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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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