Are You Happy Yet? (Update)

While most lawyers spend their non-case-related writing and thinking time on legal issues, there is a surprising number of academics who concern themselves with happiness.  Sometimes it’s the happiness of our clients, for whom they blame us for our failure to deliver therapeutic justice because we’re so busy being adversarial:

The crux of the problem is this: what do lawyers practicing in accordance with the prescriptions of therapeutic jurisprudence, comprehensive law, or comprehensive justice do when a client’s actual best interests are at odds with what traditional adversarial legal representation assumes?

After all, shouldn’t we be more attuned to an academic’s view of our clients’ “actual best interest” than winning their case?  Try using that next time you get an adverse result.

But the happiness of lawyers, our happiness, is also a subject of significant concern.  Lawyers aren’t happy.  And lawyers are killing themselves.

One by one, state by state, bar associations say the tally is rising: Lawyers are killing themselves. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided CNN with the latest available data on suicide deaths by profession. Lawyers ranked fourth when the proportion of suicides in that profession is compared to suicides in all other occupations in the study population (adjusted for age).They come right behind dentists, pharmacists and physicians.

These aren’t kid lawyers drowning in debt and unemployment after having done “everything right.” although that doesn’t mean they’re having a good time. These are lawyers who have found “success.”

Prominent lawyers keep turning up dead. They came one a month in Oklahoma around 2004. South Carolina lost six lawyers within 18 months before July 2008. Kentucky has seen 15 known lawyer suicides since 2010.

At Stephanie West Allan’s Idealawg, Colorado Senior District Court Judge John Kane attributed it to the pressure of gaining and keeping “success”:

As for lawyer suicides — and I’m not trying to be flippant— I think they are billing themselves to death.  The constant pressure to generate income by billing on an hourly basis is far more stressful for a trial lawyer than trials.  In fact, less than 1% of cases now go to trial.  The courts have become settlement bazaars.

He describes a system where we’ve ceased being lawyers and have been forced to become legal money-making machines at the expense of clients’ interests, in the speed, quality and cost of resolution.  He suggests that the British system separating barristers, the trial lawyers, from solicitors, the business guys, would enable trial lawyers to avoid involvement with the money issues and focus only on providing clients with the lawyering for which they’ve been retained.

Of the many reasons why our system would be so much better with a barrister/solicitor bifurcation is that barristers are not allowed to set fees or engage in billing and collecting them.  Such is done by the “clark”, the Clerk of Chambers who in England makes more of an income than the barristers he shepherds.  They likewise cannot be sued for malpractice nor sue for a fee.  I hear that is changing in England and the barrister/solicitor separation is withering away.  Strangely, this is not because barristers want more, but because the very large solicitor firms want in and more control over the conduct of the case.  With that, of course, goes the high standards of ethics and prestige barristers have; they go down the drain.

Cut to the chase, the misery stems from the money.  We became lawyers to practice law, and found ourselves in a position that demanded too much business and provided too little lawyering.

At Positive Psychology News Daily, Dave Shearon offers a very different view of why lawyers are so miserable.

This process is not without its causes, four in particular.

  • First, lawyers deal with the toughest conflicts, ones where ordinary methods of resolving have failed (trial lawyers), or they must anticipate and plan for how to avoid or address such conflicts in advance (transactional lawyers).  If there were even a somewhat obvious win-win resolution, it would have been reached prior to reaching the attorneys.

  • Second, lawyers must deal far more regularly with zero-sum situations than other professionals, and zero-sum conflicts elicit negative emotions.  This makes it harder for lawyers to stay above the Losada line of 2.9:1 for mediocrity, 5:1 for excellence.

  • Third, the adversarial skills in which attorneys are trained are “negative” communications in the Losada analysis.  Further, when deployed in close relationships such as a marriage, critical or advocacy responses are “turning against” the bids of the other for interaction, and Gottman’s research indicates a 5:1 ratio between “turn toward” and the other two bid responses, “turn against” and “turn away,” is necessary for relationship success.

  • Fourth, lawyers are required to perform “necessary evils” — the exercise of professional skill to inflict physical or emotional pain on another in service to a higher good — more regularly than almost all other professions, and to do so with a skilled advocate on the other side arguing against the necessity, the manner, or both.  Further, they often must do so in the presence of the recipient of the evil and his or her family and friends.  Think of a criminal defense attorney defending a child sex abuse case who must conduct a probing, challenging cross-examination of the child victim, or of a plaintiff’s lawyer in a personal injury case who must assign the “blame” for his clients severe injuries and suffering to the defendant.

While much of this rings true with anecdotal experience, that’s the job.  We don’t make the mess in which people find themselves, but it’s our job to clean it up.  Nobody said it was going to be fun to be society’s janitors, but if people didn’t keep getting themselves into disputes and jams, there would be no need for lawyers.

