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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    April 06, 2010

    The Science of Well-Being and the Legal Profession

    A lawyer’s journey through the legal profession may have many ups and downs, and sometimes it may foster a mindset that can contribute to a deteriorating sense of well-being. Understanding why and how lawyers approach the demands of their profession can lead to strategies for improving lawyers’ professional and personal satisfaction. The author presents an empirical, research-based framework and some solutions to help move the legal profession to a culture of positive professionalism.

    Paula Davis-Laack

    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 83, No. 4, April 2010

    Meditation Lawyers face challenges unlike those found in many other professions. The combination of long hours, time away from family, pressure to find (and keep) clients, stress, and the ever-present focus on the bottom line does not leave much room for balance or a general sense of well-being. This article analyzes why the journey into the legal profession can be difficult and provides research-based solutions to move toward a culture of positive professionalism. The goal is not to present a jaded, self-help view of how to fix the unhappy masses, but rather, to present an empirical, research-based framework to initiate a new conversation within the legal profession.

    The science of well-being is formally known as the field of positive psychology. Positive psychology is the scientific study of the conditions and processes that contribute to flourishing and optimal performance in individuals and organizations. For the past half-century, psychological research focused almost exclusively on mental illness and how to treat it. As a result, little attention was paid to the study of what causes people, communities, and businesses to thrive and prosper. While positive psychology research focuses on well-being, it is intended to supplement, not replace, traditional psychological research.

    Unhappiness and the Legal Profession

    The loss of personal well-being among many lawyers starts in law school. Research spanning almost two decades has shown that before law school, future law students are as emotionally healthy as the general population; however, just six months into law school, negative symptoms such as anxiety and depression increase dramatically and continue throughout all three years of law school, with as many as 20-40 percent of students being clinically depressed.1 This sharp decline in emotional well-being appears to be unique to law students because these findings have not been seen in other overworked populations of graduate students.2 In fact, compared to medical students, who are in a similarly demanding academic environment, law students have significantly higher levels of stress and stress symptoms.3

    Levels of depression and anxiety among law school graduates have been found to still be significantly elevated two years after graduation.4 In addition, a study exploring depression in various occupations found that lawyers suffer from depression at a rate 3.6 times higher than people in other occupations.5 Some law firms have even created committees to combat the daily grind and to help retain associates.6 Recent studies have shown that on average, firms lose nearly one-fifth of their associates in any given year, “in an industry in which about 20 percent of lawyers overall will suffer depression at some point in their careers.”7 With fewer and fewer people making partner, hard work no longer guarantees success.8

    Paula Davis-Laack

    Paula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, works with lawyers and law firms to develop and implement professional and personal development initiatives to improve problem solving, communication, and leadership skills and engagement. She practiced commercial real estate law before founding The Marie Elizabeth Company LLC. She is pursuing her master’s degree in applied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Reach her at The author thanks attorney Daniel S. Bowling III for his suggestions and encouragement.  

    While several factors likely influence levels of attorney well-being, research points to several principal causes of the decline in well-being:

    1) Pessimism.9 Psychologists do not define pessimism as the glass being half empty but instead use the concept to describe the way a person explains why events happen.10 Pessimists tend to view bad events as permanent, pervasive, and uncontrollable and good events as temporary and changeable.11 Pessimism is largely a negative force in most facets of life: for example, pessimistic college students get lower grades in comparison to their SAT scores and past academic record than do optimistic students, pessimistic sports teams are consistently outperformed by their optimistic peers, and pessimistic pitchers and hitters in baseball games do worse in close games than their optimistic counterparts.12

    Lawrence Krieger, one of the leading researchers on attorney and law student dissatisfaction, theorizes that the process of “thinking like a lawyer” is linked to the development of a pessimistic attitude.13 He explains that “this process requires the closest scrutiny of spoken and written thought to identify any defect that may undermine an adversary’s position or create future problems for one’s client. Thinking ‘like a lawyer’ is fundamentally negative; it is critical, pessimistic, and depersonalizing.”14 Thinking like a lawyer is a crucial component of an attorney toolkit, but like any valuable tool, it can be overused or used in the wrong context. The difficult part is figuring out how to balance thinking like a lawyer (when required) at work but then leaving that skill at the office at the end of the day (developing additional or different skills to enhance one’s personal life and relationships).15

    2) Lack of control in high-stress situations. One study measuring job demands and lack of control found that the one combination that was most detrimental to health and morale was high job demands in combination with low control. Individuals in this category have much higher rates of coronary disease and depression than those who fit into any other category.16 While attorneys can control their levels of preparation, their manner of presenting information, and their behavior toward adversaries, they cannot control the facts, the relevant law, a client’s motives, or the behavior of judges, jurors, or opposing counsel.

