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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    March 01, 2015

    On Balance
    Rethinking Lawyer Motivation and Well-being

    Lawyers most likely to thrive today are those who follow these specific steps to increase their well-being and stay highly motivated.

    Paula M. Davis-Laack

    directional signsAttorney well-being is a topic that is increasingly talked about in legal circles as the profession struggles to navigate through a changing landscape. Law schools are trying to figure out how to adapt and expand curriculum to meet the changing needs of the profession, and law firms continue to manage the challenges and changes presented by clients today. Virtual law firms are increasing, more projects are being given to contract attorneys or shipped overseas, businesses are figuring out how to manage issues internally before, or instead of, calling a lawyer, and clients are demanding alternative billing methods. While many of these issues used to be exclusive to “Big Law,” firms of all sizes are going to have to adapt to what I call “New Law” – a new way of thinking and doing business in the legal profession.

    Change has consequences, the biggest of which is that it drives uncertainty. Uncertainty leads to increased stress, less teamwork and loyalty (why should I care about you – I need to protect my own turf), feeling like you aren’t in control, and an increase in mistakes and omissions. I co-presented a webinar last year for a large malpractice-insurance carrier, and one of its claims’ attorneys said that claims for errors and omissions have jumped from approximately 13 percent of its total claims a few years ago to approximately 54 percent last year. Lawyers are feeling distracted, stressed, and pushed to their limits.

    Despite the innate challenges of the legal profession, research points to very specific ways that lawyers and law students can build their well-being and stay motivated to practice at high levels.

    Building Lawyer Well-being and Motivation

    Law school professor Lawrence Krieger and psychologist Kennon Sheldon have been researching lawyer and law student well-being for well over a decade. Most recently, they analyzed data from more than 6,200 lawyers and law students to discover what really drives and undermines well-being.1 What they discovered is that the external factors that are often emphasized in the legal world – law school grades, income after graduation, law school rank, and law journal membership – were either not correlated at all or only very weakly correlated with well-being.2

    Experiences of autonomy (feeling empowered to have a sense of control over your time and choices you make), relatedness to other people (having at least a few high-quality connections with others), and competence (having the ability to master tasks and be effective at what you do) were found to have the highest correlation with well-being.3

    Autonomy, connection to others, and competence are the three components of self-determination theory, a theory of motivation with decades of research supporting its efficacy.4 According to self-determination theory, all human beings require regular experiences of autonomy, competence, and connection with others, and when we get these things in a high enough dose, thriving and positive motivation are the result.5 When applied to lawyers and law students, Krieger and Sheldon state, “These large correlations indicate that well-being co-occurs with these experiences [of autonomy, relatedness to others, and competence] so commonly that it may not be possible to attain thriving without relative satisfaction of all of these needs.”6

    A Closer Look at the Components of Self-determination Theory

    Here is a more in-depth look at each component of self-determination theory, and I’ve provided additional strategies for developing each piece.

    Autonomy. Lawyers who are highly autonomous are self-governed and have a great deal of say in how they spend their time and the types of projects they accept. Having an autonomy-supportive supervisor or manager is strongly tied to well-being, while working with a partner with a more controlling style is predictably de-motivating.7 Autonomy-support can be taught, and research shows that even formerly controlling teachers can be trained to provide better autonomy support to students.8 Businesses that supported an autonomous environment grew at four times the rate of control-oriented companies and had one-third the turnover.9

    Lawyers can become more autonomy-supportive by showing responsiveness to other people’s perspectives, using noncontrolling language, and offering opportunities for choice.10

    Connection to Others. High-quality relationships are a crucial component of every happiness measurement, from engagement to motivation to resilience and well-being. According to business and psychology professor Jane Dutton, there are four distinct pathways for building high-quality connections at work. The first is to respectfully engage other people by communicating supportively and being an effective listener. Second, facilitate another person’s success with guidance, recognition, and support. Third, build trust, which can be done by relying on another person to follow through on projects and other commitments. Finally, have moments of play. Play evokes positive emotions and is often associated with creativity and innovation.11

    Paula Davis-LaackPaula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is the founder and CEO of the Davis Laack Stress and ResilienceInstitute, an organization that educates attorneys and professionals about how to better manage stress, prevent burnout, and build resilience. She is the author of the e-book, 10 Things Happy People Do Differently.

