Thursday, January 7, 2010

Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy?

A friend of mine just referred me to a book titled "Authentic Happiness" by Martin E.P. Seligman, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. The author devotes a section to discussing the three main causes of the demoralization among lawyers, which he identifies as pessimism, low decision latitude in high stress situations, and the adversarial nature of the profession.

I found the discussion about pessimism particularly interesting. Essentially, Seligman says that lawyers have a tendency to anticipate all worst case scenarios, which is helpful professionally but detrimental personally. Law firms train you to be prepared for any problems that may arise so you are forced to anticipate them. According to Seligman, this translates into thinking negatively in all aspects of life which can lead to severe depression.

I'm not sure if I would characterize it as pessimism, but among law students, there is a certain level of over analysis, an inability to take anything at face value, and a constant prediction of consequences that just makes us a different breed of people. In a majority of classes, questions posed by the professor begin with "what if..." followed by a hypothetical in which the student is forced to improvise a new approach. We see it as training. I guess the question, according to Seligman, is whether we will be able to constrain this mentality to the job. But, is it really the legal profession that makes people this way? Or do certain types of people choose the legal profession because their personalities are already more inclined towards it?

Either way, I don't think he gives lawyers enough credit. Maybe I'm biased, but the idea, as Seligman proposes, that lawyers sit around thinking, "I bet my husband is unfaithful" or "I'm never going to make partner" just isn't that convincing to me. Lawyers may over analyze, but from my experience, they also have a high level of confidence, and they like to be challenged. They may assume the worst, but they rarely go down without a fight.

Even more than his discussion of low decision making power and the zero sum nature of law, maybe lawyers are unhappy because they can't leave the fight at work. Maybe everything becomes a fight. Confidence and aggression make an emotionally rocky personal life because lawyers are always riled up about something. They are trained to debate an issue even if they don't believe in it, and they see it as a skill, or sometimes even an enjoyable practice, but it's still exhausting.

I don't know why lawyers are unhappy, but for the sake of optimism, I hope our generation can turn these studies around. Then again, you do have to anticipate deferrals, and pay cuts, and less substantive work, and...

Just kidding :)


  1. I think it's about perspective. I work a ton, don't always get enough sleep and am pretty much always on call with my crackberry. I've had to cancel plans with friends and don't exactly have weekends off. With all of this, am I happy? Yes. Before law school, I had a pretty cushy job - good pay, 40 hrs a week and very steady and predictable. I may have been comfortable but I was not happy. I found it boring and unfulfilling. My law firm job may be demanding and unpredictable, and I may often be exhausted, but I also realize I've learned a lot just in the short period of time I've been there. I get to spend my days (and nights) working on things that I enjoy reading about in my free time. Making an effort to keep the big picture in mind goes a long way. And so does having a hobby, even if only for an hour or two a week - it reminds me that my job isn't my life.

    What I wonder is, given that so many people go to law school not wanting to be lawyers, and then go on to work at law firms just to pay off debt, how many of the "unhappy" lawyers in these surveys are people who are in the legal profession but do not actually want to practice law. Of all the professions, law is really the only one that people can decide to enter on a whim; no formal pre-law training or specialized knowledge (e.g., science or math skills) is needed. Maybe the level of unhappiness among lawyers wouldn't be so depressing if those people weren't counted.

  2. I think it boils down to one concept: attention to detail. Lawyers can never rest. When you have a project, you always want to insure that it is the best it can be.

  3. I agree with Anonymous that the attention to detail required is such that it can make you a bit crazy. But in the end, I think it comes to practice area and firm culture. I am not a litigator or a "deals" lawyer, and while I often work 10 or 11 hour days during the week, I nearly always have my weekends free, I get to take vacations, and I haven't had to break plans [yet].

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