Just like the cocktail party question, each of us will have our own story as to what makes us miserable, and what makes for a good day too.  Shearon’s goal is to make lawyers happier, though he neglects that our happiness would come at the expense of our clients.  That’s not an option.

Perhaps the root problem is that practicing law isn’t for everybody, and just because someone can get into law school or enjoys some facet of the practice doesn’t mean that it’s a viable fit.  Still, suicide is never the solution, though the more prominent a lawyer is, the harder the fall from grace.  That there needs to be a graceful exit for those who can’t take it anymore seems obvious, but then there is nothing to stop a lawyer from announcing one day that she’s had enough and has decided to dedicate the rest of her life to saving kittens. It’s a perfectly fine way out.

From my perch, two things seem to permeate the problems suffered by lawyers: First, good, hard-working lawyers are not earning enough to enjoy a sufficiently comfortable lifestyle for themselves and their family to justify surmounting the barriers to entry and the headache of the job. Second, the arbitrariness of the law. Non-lawyers think the law is somewhat reliable, and if a lawyer does good work, they will prevail. We know better, and it makes us nuts.

And yet, the law doesn’t exist for our happiness, but for the sake of our clients. So if your answer to the title question is you’re not happy (and few are), suck it up. This is the life we chose, and our misery isn’t our client’s problem.

Update:  For anyone still curious about the efficacy of the Losada scale of happiness, this may help to disabuse you of the validity of the numbers.

22 thoughts on “Are You Happy Yet? (Update)

  1. David Sugerman

    Funny story. I posted the link to that article on the twitter with a slightly “omg” comment. My beloved referred to it as my scary tweet. A close colleague promptly called to check in. “Not me,” I assured both, “I have too much to do.”

    The billable hour does not explain this phenomenon. Many CDLs work on flat fees. Many civil trial lawyers work on contingent fees.

    The volume of work and, often, it’s futility is part of the problem. Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus seems like an apt metaphor for what we do. We dwell within the existentialist’s notion of the absurd. The role of solo protector who fights against dominant institutions (e.g., government; transnational corps.) wears over time. Like the mythic gunslingers of the west (Shane, anyone?), we are not truly welcome in polite society after our nasty bit of work is done. Finally, I assume the skills and talents necessary to get us to this stage pair with an awful lot of baggage. The classic example to which you allude is how we express ourselves in relationships. (Cross-examine your kid much?) But it is deeper and more internal.

    You are exactly right about the need to think about getting out. But you’re missing a key part because you are so goddamned healthy: Often there is a feeling of being trapped. That may be due to the stupidity of the dread golden handcuffs. (Quit? I can’t quit! How will we keep up the beach house?) I think it is often closer to the idea of the loss of purpose. We know how to try cases and function well in courtrooms. But what comes after? I assume that this last wall is the tragic barrier that boxes some in to suicide.

    Fascinating stuff. Ironically, I gotta go. In trial.

    PS-In case anyone misreads what is underneath my comment, this is not about me. A colleague first posted this on a list serve this weekend. She revealed that a mutual friend’s sudden death a few years ago was actually suicide. I had no idea, so it started me ruminating.

      1. David Sugermsn

        Only when I pay a week’s rent. And after the kids’ tuition payments, it’s really more of a…erm…room.
        With a view!
        Of the highway.
        But each room has a coffee maker, so you would feel right at home.

  2. william doriss

    IANAL, but I know why lawyers are so miserable. Not telling!
    We’ve been studying lawyers from the outside for some time now.
    They do not know how to dress (for success); they generally dress poorly and always seem to have a sour/dour expression on their faces. The ones who dress well and drive the Beamers and Mercedes are the worst lawyers,… and they cost the most. Go figure.

    Anyway, it’s a wretched profession, perhaps the most wretched on earth. The underpaid, slave-driven diamond miners in Africa are probably a happier lot. I’d rather be an undertaker: Corpses don’t talk-back. I feel sorry for you lawyers who successfully mounted the insurmountable hurdles and parried the untold obstacles in life. But not very.

  3. Turk

    Perhaps, if there is a statistical raise in lawyer suicides (as opposed to anecdotes) it may also be related to the types of personalities that go to law school to begin with.

    1. SHG Post author

      The Shearon post says there is no correlation on the front end, they go in happy and come out miserable regardless.

      1. Jeff

        I’m not buying it. Maybe it’s my years of practicing criminal defense but I don’t trust this psychologist’s “expertise” above my own humble opinion on this issue which is that there is a very strong correlation between the happiness levels of lawyers and the types of people that apply to law school in the first place. It just seems so firmly rooted in common sense (and my own anecdotal experience of my own law school student body) that it would take quite a bit of evidence to convince me otherwise.

