April 16, 2014

The 2013 Colorado Lawyer Satisfaction And Salary Survey — Part 3: The Ethics of Unhappiness

rhodes(Click here for Law Week Colorado’s summary of the 2013 Lawyer Salary & Satisfaction Survey.)

Okay, so lots of lawyers are stressed and unhappy. Who cares?

If you believe what you read, apparently not lawyers.

Scholarly articles about lawyer (un)happiness often begin with something like “The law is essential to society, and law is a prestigious profession.” Once they’ve gotten that out of the way, they go on to lower the boom:  “But our research shows that the profession shoots its wounded and eats its young.” Ouch. And then they point out that lawyers themselves don’t seem to mind as long as they’re well paid. Ouch again.

We might wonder whether the Colorado survey results are saying the same thing. We are well paid, the respondents said, and at least we’re happy about that, even though two-thirds of us wouldn’t recommend our jobs to someone else.

Is trading stress and unhappiness for money just the deal you get when you’re a lawyer? Maybe so: it’s no secret that both leverage-based law firm economics and six-figure law school loans rely on lawyers’ willingness to make that trade.

Is it worth it? Not everybody thinks so. Lawyers have opted out in various ways, and there are reform movements in law schools and bar associations trying to shake up those deal terms as well. Plus, there are relief structures in place for individuals who aren’t dealing so well with their deal – such as the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program.

All that is heartening, but self-help, reform initiatives, and relief programs all rely on a willingness to admit a problem and a commitment to change things. Trouble is – again, if you believe the research – the profession seems to have a systemic case of d-e-n-i-a-l. Plus, there are legal barriers that support a “deal with it” and “don’t ask don’t tell” professional culture around the topic of lawyer unhappiness. For example, a 2008 University of Louisville law review article entitled Law Students And Lawyers With Mental Health And Substance Abuse Problems: Protecting The Public And The Individual extensively digests all of the laws, rules, and other reasons why it can be illegal, unethical, or impolitic to ask too many questions about someone’s state of mind or behavior.

Then who cares? If lawyers don’t care, then maybe clients do. And if clients don’t, maybe they ought to. Consider, for example, the ethics of unhappiness. The syllogism goes something like this:

  • Clients are entitled to competence, communication, timeliness, and sound judgment from their lawyers. If we lawyers don’t deliver those things, we’re unethical. Period.
  • Lawyers are more prone to depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and suicidal thoughts than our non-lawyer clients.
  • Conditions like that impair competence, communication, timeliness, and sound judgment.
  • Take those things out of the lawyer-client relationship, and things don’t bode well for either the client or the lawyer.

No, not every unhappy lawyer is an ethically impaired lawyer, but some might be, and any time a new survey reports high rates of lawyer job dissatisfaction, you have to wonder if it also signals the existence of levels of ethical risk as well.

Maybe the money’s good, but it doesn’t buy happiness… or guarantee ethical conduct.

To be continued.

Kevin Rhodes is a lawyer in private practice who’s on a mission to help people love their work and their lives. He leads workshops for a variety of audiences, including the CBA’s Solo and Small Firm Section and the Job Search and Career Transitions Support Group. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Speak Your Mind

*