The Life

August 11, 2010 7:06 PM

Can Lawyers Be Happy?

Posted by Ed Shanahan

Review by Michael Stern

Happy_Lawyer Don't be put off by the university press label: The Happy Lawyer is a lively, witty, and useful survey of hedonics research, the new science of happiness, and how to apply its teachings both in the office and the rest of your life (to the extent you've got one).

Not having a life is, of course, one of the laments of lawyers, especially those beavering away in the Big Law sweatshops. Folklore has it that we're the most unhappy of professionals, beset by alcohol and drug abuse and with the highest rate of suicide of any job category. Polls say that 70 percent of us would choose another career if we could start over, and more than half of us will discourage our kids from joining the bar. But don't despair, argue Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder, law professors at the University of Missouri. These statistics are misleading, giving too much weight to the well-publicized bitterness of big-firm associates, who are very unhappy indeed. There's hope for the rest of us--lawyers as a whole are actually in the middle of the pack on the happiness continuum--and maybe even for them.

First, there's a basic question to answer: What is "happiness?" Levit and Linder provide an entertaining romp through current theoretical approaches, from evolutionary psychology to neuroscience and brain chemistry. Unhappily, from an evolutionary standpoint, being contented is not likely to lead to reproductive success; our brains are tuned to be alive to danger and risk, not to be persistently satisfied. Smelling the roses on the ancestral savannah was likely to result in a rude meeting with a predator instead of the Stone Age equivalent of bliss. Our bodies do suffuse with chemicals inducing transient joy when we eat or have sex, but the key word here is "transient." Momentary pleasure doesn't translate into longer-term life satisfaction. What does?

The scientific consensus, Levit and Linder report, is reassuringly--even boringly--the stuff of everyday things. A sense of the life well-lived requires a measure of control over our lives, stable and rewarding relationships, congruence between our values and our work, job security, a sense that our jobs are valuable and that what we do every day contributes to the success of our enterprise, and--no surprise here--some balance betweens the demands of work and our life outside the office. Despite what most people say in response to surveys asking what would make them happier, money is not the stuff that happiness is made of. Above the poverty level, absolute amounts of income are a poor predictor of happiness, per the authors. Once people make more than $50,000 a year, there's little correlation between income and life satisfaction. The key is what Linder and Levit call "the joy of downward comparison." Bronze medalists at the Olympics report themselves more happy than silver medalists—they are glad to have been on the winner’s podium at all, while silver medalists tend to compare themselves unfavorably to those who win the gold. So framing our overall success in terms of who we're doing better than, instead of who’s doing better than we are, is crucial to contentment.

That said, however mundane these generic elements of long-term happiness, they aren't easy for lawyers to achieve, the authors concede. In the law, a client and deadline-driven service business, who has a lot of control over their day-to-day circumstances? In an increasingly bottom-line culture, who can find balance between the devouring maw of billable hours and the demands of spouses, children, and the need for relaxation? In a profession in which it's a competitive advantage to be "an anxious, pessimistic person who worries about all the things that can go wrong," how do we let go of the analytical, aggressive, and introverted aspects of our personalities that so well suit us to the practice of law?

The answer: Happiness takes work, and practice. It's "a skill, not fundamentally different than learning to play the violin or learning to play golf," as one neuroscientist that they cite puts it. In other words, get back to the salt mines and make some sugar--learn to make all of those personality factors that make you so good at work into ones that will make you good at play as well. Devote yourself to getting enough sleep, meditating, eating healthily, and staying connected. Push your firm to design flex hours for working mothers, give meaningful feedback to associates and partners, and provide more fair and transparent governance and compensation processes. As they say in Parents' Al-Anon, the support group for relatives of alcoholics: "It works when you work it." Ultimately, The Happy Lawyer is yet another version of a 12-step program. Perhaps not surprisingly, at the heart of the book the authors quote the Al-Anon serenity prayer: "God, grant me the serenity/to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference." That's good advice in any context—see if you can take it.


By Nancy Levit and Douglas O. Linder
Oxford and New York; Oxford University Press; 288 pp; $19.95


Michael Stern, a former reporter and English professor, is a partner in Cooley LLP's  technology transactions group.


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I have never been employed by a firm where the lawyters were "happy". They were all stressed, over worked, and not in ocntrol of their workload, and partners were preopccupied with having to generate business and caught up in office intrigues, usually about compensation and "control" of their book of business. Lousy occupation.

Michael, this is an extremely good, well written review. However, I was disappointed that my friends who wrote the book were so dismissive in the chapter on what law firms can do to promote well-being. How about you?

Per Dan Bowling's comment--I didn't think the authors were dismissive about the role that firms needed to play to make workplaces more habitable, but rather, in their 12-steppish model, more focused on what we as individuals needed to to do (which does include prodding our firms, for those of us in private practice, to be more humane).

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