    Competence. Mastery is the desire to get better and better at something that matters to you. Law schools and law firms can promote a sense of mastery by allowing students and lawyers, respectively, to have more flow experiences. Flow is a term coined by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi to describe a person’s optimal balance between boredom (the task falls short of our capabilities) and anxiety (the task exceeds our capabilities).12 It is the mental state in which people feel like they’re “in the zone,” engaged and working in their sweet spot. In addition to creating the opportunity for more flow experiences, partners and managers can remove barriers to effective performance, provide regular feedback,13 and promote grit.14

    The Business Case

    Autonomy, connection to others, and competence are important because they drive motivation and engagement. For those of you focused on the bottom line, it has been shown that engaged employees perform better on a daily basis, and the higher a person’s level of engagement, the higher their objective financial returns.15 In addition, levels of employee engagement were positively related to business performance in the areas of customer satisfaction and loyalty, profitability, and productivity. That is, higher employee engagement translated into higher customer satisfaction and loyalty, higher profitability, and more productivity.16

    Changing the Message

    The messages about predictors of success and well-being and what it means to thrive in the legal profession must change. Krieger and Sheldon state it so well: “The data contradict[] beliefs that prestige, income and other external benefits can adequately compensate a lawyer who has not secured autonomy, integrity, meaningful/close relationships and interest and meaning in her work. The data suggest fundamental changes in the belief system shared by many law students, lawyers, and their teachers and employers. In particular, the shared understanding of ‘success’ needs to be amended so that talented students and lawyers more regularly avoid self-defeating behaviors in the pursuit of success.”17


    1 Lawrence S. Krieger & Kennon M. Sheldon, What Makes Lawyers Happy? Transcending the Anecdotes with Data from 6200 Lawyers. (Feb. 20, 2014). FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 667.

    2 Id. at 24.

    3 Id. at 25. The correlation between autonomy and well-being is 0.66; the correlation between relatedness and well-being is 0.65; and the correlation between competence and well-being is 0.63.

    4 Edward L. Deci & Richard M. Ryan, The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior, 11 Psychol. Inquiry 227-68 (2000).

    5 Kennon M. Sheldon & Lawrence S. Krieger, Understanding the Negative Effects of Legal Education on Law Students: A Longitudinal Test of Self-Determination Theory, 33 Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 883-97 (2007).

    6 Id.

    7 Krieger & Sheldon, supra note 1.

    8 Sheldon & Krieger, supra note 5, at 895.

    9 Paul P. Baard, Edward L. Deci, & Richard M. Ryan, Intrinsic Need Satisfaction: A Motivational Basis of Performance and Well-Being in Two Work Settings, 34 J. Applied Soc. Psychol. 2045-68 (2004). See also Daniel H. Pink, Drive 91 (New York, NY: Penguin Books 2009).

    10 Anne Brafford, Building the Positive Law Firm: The Legal Profession at Its Best. (2014) (Master’s degree capstone, Retrieved on Jan. 30, 2015 from

    11 Jane E. Dutton, Build High-Quality Connections, in How to Be a Positive Leader: Insights from Leading Thinkers on Positive Organizations 11-21 (Jane E. Dutton & Gretchen M.
    Spreitzer eds., 2014).

    12 Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York, NY: Harper & Row 1990).

    13 Brafford, supra note 10.

    14 See Paula Davis-Laack, Grit: A Critical Success Strategy, Wis. Law. (Dec. 2014).

    15 Arnold B. Bakker, An Evidence-Based Model of Work Engagement, 20 Current Directions in Psychol. Sci. 265-69 (2011).

    16 James K. Harter, Frank L. Schmidt, & Theodore L. Hayes, Business-Unit-Level Relationship Between Employee Satisfaction, Employee Engagement, and Business Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis, 87(2) J. Applied Psychol. 268-79 (2002).

    17 Krieger & Sheldon, supra note 1.

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