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How to be a happy lawyer

Posted by: Laurence Simons 14/12/10
A guest article on the happiness of lawyers by Dr. Raj Persaud:

Lawyers should be worried. One of the top psychologists in the world, Professor Martin Seligman, who specialises in what is referred to as ‘Positive Psychology’ perhaps known more widely as the Psychology of Happiness, has chosen to devote a whole paper beneath the title ‘Why Lawyers Are Unhappy’.

Although penned almost ten years ago, it remains the case that few professions attract the attentions of psychologists like Seligman as does the Law, in terms of trying to resolve the enigma of why members of this group tend to be so unhappy

Dr Raj Persaud. FRCPsych

Lawyers it seems are such a famous case of being unhappy relative to what might be expected given the status and other accoutrements of the profession, even Professors of Psychology have now waded in to try and understand you lot!

The subject is back in the news now because of the recent publication of a book entitled ‘The Happy Lawyer’ penned by two Law Professors at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The tone devotes itself to practical advice to help advocates become happier. Implicit in the idea behind the volume, however, is that without careful management and advice, this profession appears naturally prone to unhappiness.

The empirical research on the subject is mixed – there is some evidence that Lawyers are around the middle of the professions when it comes to happiness when directly compared. However, given lawyers tend to be up at the higher end of the earnings scale, compared to most professions, plus it’s usually more competitive to get into law, it would appear that lawyers are not as happy as should be expected.

The argument amongst psychologists debating the issue would run a something like this – if so many people want to become lawyers i.e it’s a desirable state to achieve, once this is accomplished, the relative lack of consequent happiness, appears to require some explanation.

Seligman’s own accounts are that lawyers are prone to unhappiness because firstly the profession is one large zero sum game. What he means by this, is that for every bit of work an advocate does, it’s possible there’s another lawyer out there waiting to undo it. An element of this, according to Seligman, is the adversarial nature of law. This means that counselors are often pitted against each other. In sum total therefore, for every happy lawyer, who is delighted because he or she has done some good work, there is another lawyer somewhere else fuming. One lawyer’s good fortune is another’s mishap.

While this account might explain the lack of happiness of the profession as a totality i.e. for every subject scoring a plus, there is another achieving a minus somewhere, it holds out the hope for happiness for an individual lawyer.

Many lawyers are perplexed by this argument, as they don’t recognise the general working conditions that Seligman describes. However, it is possible that law is intrinsically a more competitive endeavour, than say medicine, because doctors only find themselves professionally pitted against each other in a similar way that lawyers frequently are, ironically enough, when they end up in court.

Seligman believes Lawyers are prone to relative unhappiness also because of the lack of personal autonomy in their work. His research has lead him to the conclusion that a major determinant of happiness at work is the ability to execute the job as you personally would like to. Particularly when personal decision making and creativity is encouraged.

Seligman also believes that pessimism comes naturally to Lawyers, because constant checking and anticipating worse case scenarios in the future, helps Lawyers correct contracts and similar areas of work. It’s this pessimism as a professional necessity that gradually erodes personal happiness, because it seeps into a general outlook on the world.

This aspect of the problem – do lawyers tend to a certain personality and its this which is really the basis for the unhappiness, is possibly most fruitful in exploring the problem of happiness for particular professions. A clue here comes from some fascinating research conducted by Bruce Sales and colleagues of the Law, Psychology and Policy Program at the University of Arizona. This very large survey of almost 1000 US lawyers found that while advocates were prone to depression at almost twice the rate of the general population, they indulged in cocaine abuse at less than a third of the rate of public.

The study entitled ‘The Prevalence of Depression, Alcohol Abuse, and Cocaine Abuse Among United States Lawyers’ and published in The International Journal of Law and Psychiatry in 1990’s, is indicating that lawyers perform the more responsible behaviour of not abusing cocaine – yet are more depressed.

Is it possible there is a link between being more responsible and getting depressed?

I see many lawyers in my clinical practice and I do a lot of legal work, so I end up seeing a lot of lawyers. I notice that it’s often the better lawyers who come to see me for depression. Lawyers are often involved in high stakes predicaments where failure or poor performance has catastrophic or at the very least bad consequences for their clients.

Good lawyers tend to shoulder a burden of responsibility to get the job done well for their patrons. We also know that depressed people in general tend to be those whose personality is linked to a greater sense of responsibility. So here we might have an intriguing paradox. Being more responsible seems linked to lower mood. Yet we don’t want lawyers happier if the price we pay is gay abandon over the briefs!

We don’t yet know why an elevated sense of responsibility seems associated with depression, but it may have something to do with trying to control things which we cannot ultimately. And it may also have something to do with a linked tendency to excessive worry.

A key trick, about which Zen Bhuddism has much to say, is to indeed be a responsible professional at work, but to be able to leave that behind when you close the door of the office, and turn more to being a responsible parent and/or partner at home. The problem is that the very signifier of taking responsibility, is a tendency to let that concern spill beyond the usual boundaries of work hours. However, while being more responsible has great advantages to your firm and your clients in the shorter term, if you end up getting more depressed, this will tend to lead to poorer performance in the longer run.

So a key trick all lawyers who want to remain positive and improve their well-being is how to handle responsibility.

This has a direct consequence for recruitment. Whether you consciously realise this or not, prospective employers are looking for responsible employees. This is why turning up late for an interview, or not dressing smartly are all profoundly unhelpful. These are all little clues at to how responsible a person you are. Employers want prospects who appear to take responsibility extremely seriously. And you should certainly endeavour to impress in the interview and in your CV with the signifiers of what a more responsible candidate you are compared to the competition.

This is why leadership positions in non-occupational parts of your CV, like running the local Tennis Club, are again subtle positive clues to an Employer as to how you like responsibility, and can handle it.

However, you should also on top of that, if you want to snatch the gold medal from your competitors in terms of impression management, come across as positive and happy. Positive people tend to be nicer to work with, and there is a host of evidence that positive well-being leads to better professional output.

You may need to leave your employer with the impression that you will put responsibility for your work higher than any other responsibility in your life. But don’t make the mistake of, in reality, neglecting responsibility for your wellbeing.

Yes, taking responsibility is good professionally. Being able to leave responsibility at the door of the office or at the least, not letting that sense of responsibility corrode your sense of fun and spontaneity, will in the long run help your personal life and relationships, like the key one with your partner.

And, for all those ultra responsible lawyers out there, by partner I was not referring to partner of the firm….

Dr Raj Persaud FRCPsych is Emeritus Visiting Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry, and a Consultant Psychiatrist working in private practice at 10 Harley St.