Happy lawyer – sounds like an oxymoron, right? Having practiced law for seven years, I can’t think of many colleagues I would classify as happy or even mildly enthusiastic. More troubling, when I ask lawyer audiences how many would pick this profession if they had to do it all over again, very few hands go up. The law is a well-regarded profession (despite all the lawyer jokes you hear) that affords most in it a very comfortable income, prestige, and respect – yet something is missing.
I recently spoke at a conference on lawyer well-being and was thrilled to co-present with one of my favorite law professors, Larry Krieger. Krieger, together with social scientist Ken Sheldon, authored a wonderful study examining lawyer satisfaction. They discovered that the things that lawyers think will make them happy long term in the profession (for example, money, prestige, making partner, status) are exactly the opposite of what actually does lead to well-being in the law, and scientifically, have little to no correlation with happiness. They found, instead, that three pathways correlate most strongly with long-term well-being.1
Pathways to Long-term Lawyer Well-being
Autonomy. Lawyers who are highly autonomous feel like they can make their preferred choices and can express themselves authentically. Authenticity was a consistent problem for me when I practiced law because I often felt as though I left the best of who I was in the car. I would pull into the parking structure and become “Paula the lawyer” – the person I thought I needed to be to be successful in the law – rather than the person I really was who was already a success.
com paula marieelizabethcompany Paula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is the founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute, a training and consulting firm focused on enhancing resilience, well-being, and engagement in the legal profession. She is the author of the e-book, From Army Strong to Lawyer Strong.
In addition, this can be a big barrier to success for younger lawyers who don’t have much opportunity to say no to a partner or to create flexibility in their day, and it’s something firms and organizations should begin to pay attention to.
Working with people who actively support this autonomy in others is strongly tied to well-being, while working with a partner with a more controlling style is predictably de-motivating.2 Importantly, autonomy-support can be taught, and research shows that even formerly controlling teachers can be trained to provide better autonomy support to employees.3 In fact, businesses that supported an autonomous environment (versus top-down direction) grew at four times the rate of control-oriented companies and had one-third the turnover.4
Mastery. Happy lawyers are the masters of their domain. Mastery is your desire to get better at something that matters to you, to feel competent and be successful at difficult tasks. Getting frequent feedback (especially about what is going right as you develop your practice), observing others who have mastered the skills you seek to develop, coaching in areas that need development, and mentoring all help to develop a sense of mastery.
Connection to Others. Relatedness is how you connect or relate to others and whether you feel a sense of belonging at work. Chronic incivility depletes the legal profession’s one true resource – its people. Collegiality, on the other hand, fosters psychological safety – the feeling that the work environment is trusting, respectful, and a safe place to take risks. When lawyers don’t feel psychologically safe, they are less likely to seek or accept feedback, experiment, discuss errors, and speak up about potential or actual problems.5
More importantly, there is a loneliness problem in the legal profession. A study written about in Harvard Business Review in 2018 found that of all the professions measured, lawyers scored the highest on loneliness.6 This may be because lawyers’ work is often solitary, but also because they are busy. After long hours at the office, many lawyers report that they just want to get home to their families, hobbies, or other pursuits.
Businesses that supported an autonomous environment (versus top-down direction) grew at four times the rate of control-oriented companies and had one-third the turnover.
I have also seen similar data with my own work – many lawyers report a range of social-connection concerns ranging from not having a strong network of mentors or people they can count on for support to actually reporting that they feel lonely.
Harvard Law School professors Scott Westfahl and David Wilkins emphasize the importance of networks and connecting in their recent Stanford Law Review article. These connections allow lawyers to leverage their technical and professional skills in new ways, collaborate meaningfully to solve complex client problems, and provide the space to find different ideas, people, and opportunities. Sheldon and Krieger’s study further supports the assertion that relationships, in all forms (to self, others, work, community and your direct partner/supervisor) are the ultimate key to lasting satisfaction in the legal profession.7
Additional Ways to Build the Pathways
Westfahl and lawyer-consultant Avery Blank offer these other suggestions to build the three pathways outlined above:
Give attorneys greater responsibility for hiring, pro bono, and charitable activities, including real leadership roles.
Ask associates to develop new training, lateral integration programs, and metrics for success and to report regularly to management about associate preparedness and perceived gaps.
Provide more opportunities for lawyers to write, speak, and otherwise represent the firm through activities that can also promote business development.8
Lawyers are like everyone else in terms of what they need to feel satisfied and happy at work, but their training can interfere with their capacity to meet these needs of autonomy, connection, and mastery. Professionally, lawyers are responsible for doing all of the due diligence in a matter, analyzing what could go wrong in a situation, and steering their clients away from negative effects. That’s important when lawyers are engaged in the practice of law; however, when lawyers practice looking at issues in a skeptical way 12-14 hours per day, that thinking style becomes harder to turn off when it’s not needed. Ultimately, it can undercut leadership capabilities, interactions with clients, staff, and family, and the way life is viewed generally.
In addition, law firm and organizational leaders aren’t always well-versed in this research and are often unaware of the powerful effect of these psychological needs on motivation and engagement and the simple practices that can influence them.
So yes, happiness is in fact possible in the legal profession; firms, organizations, and the individuals in them simply need to pay attention to the things that actually cultivate it, which is often the opposite of what society tells us really matters.
Three Pathways that Correlate Most Strongly with Long-term Well-being
Larry Krieger and Ken Sheldon’s study on lawyer satisfaction found that autonomy, mastery, and relatedness are the three factors that correlate most strongly with long-term well-being.
Autonomy is the ability to make one’s own choices.
Mastery means getting better at something that matters and feeling competent and being successful at difficult tasks.
Relatedness is how a person connects or relates to other people and whether the person feels a sense of belonging.
Here are some suggestions for building these pathways, for yourself or your coworkers.
- Work with people who actively support autonomy.
- Get feedback and coaching frequently.
- Observe others.
- Be nice to other people, and seek out people who are nice to you.
- Give lawyers more responsibility for pro bono and other volunteer work.
- Ask associates to develop hiring and training activities.
- Give lawyers opportunities to engage in business development such as writing and speaking.
1 Lawrence S. Krieger & Kennon M. Sheldon, What Makes Lawyers Happy? A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success, 83 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. (2015). See also Dianne Molvig, What Makes Lawyers Happy? 87 Wis. Law. (July 2014).
4 Paul P. Baard, Edward L. Deci & Richard M. Ryan, The Relation of Intrinsic Need Satisfaction to Performance and Well-Being in Two Work Settings, 34(10) J. Applied Soc. Psychol. 2045-68 (2004).
5 Christine Porath, How Rudeness Stops People from Working Together, Harvard Bus. Rev. (Jan. 20, 2017).
6 Shawn Achor et al., American’s Loneliest Workers, According to Research, Harvard Bus. Rev. (March 19, 2018).
7 Scott A. Westfahl & David B. Wilkins, The Leadership Imperative: A Collaborative Approach to Professional Development in the Global Age of More for Less, 69 Stanford L. Rev. (June 2017).
8 Avery Blank & Scott Westfahl, Leveraging the Strengths of Millennials: Finding Common Ground and Hidden Opportunities, PD Quarterly (a NALP publication) (May 2017).