        Also, consider what Shearon “wants” to be true: I don’t know anything about him other than what his post says, but since his livelihood appears to involve turning unhappy lawyers into happy ones with his affordable, one hour to 4.5 hour therapy seminars, it would certainly help his business model for sad attorneys to think their problems are easily fixed and short-lived, created only by faulty law school programming, rather than the same hard-wired personality traits that they’ve had their entire lives and that got them to want to apply to law school in the first place.

        1. SHG Post author

          This is one of the perpetual criticisms of the happiness crowd, that it’s both their business and their advocacy, and so everything is seen through that prism.

  4. Sarah Glassmeyer

    I have generally promised myself to ignore this blog and especially the comment section from now on, but this may actually save a life so I feel the need to say something.

    If y’all could take a moment from your busy lives and congratulating yourselves on how you are too busy to think about whether you are happy or not, please realize that there is a wide difference between “not being happy in one’s chosen career” and “suicidally depressed.” The former can be sucked up. The latter can not.

    Continuing to conflate the two and thinking that depression can and should be sucked up (or that the sufferer is somehow not ‘tough enough to be a lawyer’) is a stupid misconception that ends lives.

    I am very successful in my chosen career. But I was very unhappy. I tried to suck it up. Blog posts and comment sections like these made me ashamed that I should even feel like there was something wrong with wanting to be happy. Even when I found myself fantasizing about throwing myself in front of the METRA express train that came before my regular one, I shrugged it off and told myself to ‘suck it up.’ It was only when I got to the point that I was literally crying 24/7 and it was interfering with my job that I decided to get help, and only then I wanted some pills to plug up the flow of tears and emotion so I could continue to be productive at work.

    (Don’t bother trying to make me feel ashamed for crying or make it out to be a female thing. Not to sound like that unfortunate copyright infringing Texas lawyer, but I’m a farm girl and I bet ya dollars to doughnuts I’m way tougher than any of you pansy-ass city lawyer types. 🙂 Crying is often just a way of releasing stress hormones, but even if it’s just because you stubbed your toe- it’s okay. )

    Anyway, I got help – pills and therapy. And guess what? It worked. The deep, un-suckable sadness is gone, but it’s also a completely different thing than any job satisfaction or other ‘happy’ issues I may have.

    If you’re reading this and depressed, you don’t have to suck it up. That’s actually the worst thing you can do. Get help. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. It will get better.

    1. SHG Post author

      You do realize how silly it sounds when you start by rationalizing why you’re writing a comment while simultaneously disavowing SJ? You don’t want to read? Don’t read. You don’t want to comment? Don’t comment. But denying you’re reading when you’re obviously reading doesn’t impress anyone. It’s kinda foolish.

      That said, clinical depression is a different issue, and one that I am certainly not qualified to treat. But then, neither are you. One of the things Steph and I discuss fairly regularly is how the depressed and the happysphere crowd want to own mental illness, as if suffering from cancer makes you capable of curing it. It’s delusional and dangerously false, but then, it’s hard to call bullshit on someone who suffers from mental illness as it seems unkind and unfeeling.

      So, I am sorry that you suffer from depression. I’m glad whatever pills you take work for you. And you can comment whenever you like, and include your disclaimer about how you never read SJ if it makes you feel like better. Us pansy-ass city lawyers are happy to help.

      So here ya go: Great big tummy rub. Glad you feel better. I’m sure you’ve just saved lives. You’re a hero.

    2. william doriss

      Any blawg moderator who posts the likes of John Barleycorn, Carl David Ceder and you can’t be all that bad.
      If you’re really a farm girl, then you know there’s “more than one way skin a cat.” My own antidote to clinical depression is to go chop some wood. This is a good time of year for that, and any good farm girl worth her salt should be able. And get as much daylight as possible, since the days are shorter in Winter. Research shows, exposure to daylight correlates highly with that sense of well-being we all prize so highly.
      Finally, while calling our host “pansy-assed” is guaranteed to elicit some sharp literary elbows–not to mention some laughs–no matter how onamatopoetic the expression, not a v. smart move. I do respect your moxie and appreciate your submission, irregardless of its utter impropriety.
      A disturbingly high rate of suicide amongst members of the profession was the topic, and not the proper/most effective treatment for clinical depression. That was my take. We’re happy you “recovered”. Now if you were a lawyer AND had attempted suicide, then that would be another matter of interest. This reader hopes you will not make yourself scarce, irregardless.

