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DTCI: Is the notion of a 'happy lawyer' an oxymoron?

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DTCI-Bryant-micheleA “happy lawyer” – do you know any such creature? By coincidence (or maybe not), two recent but random events caused me to consider this question, of all things, in the middle of this long winter season.

Our local bar association recently held its annual luncheon honoring lawyers in practice for 50 years and welcoming the new lawyers who arrived in the last year. Some might perceive this as something of a terrifying experience for both; the new lawyers catching a glimpse of what they might become over the next five decades and the experienced lawyers a little apprehensive about challenges from the spring chickens.

On the heels of this luncheon, I came across reviews of a new book titled “The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law” by Nancy Levit and Douglas O. Linder. I began to wonder if there is such a thing as a happy lawyer. I wonder if the fellows in practice for 50 years were happy lawyers. I began to consider whether the practice of law contributes to our happiness or is a barrier to happiness.

The book reminds us of some not-so-nice statistics about being a lawyer. Some studies report that more than 70 percent of practicing lawyers would not do it again if given the choice. At least half of us would discourage our children from entering the legal profession. We all know that the rates of depression and suicide for lawyers exceed those of most other professions. If lawyers represent the best and the brightest (at least we choose to think so), why do we find the notion of a “happy lawyer” so amusing?

The pursuit of happiness is not just a right fought for by our Founding Fathers. The power of positive psychology is such a hot topic that recently the most popular class at Harvard University was not Introduction to Economics, but rather Positive Psychology taught by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. More than 800 students piled into the lecture hall hoping to learn the secret to being happy.

What seem to be the keys for lawyers? “The Happy Lawyer” offers many pointers. Managing expectations is a big deal. Much of our dissatisfaction (i.e., lack of happiness) appears to stem from reality falling short of expectations. A popular country music song reminds us that joy might come, not from having what we want, but from wanting what we have.

When the 50-year lawyers were asked at our bar association luncheon to reminisce on their careers, there was one strikingly consistent theme. None of them spoke of big trial wins or high-profile cases they had handled. Instead, each of them reflected on the civility and camaraderie of the lawyers in our Evansville Bar Association and how much this had meant to them over the years. The new lawyers were then asked to introduce themselves and to identify the charity or service organization with which they intended to be involved.

The bar association luncheon was a real-life example of several happiness lessons discussed in the book. Lawyers who remain in the profession tend to get happier over time, presumably because experience and skill development tend to lead to a greater professional comfort level. We also find satisfaction and meaning in serving others and contributing to the public good. Finally, the people around us make a difference. Enduring friendships and a pleasant working environment can help us as lawyers rise above the daily grind of legal work. Civility is not just a politically correct notion. It is a meaningful gift we can give to each other that, at least for a few of my colleagues, can last a lifetime.•

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Michele S. Bryant is a partner in the Evansville firm of Bamberger Foreman Oswald & Hahn and is a member of the DTCI board of directors. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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