy. You must enjoy what you’re doing every day.
The second lesson is equally important. Even if you’re doing work you enjoy, you must make sure you are being treated well.
Yes, happy lawyers exist. If they seem the exception to the rule, it only highlights the challenges that lie ahead for anyone entering the legal field.
Know yourself. Take care of yourself.
Not exactly a startling directive to come from a psychotherapist – we’re all about awareness and self-care.
But for lawyers, this seems like important, and overdue advice. Heed it – and you might be one of the happy ones.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)