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Are you happy now?

There’s a general belief that a lot of lawyers don’t enjoy what they do. Their work makes them unhappy. The empirical evidence tends to support this suspicion. In a recent American Bar Association survey, for example, only 55 per cent of lawyers who responded said they were satisfied with their job. In a 1998 study of Michigan lawyers, 60 per cent said they would not become lawyers if they could start their careers over. It is reported that half of all lawyers don’t want their children to follow in their footsteps. There are a number of surveys like this, particularly in the United States, all showing much of the same results.

What’s this sad information got to do with professional ethics? I think that work happiness and work ethics are connected in at least two ways. First, the unhappy lawyer, just like any other unhappy person, is more likely to abandon his or her moral compass. Personal misery encourages a devil-may-care, to-hell-with-it attitude. It is fertile ground for rule breaking. Nothing seems to matter very much, including what you do, or don’t do. Second, the lawyer with strong values, who lives by them, is much more likely to be happy than his or her rudderless counterpart. Such a lawyer is content within themself and considers their life and work to have value. This gives peace.

Happiness, of course, is complex, ineffable even. It is subjective; one person’s meat is another’s poison. It may be transitory, and depends partly on circumstances that can easily and quickly change. Happiness (or lack of it) can be driven by embedded personality and body chemistry. It is often said that the sort of person attracted to legal practice may well have been prone to unhappiness in the first place. Law didn’t make the person unhappy; he or she was unhappy to begin with; his or her embedded pessimistic and combative nature may have been what attracted the person to legal practice.

The idea of happiness is elusive alright, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth grappling with. It’s central to our existence. Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder, two American law professors, have written a book called The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law. Much of it is devoted to anodyne tips on how a lawyer can be happy (and how law firms can help make that happen). For example, Levit and Linder tell us to avoid making “upward comparisons” (focus on internal goals, not keeping up with colleagues — don’t worry about the guy down the hall who is paid more than you). They urge firms to “offer places where attorneys can congregate and talk.” They offer something called “a happiness toolbox” they think will lead to “happiness boosts” for lawyers who follow their suggestions. (In 2005, The Canadian Bar Association posted an article on its web site called “How to be happy: A practical guide for lawyers.” The CBA recommended, for example, that you “control the dark side.” A good tip!)

Dull, practical advice aside, Levit and Linder are very clear on a big point: the best route to happiness is to find a legal career that reflects your values. “If your job involves strictly fights over money, money that you don’t really care goes to whom, then you’re not likely — in the long run — to enjoy much job satisfaction.” It’s not enough that the work somehow seems important, the $100-million deal, for example, or big IPO. Levit and Linder write: “For some attorneys, the problem is not that their work is of no account but rather that they sense they’ve joined the wrong side. They’re working for the Empire, and no Force will ever be with them.”

You can pursue personal values in many ways. Levit and Linder discuss, for example, the usefulness and virtues of family law, estate law, and even real estate development law. They acknowledge that if you believe “the business of America is business,” corporate law might be just the thing. And they accept the value of the law and legal practice in general. It “opens possibilities to contribute to the architecture of society. . . . A world without lawyers would be a world in chaos.”

But some legal settings offer a better chance of happiness than others. Surveys show about two-thirds of lawyers who work in the public sector are satisfied with their careers. Only 44 per cent of those who work in large law firms are satisfied. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2006 that 37 per cent of associates at big law firms quit by the end of their third year of practice. Levit and Linder write: “Happiness research makes it indisputably clear that people feel better about work when they think they are making a contribution to the public good than when they think their work has no social value or actually undermines the public good.”

Pro bono work is clearly linked to increased self-esteem among lawyers. Positions with public service institutions, where values, politics, and work all match up, give similar happiness and satisfaction. “Think about your deepest beliefs and, when there is a conflict between what your heart and what your head is telling you to do, listen to

your heart.”

The book ends on an interesting note. They write about the necessity of sadness and boredom. They acknowledge that sadness follows us everywhere. They note that Martin Seligman, a psychologist who has written extensively about the legal profession, found that when he focused on ridding a patient of his sadness, what he got was not a happy person but an empty one. They write: “Boredom is the pale hint of sadness . . . into every career a little boredom must creep.”

The main lessons remain. Occasional sadness and boredom aside, the ethical lawyer is likely to be happy. And the unhappy lawyer is more likely to do the wrong thing.

Philip Slayton has been dean of a law school and senior partner of a major Canadian law firm. His latest book, Mighty Judgment: How the Supreme Court of Canada Runs Your Life, will be released in April 2011. Visit him online at philipslayton.com.

  • Bradley Wright
    The statistics about happiness in the legal profession are meaningless without comparisons to other lines of work. As John Stuart Mill observed, the surest way to find out whether someone is unhappy is to ask them if they are happy. They are then likely to downplay the positive aspects of their lives and exaggerate the negative. For example, if you ask someone if they are making enough money, the answer will likely be "No" even if, on any objective scale, the person has a comfortable living or better.

    Practising law is a great way to go through life. Jokes aside, the public do respect lawyers highly, and you can make a positive difference in the lives of countless people over a career. You do not have to be out in the sleet or humidity (construction workers). You do not have to put your fingers God knows where and be sneezed on by God knows what (doctors and nurses). You do not have to deal with brown or gray water (plumbers). You do not have descend hundreds of metres underground (miners). Lawyers should not complain about their lot in life, but if they are truly unhappy, their law degrees can take them to any number of alternate careers.

    Lawyers who are struggling financially may wish to consider practising in an area where there are not gaggles of competitors within a few city blocks because, if lawyers apply themselves where they are needed, they are virtually certain to make a better than average living.