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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. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. 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!!!

  5. 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.

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