September 20, 2018

Are Lawyers Unhappy? (Part 3)


This is Part 3 of a series of articles on lawyer happiness. Click here to read Part 1 and click here to read Part 2.

Is law school to blame?

Some people think so. They propose reforms to give future lawyers a more “realistic” view of what they’re in for, both in school and after. They think full disclosure will make the profession happier.

By contrast, a 2007 study found that roughly 80% of lawyers are happy with law school. That’s the same percentage that says they like working in the law. So why fix law school if it ain’t broke?

How about you? What were you and your fellow students like the first day of law school, and then at the year’s end? During second year? Third? From my personal experience, I’d have to say yes, something happened to us, all right. What was it?

In one study, law professor Larry Krieger and psychologist Kennon Sheldon found that entering law students are as well-adjusted as other postgraduates, but become less so as they go on. They suggest this is because we become increasingly less internally motivated and instead shift our focus to external measures of success and status – things like grades, class rank, admission to competitive clerkships, getting into law journal, etc.

In other words, we get knocked off center – we lose touch with our core values, the things we believe are most important in life. Our values motivate us, give us purpose and meaning. There’s an intrinsic reward to aligning our behavior with them. Lose that alignment, and we suffer. When we lose our values, we lose our joy.

Maybe we went to law school to right wrongs, or because we were attracted to certain intellectual pursuits, or because we were after a desired economic lifestyle. So far so good, but when we shift our focus to extrinsic factors, we put our happiness at the mercy of things and people we can’t control, which is why we eventually take positions we can’t own, say yes to jobs we don’t want, or work for clients we don’t like or for causes we don’t believe in. We think that makes us professionals, but unless our actions align with an internal value that supports them (e.g., we defend the unpopular client out of a sense of justice), these things take a toll.

Of course, it’s possible we went to law school for all the “wrong” reasons – family expectations, misguided advice from authority figures, etc. That’s another matter entirely, but regardless why we went, if we already graduated, reforming law school isn’t going to help us.

What is? We can start by getting back in touch with our core values. And then we’ll need to find the courage to act consistently with them. Thankfully the law is a big profession, and there’s room for us in it, with our values fully intact.

To be continued…

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

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  1. Interesting ideas in this post Kevin, it is a pretty far stretch in many ways from my law school experience to my present life, including solo practice. There is the passage of years along with experience and I also find that many of the things I learned in law school and my previous government work have served me well. But I also know how lucky I am.
    I find it helpful to conduct a regular check of what is in that consciousness that we carry around with us. It is something we can control and have a say about after all. This is one of the tenets of mindfulness. The latest issue of Scientific American Mind ask the question “can mindfulness improve attention and health?” and has a great article about different mindfulness techniques. I’m sure I’ve quoted her before, but Anais Nin’s birthday is this week. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from her:
    “we see the world not as it is but as we are”
    We are responsible for our consciousness! Keep up the good work Kevin.

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