    3) Increasing bottom-line focus and win-lose situations. The combination of the increasing bottom-line focus of the profession and a high rate of involvement in win-lose situations (also called zero-sum situations or zero-sum games) is often cited as the most deeply rooted cause of lawyer unhappiness.17 It has been stated that “American law has … migrated from being a practice in which [providing] counsel about justice and fairness was the primary good to being a big business in which billable hours, take-no-prisoners victories, and the bottom line are now the principal ends.”18 Bottom-line businesses are often win-lose games, in that certain benefits have to be cut to preserve the business as a whole, and there is an emotional cost to being part of a win-lose enterprise. For every winner there will be a loser, and even if something aside from winning or losing matters, it does not matter much.19

    Understanding Lawyer Compassion Fatigue in Wisconsin: Public Defenders Participate in Study 

    The Office of the State Public Defender (SPD) is participating in a study of compassion fatigue among lawyers and support staff. The State Bar of Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) will use the results to develop training materials and techniques to benefit lawyers and law office staff in a variety of practice areas and environments. The results of this initiative will be shared with legal professionals in Wisconsin and across the nation.

    Compassion fatigue – sometimes known as secondary trauma – has been characterized as the “cumulative physical, emotional and psychological effects of being continually exposed to traumatic stories or events when working in a helping capacity.” Symptoms of compassion fatigue can include heightened stress levels, disturbed sleep, irritability, pessimism, and isolation. Primary risk factors include working in an environment with high demands but limited resources coupled with ongoing exposure to traumatic material. Data from earlier lawyer-related studies show lawyers who do criminal, juvenile, or family law seem especially vulnerable to compassion fatigue.

    The study is being conducted by Dr. Andrew Levin, medical director of Westchester Jewish Community Services, Westchester, N.Y., and Linda Albert, State Bar of Wisconsin WisLAP coordinator. After SPD staff complete the survey, Albert will visit regional offices to provide training on understanding and mitigating compassion fatigue. Following training, SPD staff will retake the survey at regular intervals over the next 18 to 24 months. The study provides a unique opportunity to measure the impact of training on reducing compassion fatigue and burnout.

    Because the training and repeat surveys will be conducted in intervals, the final analysis may not be available until 2012, at which time Levin and Albert will report the results of their work. For more information about the project, please contact Linda Albert, WisLAP coordinator, at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6172, or; or see the full article, “Understanding Lawyer Compassion Fatigue in Wisconsin: Public Defenders Participate in Study,” in the March 17, 2010, issue of WisBar InsideTrack™.

    Ideas for Well-being in the Legal Profession

    Research-supported methods that attorneys and law students can use to enhance the quality of life and of business, include, but are not limited to, the following:

    1) Create a resilient style of thinking. Resilience is a person’s ability to adapt to change (be it positive or negative) and bounce back from adverse events to attain success.20 Resilient individuals “show more emotional stability when faced with adversity, are more flexible to changing demands, and are open to new experiences.”21 Resilience is composed of a bundle of different abilities, which include things like empathy, optimism, self-efficacy, and staying calm under pressure, and each component can be measured, taught, and improved.22

    To begin improving your resilience, first pay attention to how you respond to different adversities or stresses in your life such as studying for exams, preparing for a trial, maintaining balance between work and family, dealing with client conflict, or handling a work setback. What does your thought process look like in these and other situations? Second, analyze what you believe about each of these adverse thoughts. Your beliefs will generally fall into two categories – beliefs where you ask “why” (such as, why did this happen) and beliefs where you think “what next” (such as, if I don’t get picked to work on the next trial, then I’ll never make partner and my career will be over). Finally, ask how these beliefs shape your response to the adverse event or challenge – what is the consequence. You can begin to reframe your thoughts when you become aware of the way you think. For example, if you tend to jump to conclusions, try slowing down and then ask yourself what evidence you’ve based your conclusion on; if you take an overly narrow view of challenges, refocus on the big picture.23 You can measure the different components of resilience using the RQ test found in the book The Resilience Factor.24 The ultimate goal is to create a flexible and accurate style of problem-solving and communication.25

    2) Discover and use your strengths. Researchers have classified 24 cross-cultural character strengths that, once identified by a person, can be cultivated.26 These character strengths can be measured by taking the VIA (Values in Action) Inventory of Strengths found at The test is free, takes approximately 30 minutes to complete, and provides immediate feedback about your top five strengths, along with a rank order of the remaining list of strengths. If one of your character strengths is gratitude, keep track of how many times you say “thank you” during the day and increase that number every day for a week; if you have a good sense of humor, make at least one person smile or laugh each day; if your strength is perseverance, commit to finishing an important project ahead of schedule; if your strength is leadership, offer to take out a new associate for lunch so he or she feels welcome.27

