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Lawyers, can we really have it all?

This Legal Problem Solving post is by Morgan Webber-Otey, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2019.

“...[A] happy life as a lawyer is much less about grades, affluence, and prestige than about finding work that is interesting, engaging, personally meaningful, and focused on providing needed help to others. The data therefore also indicate that the tendency of law students and young lawyers to place prestige or financial concerns before their desires to 'make a difference' or serve the good of others will undermine their ongoing happiness in life…

If a lawyer isn’t happy, 'what is the point?'


-Lawrence S. Kreiger and Kennon M. Sheldon,

What Makes Lawyers Happy?: A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success​

Why are so many of us unhappy?

The reports are in—and, frankly, they are not so great. It is frequently stated that law school, and a legal career for that matter, can be unbearably difficult. “1L is a grind.” “The bar exam is hard.” “Just wait until you actually practice, it is even more demanding!” All said, a less than stellar forecast for the aspiring lawyer! Even still, 37,398 first-year students commenced their legal educations at ABA-law institutions in 2017, alone. One might reasonably venture to say that many of these law students expect to “make it out on the other side” where the grass is ostensibly much, much greener. Being equipped with the offer of a $190,000 salary and, at the very least, marginal levels of satisfaction will make it all worth it, they muse . . .

Yet, recent studies on lawyers and reported levels of happiness, as well as elevated rates of depression and addiction, shed light on a bleaker reality: this traditional legal career path might just not work for everyone. For some, that particular light at the end of the proverbial “tunnel,” may actually look incredibly different—and entirely undesirable—upon closer inspection.

Photo by Claudia Soraya on Unsplash

In a recent ABA ournal article, it was claimed that “lawyers are 3.6 times as likely to be depressed as people in other jobs, while the landmark 2016 American Bar Association and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study found that 28 percent of licensed, employed lawyers suffer with depression. What Makes Lawyers Happy, “the first theory-guided empirical research” into the contributing factors to the “well-being and life satisfaction of lawyers,” found that it was not “the more ‘elite,’ highly paid ‘prestige’ lawyers” who reported greater well-being, rather it was the lesser paid public service lawyers.

When examining growing concerns about the overall well-being and mental health of lawyers, the Chicago Tribune made reference to a distressing recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figure: “[l]awyers have the fourth-most suicides by profession, after dentists, pharmacists and doctors...” Further, even a cursory glance at some available articles on LawCrossing, and you will spot various links to items on “attorneys dying of stress,” “the importance of disconnecting from your work,” and “leaving the practice of law.”

So what accounts for these low levels of satisfaction that seem to plague the legal profession? Why are so many once creative and enthusiastic law students and young lawyers indifferent to, and disillusioned with, their chosen career paths? One explanation frequently offered is that law students and young lawyers are ill-prepared for what it actually means to be a lawyer. For most, the reality is that law school and law practice will neither be “Legally Blonde,” nor “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”

While, at best, the narrative of the oblivious and naïve student of the law is well-intentioned, it is nevertheless dismissive. In my estimations, the issue is largely due to almost exclusive attention to “thinking like a lawyer” and minimal attention given towards the practical demands of being a lawyer or being a healthy lawyer. Potential Solutions? Aside from varied clinical offerings, very rarely does one hear about the “mistakes” that furthered a successful and fulfilled lawyer in their journey to their desired legal position. We need more of those stories.

Okay, enough wallowing — what can we do about it?

1. Mental Health/Well-Being
A legal career should be just that: a career. It is a marathon and not a sprint. There is no gold medal for burning out. As such, the legal community must endeavor to “look behind the curtain” of an all too real and ignored aspect of the profession. Prioritizing our own wellbeing, not only serves us as individuals, but it is the only way to provide our clients with any services of value.

2. Reconnect, Reorient, and Reevaluate
Reexamine and reevaluate why you wanted to be a lawyer in the first instance. Was it for financial security or success? Did you set out to serve a certain population? Are the reasons that motivated you to persevere through the LSAT, 1L, and the bar examination still ringing true today? Have you carved out small moments for your family, hobbies, fitness, or even mindless television?

3. Rethink Your Network
Thinking both professionally and within your social circle, are there uncharted areas or interests that could offer supplementary forms of contentment? Are there lateral opportunities that you have you always coveted, but never had the time or wherewithal to really pursue?

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Nope, law practice is no longer for me . . . now what?

What can I do with a law degree — other than practice law?

For some individuals, a concerted effort to improve the now is all that is needed—a change in perspective or the location of a critical resource. For others, resolute that a career in law is no longer for them, all is not lost. It is more than likely that being a lawyer is merely the first major stop on the way to an even more rewarding path—just one piece of a larger "career puzzle." While, perhaps, a law degree is not quite as versatile as once touted, it is common for former lawyers to go into fields such as “banking, finance, public policy, government, the non-profit world, or for international organizations.” Further, many have had significant success as academics, politicians, entrepreneurs, and journalists and many other roles, following their legal careers.