I am frequently asked some version of the question, “why did you become a lawyer?” My stock answer to this question is, “because I ran out of viable options, and I knew my girlfriend (who I wanted to marry) wouldn’t tolerate my not having a life plan.” (Point of fact, said girlfriend is now my wife of over 10 years…). Although my stock answer does have some truth, the more complete answer is that I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. I grew up in a household where both of my parents modeled professional lives dedicated to the service of others, and personal lives dedicated to the service of their community and family. I wanted to emulate that example.
I was excited to become a lawyer. My belief that such would allow me an avenue to help others, and greatly fulfill me by doing so, proved to be true. After my faith and family, being an advocate for my clients is the most important aspect and passion of my life. To wake up each morning and know that I can make a difference in someone’s life that very day is invigorating. It is this that makes numerous long days, and occasional sleepless nights, worth it. It is this that refuels me after a case, or issue, resolves – for better or (even more so) for worse.
However, in spite of all of the benefits of being a lawyer, statistics tell us that most law- yers are not as happy or healthy as non-lawyers. Researchers have reported that law- yers are at a higher risk for depression, substance abuse, and divorce. Why is it that this is the case, and what is to be done? I recently read an article on this topic by Mar- tin E.P. Seligman, entitled “Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy?” Dr. Seligman has some interesting theories about the topic as follows:
First, studies show that lawyers are more likely to be pessimists. Lawyers are wired (and/or trained) to anticipate every problem that could possibly come up in a circumstance. Whether such is a term in a contract, divorce settlement, trial strategy, etc. Such then bleeds over into our personal thinking about our own lives and careers. Second, lawyers (especially young associates) suffer from “low decision latitude.” Essential- ly, such is the coupling of a high job demand with a limited number of choices (real or perceived) as to how to affect the outcome. Third, law has increasingly become a “win- loss” game. Dr. Seligman posits that the practice of law has migrated from a profession which was formerly about good counsel as to fairness and justice to now being a busi- ness about “billable hours, take-no-prisoners victories, and the bottom line.”
So, how do we counteract these pitfalls? I would suggest a few simple solutions:
- Self-awareness. If you find yourself increasingly pessimistic about the Law and/ or life, take a moment to make yourself aware. Dr. Seligman refers to this as “credible disputation.” Essentially, this is the reframing of the negative thoughts (e.g. “I’ll never make partner”), “as if they were uttered by an external person whose mission is to make your life miserable, and then marshaling evidence against the thoughts.”
- Work/Life Balance. Such is not a new topic to attorneys. I have previously written about being intentional about this balance in this column. Without taking time to meditate, exercise, take vacation, etc., it is, in my opinion, impossible to have a healthy perspective as to the practice of Law.
- Count your blessings. Although this may sound simple, or even juvenile, mental health professionals believe that the daily task of listing out two or three items for which you are thankful can actually “reset” your brain. These do not have to be the “big-picture” issues (“I’m thankful for my kids/health/etc.”), but can be, and should be, simpler things such as, “I’m thankful that the sun is shining today,” or “I’m thankful that I have a heater on this cold day.”
It is my hope for all of our members that they can discover, or re-discover, their love for being a law- yer. After all, and in spite of the pitfalls and risks of our profession, we have the unique opportunity and blessing to affect people on a daily basis. For that alone, we should be grateful.