      1. SHG Post author

        Actually, the suicide rate article in CNN gave rise to the general discussion. My piece of it was the root cause of lawyer unhappiness, not suicide per se. If that had been my focus, I would tend to find Sarah’s point, that suicide isn’t just unhappiness, but a far deeper problem like clinical depression, more appropriate. Then again, I wouldn’t have written that post, since I am not in a position to offer insight into clinical depression, being a lawyer and all.

        And that said, there is no such word as “irregardless,” but an irregular use of regardless. Govern yourself accordingly.

    3. Kaylei Elworth

      I completely agree with you. Successful suicide attempts are rare, which means that those who actually do kill themselves either made very sure that they would die (i.e. not a cry for help) or got (un)lucky. Depression is a serious mental illness, and if studies indicate, as they seem to, that depression is much more common among lawyers than in other fields, we should be aware of that tendency and encourage our peers to seek help when they’re in need. We can discuss the cause/correlation all day, but that won’t matter to the people who are contemplating suicide.

      Sadness and a general sense of dissatisfaction can be “sucked up.” Suicidal levels of depression cannot. We as a profession should take this issue very seriously, instead of dismissing the people going through this as “not cut out to practice law,” or assuming that unhappiness is a necessary byproduct of the unfairness of the legal system that must be endured. I’m very glad that the Texas bar is outspoken about the frequency of lawyer suicides and has instituted programs to help those in need. In my opinion, we need less judgment and more support for our colleagues, because we’re not qualified to diagnose or treat mental illness and we shouldn’t get in the way of depressed people seeking professional help, by shaming them or otherwise.

      1. SHG Post author

        Because Sarah has difficulty staying on topic doesn’t mean you get to stroll further into the abyss. But not to let the opportunity pass, your agreement with Sarah about suicidal depression is about as useful as your agreeing that the Higgs Boson exists. Depression doesn’t exist (or not) by popular vote of unqualified people.

        And you likely have no clue why I’m being so mean to you.

  5. Virgil T. Morant

    I suspect that one of the problems contributing to some lawyers becoming catastrophically miserable actually flows from having a personality or a set of habits that are otherwise well-suited to the practice of law: the desire to appear confident and the need to keep confidences. If it’s starting to get so bad psychologically for a lawyer—say, one who is by all external measures very successful—how does he confide in someone that he’s growing more and more unhappy? Make it seem to someone else, then, in the process that he is not cut out for the job. Probably part of the personality that helps to make a good lawyer also motivates a person in that position to keep the misery to himself.

    I can’t remember where, but I recently came across an essay somewhere online about very good attorneys living constantly with the fear that they’ll be “found out” for all the self-doubt that they carry with them. The uncertainty of outcomes, the inability to please clients perfectly, and the inevitability of questioning oneself at least briefly when an outcome in a representation is lousy: all things a good lawyer has to keep under tight control, at least as far as appearances are concerned. Makes for a good attorney in a lot of cases. Can also make for a catastrophic episode, if the strain becomes too great for this miserable lawyer or that.

    It seems to my memory of the last alcoholism and mental health CLE I attended, Ohio has a confidential service attorneys can call to say that they feel they’re on the verge of something very bad happening on account of mental distress or addiction. Perhaps that can help. Maybe some of the lawyers who are so extremely unhappy—whether its clinical depression or not—still have what it takes, if only they can figure out how to manage the sorrow intelligently. Or maybe they need to start saving kittens. That’s a noble calling as well, to be sure.

      1. Virgil T. Morant

        You got it. It was Mark Bennett’s article. I didn’t follow his link to read the one by Keith Lee. Perhaps I should. Thanks for refreshing my memory and giving credit where due for what I’d remembered.

  6. Wheeze The People™

    You lost me at “actual best interest”, as, best I can determine, those words are the ultimate in Orwellian doublespeak. The phrase comes off as sounding all-knowing and all-powerful but is in fact totally speculative, unknowable, and indefinable. A “possible beneficial interest”?? Sure. A “seemingly important interest”?? OK. But THE uncontested, no unintended consequences “actual best interest”, without qualification?? BS . . .

    1. SHG Post author

      Don’t be ridiculous. Somebody has to know your “actual best interest,” and it certainly can’t be you.

      1. Wheeze The People™

        Indeed, it certainly can’t be me. What could I know about my actual best interests?

        So I’m thinking it had to be you, it had to be you.
        I’ve wandered around, finally found somebody who,
        Could make me be true,
        Could make me be blue,
        And, even be glad just to be sad thinkin’ of you.

        I’m pretty sure Frankie Baby knew what my actual best interests were too, but he’s dead and not much help anymore . . .

        You missed your true calling, SHG — you would have made a compelling Psychic, knowing everybody’s “actual best interests” but your own. And Dr. SHG has that blind spot covered for ya . . .

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