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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. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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