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Are you a happy lawyer?

Kelly Lucas
July 6, 2011
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HappyMyths.gifAre they unhappy as lawyers, or are they just unhappy with the direction their legal careers have taken?

A recent poll by the Indiana Lawyer asked the question, “If you had it all to do over again, would you still become a lawyer?” Results revealed that less than half could affirmatively say they were happy in their chosen profession. While 43 percent answered “yes” to the poll question, 37 percent said “no” and 21 percent were unsure what they would do.
 

levit-nancy-mug Levit

The opinions expressed are in the ballpark with national lawyer satisfaction surveys done in recent years. A 2007 survey commissioned by the American Bar Association showed that career satisfaction among lawyers nationwide hovered around 55 percent. The ABA survey revealed that satisfaction comes with age: 60 percent of experienced attorneys – those having over 10 years of experience – said they were satisfied with their careers, compared to 41 percent with six to nine years, 50 percent with three to five years, and 49 percent with less than three years in practice.

Individuals who study career satisfaction are not surprised by these findings. They say that by the 10-year mark, many who had come to the conclusion that law was not to be their life’s work had changed careers, and those who stayed had, perhaps, found their practice niche, become comfortable with their clients, and made partner. The gap between satisfaction levels among the six-to-nine-year group and the over-10-year group indicates those may be pivotal years for lawyers.

Making lemonade

So what can lawyers wondering if their law school investment was worth it do to reignite the passion felt as a 1L?

The good news is that while just over half say they are satisfied with their careers, 80 percent say they are proud to be lawyers.

“Proud and happy are different emotions,” said Nancy Levit, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law professor and co-author of “The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law.” “Pride is a feeling of self satisfaction or a belief in the worth of your career. Happiness has much more to do with the state of contentment and satisfaction in daily activities. Even if lawyers think the job has worth and prestige, they may be light years away from being happy.”

Levit and her co-author, Douglas O. Linder, point out that it is important to differentiate between happiness at this very moment and happiness overall.HappyChar.gif

Studying happiness is a science, and those who do it say we must understand where personal and professional happiness comes from to know how to sustain it. Researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon Sheldon, and David Schkade have reported that genetics account for about 50 percent of an individual’s happiness level – about half of an individual’s predisposition to seeing the cup half full or half empty is hard wired. Another 10 percent comes from life circumstances – education level, marital status, age, etc. Most life circumstances are more controllable than the genes a person is born with, but many represent long-term commitments.

The third group – voluntarily controlled activities – represents 40 percent of a person’s happiness quotient and seems to be where the answer lies in the quest to boost happiness.

Managing expectations and maintaining a sense of control are necessary ingredients to career satisfaction and happiness, according to Levit.

Control has multiple dimensions, Levit said. It involves an individual’s ability to have a say in client and work assignments, their physical work environment, and the people who surround them and relationships that exist. “Another big part of workplace control is believing that your contribution matters,” she said.

It is no surprise that a sense of control over work-life balance is another key element in the quest for professional satisfaction. Although 98 percent of law firms, mostly larger firms, reported in a recent survey that they permit part-time work schedules, fewer than 6 percent of all lawyers work part-time, Levit reports. But those who do, she added, are happy with their part-time or flexible schedules.

proffitt-reese-melissa-mug.jpg Proffitt-Reese

Ice Miller is among the Indiana law firms that offer flexible work arrangements, and the firm recognizes it can be “fundamentally important for the success of a person long term,” explained partner Melissa Proffitt Reese.

When structuring part-time arrangements, Reese, a former managing partner, said the firm looks at requests on a case-by-case basis and tries to find the arrangement that will work best for the individual and the practice group. Whether that is working five days with fewer hours or three extended days depends on the needs of the clients, the practice group, and the lawyer. Part-time arrangements don’t typically work well for new lawyers, she cautioned, because they need time to be mentored and learn the fundamentals of how to be a lawyer.

Most concede there is still a stigma attached to requesting a part-time work arrangement.HappySat.gif

“The practice of law is two things,” Reese said. “It is wonderful in that it truly provides the ultimate professional flexibility long term for an individual. … The flip side is that it requires a tremendous amount of time, devotion, and attention.”

If someone is a really good lawyer, Reese added, a firm should want to work with them. Retention of good lawyers is as important for the firm as flexibility is for the individual.

Work-life balance 101

Is the expectation versus the reality of practicing law really that different?

Through the course of their study, Levit said she and Linder began to wonder if law schools were addressing the emotional needs of students – “Do we talk about career satisfaction, happiness, and the ability to achieve work-life balance?” They discovered that 95 percent of law schools have no courses about career satisfaction.

Recognizing that a necessary ingredient to professional happiness is alignment with an individual’s values, strengths, and interests, the UMKC law professors created a course called “Quest for a Satisfying Legal Career.” Topics they explore include the science of happiness, causes of stress, how to use individual strengths, and what lawyers and law firms can do to create thriving, happy lawyers.
 

kane-mcdougall-jonna-mug Kane McDougal

“Lawyers, by and large, are a driven group,” said Jonna Kane MacDougall, Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis assistant dean for external affairs and alumni relations. “For many of the helping professions, part of the training involves self-care, but attorneys don’t get that.”

MacDougall, who is also a professional career/life coach, said the source of disillusionment for some lawyers may not be the practice of law, but that they aren’t doing anything aside from practicing law. She advises doing a little excavation to let the interests that existed pre-law resurface.

Mental cross-training

The specialization of the law may also be contributing to disillusionment. Ingrid Cummings, life coach and author of “The Vigorous Mind,” recommends cross training the brain in much the same way people cross train their bodies.

“The individuals who are most specialized in our society are often the most unhappy. They are bright and have these powerful brains, but they feel something is out of whack,” Cummings said. “Specialization is turning them into one-trick ponies.”
 

cummings-ingrid-mug.jpg Cummings

Cummings does not advocate returning to a society of general practitioners. But striving to become a renaissance person and engaging the mind in diverse learning experiences, she says, will motivate the discovery of new interests. Her “triumph in twenty” exercise challenges individuals to spend 20 minutes per day in bursts of learning, and that learning can focus on anything from cooking to foreign language or the arts.

“Much of this has to do with how you position yourself, how you see yourself,” Cummings said. The law is what you do, not who you are. Doing these cognitive exercises will create more well-rounded people and, ironically, better lawyers, she said.•

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  1. I have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

  2. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

  3. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  4. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  5. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

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