July 18, 2019

Are Lawyers Unhappy?

rhodesIt depends who you ask.

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 kevin@rhodeslaw.com 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.

After 20+ years in private practice, Kevin Rhodes recently gave himself the title “Change Guru” to describe his work helping individuals and organizations to make transformative changes. He leads lead workshops on that topic for a variety of audiences, including the CBA’s Job Search and Career Transitions Support Group. Check out his website at http://kevin-rhodes.com/.

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  1. Hi Kevin, great new year’s post! When I celebrated new year’s with friends I marvelled at how, at 11:59:30, we count down our joyous goodbye to the old year and we celebrate that new year as if it was really something new, a break with the past that led us to that point of something “new.” In one respect it is new and it isn’t – which is why I liked the theme of your post. Does it really matter to us how many of our colleagues are struggling if we ourselves are struggling? I consider myself extremely lucky to be part of the community of lawyers in Colorado because I couldn’t be effective as a solo without their support. Can we really make the changes in our lives that give it a different meaning, one that can put us on a path of wider fulfillment, perhaps contentment? Yes, and we can do it whenever we choose and in this respect we can start a new year on any old day. Change is the only constant in this life, thanks for the reminder.

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