Living the Good Life, Part 2

lawyerThe values that are continually reinforced in the world of lawyers and law students are creating a generation of dissatisfied, unfulfilled people who, while they have the capacity to buy happiness, it doesn’t seem to do them much good.  So says a recent New York Times Article.  Comparing partner-track lawyers in prestige firms with their lesser-compensated fellows in the public service sector reveals that the latter have a far higher incidence of satisfaction and lower incidence of substance abuse and depression.  This is a tough message to bring to practitioners, who value self-sufficiency, the appearance of success and strength and, above all, the absolute armor of competence.  Anything which will tarnish this paramount of all images – the competent and confident attorney – is to be rejected like the Ebola-infected kiss.  Yet, it’s hard to get away from the years of research that continually return to the theme of lawyer unhappiness.  A Johns Hopkins survey of more than 25 years ago found lawyers to be the unhappiest of all professions.  Happiness expert, Martin Seligman, PhD, has suggested that lawyers’ training in prudence strongly contributes to this downward mental pressure.  The legal task is, in part, to consider all the negative things that might happen and to guard against their impact.  That is why lawyers are criticized as “deal-breakers” among business people.  Yet, greater than this is the set of incentives and values that have become embedded in legal culture.  The need to appear strong and competent to colleagues and clients – to eschew the appearance of weakness with utmost vigilance – are, I would suggest, the bane of lawyers’ lives.  It is an isolating force.  These rather vague attributes (“strength” “competence”) are measurable in the legal “coin of the realm” which begin with class ranking and law review election in law school and continue through to compensation and attainment of partnership in practice.  Finally, however, the sheer volume of practitioners who are struggling with substance abuse, anxiety or depression, or domestic struggles has forced attorneys and commentators, alike, to re-examine the source of happiness (and sadness).  Work with meaning that is consistent with personal values has emerged as the path to well-being.  This has been reiterated in a recent law review article by Florida State Law Professor Larry Krieger and his long-time research colleague, Ken Sheldon.  So the struggle continues – to humanizing effect on practitioners of this wonderful, society-supporting and enriching profession.