If you ask lawyers, you’ll find we’re as happy with our work as anybody else: we give it about an 80% approval rating, with lawyers in government and non-profits happiest, and lawyers in private practice less so. But if you ask the media and other anecdotal sources, you’ll run into a persistent urban legend that says lawyers as a whole are an unhappy lot.
A 2011 law journal article conducted a “meta-analysis” of the published research and influential media pieces on lawyer happiness over the past three decades. (Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you the cite.) The results are paradoxical: on the one hand, most lawyers give their profession a thumbs up; on the other, we’re more likely to engage in substance abuse and suffer from depression and other forms of mental distress than non-lawyers.
It’s nice to know that we’re not as bad off as the urban legend would lead us to think, at least in terms of job satisfaction, but it’s disturbing to think of the economic, societal, and personal cost associated with the unhappy 20%. Plus, as the law journal article points out, it’s possible for depressed and alcoholic lawyers to answer a survey saying they’re happy – e.g., because of denial or lack self-awareness. If that’s happening, then the 80% approval rating doesn’t look as good.
Lawyers as a group are fascinating people – bright, articulate, caring, with wide interests and a drive to make an impact in one of society’s essential institutions. If 1 in 5 lawyers aren’t engaged in and inspired by what we do every day, then we’re wasting a lot of human potential, and our clients aren’t getting our best either.
There seems to be a persistent belief in our profession that lawyer malaise is just part of what we sign up for – like some kind of injury you need to walk off or put some ice on, so you can get back in the game. This engenders an sense of inevitability about job-related suffering and feelings of powerlessness about making changes. No wonder the lawyers I’ve known who aren’t happy tend to be really unhappy.
I used to live that perspective, but not anymore. Now I believe we can rediscover our passions and make them our realities. We can change; it’s not easy, but we can do it. And every time one of us finds the courage to do so, we take one more step toward lessening the enormous toll all that unhappiness takes on ourselves, the ones we love, and the clients we serve.
It’s a New Year. If you’re one of the 20%, maybe it’s your year to make that change.