    The Gallup Organization has quantified those strengths that lead to good financial outcomes for businesses, and in 2007, Gallup updated its StrengthsFinder test by publishing StrengthsFinder 2.0.28 The book contains a unique code you must use to take the free online test. The strengths outlined by this research have particular utility in the workplace. For example, if one of your strengths is learning, then take advantage of a CLE program that is in a different practice area but that might supplement your current work; if your top strength is focus, volunteer for a project that requires you to work independently – you will be able to stay on track with little supervision; if you are an achiever, launch a new initiative or a new project in your firm – your energy will create enthusiasm and momentum.29 People thrive when they get to display what they do best. Research shows that at workplaces where employees believe they have the opportunity to showcase their strengths, there is a significantly higher rate of loyalty and employee retention along with a much higher annual yield of employee productivity.30

    3) Foster positivity. Positivity is a concept that does not get much press in the legal profession, but research indicates that positivity is valuable to individuals and teams. Positivity produces success in life as much as it reflects success in life, in that regardless of whether success is measured as a satisfying marriage, a larger salary, or better health, positivity matters.31 Increasing positivity has been found to open people’s minds to allow for greater flexibility and being able to see the big picture, and over time, positivity tends to strengthen, which allows individuals to build their resources.32 Research shows that the key ratio of positive to negative emotion is 3 to 1. Studies of different corporate teams have shown that “high-performance teams stood out with their unusually high positivity ratios, at about 6:1 [and] by contrast, low-performance teams had ratios well below 1:1, and mixed-performance teams sat just above that, at around 2:1.”33

    You can measure your positivity ratio in a matter of minutes at Try one of the following activities to increase your positivity ratio: experiment with mindful awareness as you go through your day (take notice of the sunset as you drive home or when someone says “thank you”); create high-quality connections (built through respectful engagement and support of other people by helping them succeed, trust, and play (that is, goof off!)); make gratitude a habit (thank an associate for his or her hard work or a client for years of loyal business); or visualize your future (what do you want your life to look like 10 years from now?).34

    The goal of this article was to articulate a research-based argument for integrating the science of well-being into the legal profession. The information presented can, at the very least, spark a conversation about how the science can be applied within the legal profession to increase problem-solving skills, communication, engagement, and well-being at home and at work.

    To Learn More About Yourself … 

    Visit these resources to learn more about your:

    • Character strengths –, free online test (Values in Action Inventory of Strengths)
    • Measure of different components of resilience – RQ Test (The Resilience Factor, pages 34-47)
    • Work-related strengths and talents – StrengthsFinder test, free online, access code in book (Tom Rath, StrengthsFinder 2.0 i-vii (Gallup Press 2007))
    • Positivity ratio –, free online test, Barbara L. Fredrickson


    1G. Andrew H. Benjamin et al., The Role of Legal Education in Producing Psychological Distress among Law Students and Lawyers 225, 240-47 (American Bar Foundation 1986); Kennon M. Sheldon & Lawrence S. Krieger, Does Legal Education Have Undermining Effects on Law Students? Evaluating Changes in Motivation, Values and Well-Being, 22 Behav. Sci. L., 261, 271 (2004).

    2Todd David Peterson & Elizabeth Waters Peterson, Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology, 9 Yale J. Health Pol’y L. & Ethics 357, 359 (2009).

    3Id. at 359.

    4Benjamin et al., supra note 1, at 246.

    5William W. Eaton et al., Occupations and the Prevalence of Major Depressive Disorder, 32 J. Occupational Med. 1079, 1085 table 3 (1990).

    6Alex Williams, The Falling-Down Professions, N.Y. Times, Jan. 6, 2008, available at



    9Martin E.P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness 177 (New York, NY: Free Press 2002); see also Martin E.P. Seligman, Paul R. Verkuil, & Terry H. Kang, Why Lawyers are Unhappy, 23 Cardozo L. Rev. 33 (2001).

    10Seligman, Authentic Happiness, supra note 9, at 177.

    11Id. at 177-178.

    12Id. at 178.

    13Lawrence S. Krieger, Institutional Denial about the Dark Side of Law School, and Fresh Empirical Guidance for Constructively Breaking the Silence, 52 J. Legal Educ. 112, 117 (2002).

    14Id. at 117.

    15Seligman, Authentic Happiness, supra note 9, at 179.


    17Id. at 180.


    19Krieger, supra note 13, at 117.

    20Fred Luthans, Gretchen R. Vogelgesang, & Paul B. Lester, Developing the Psychological Capital of Resiliency, 5 Hum. Resource Dev. Rev. 25, 26 (2006).

    21Id. at 27.

    22Karen Reivich & Andrew Shatte, The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles 33 (New York, NY: Broadway Books 2002).


    24The RQ Test and component sections are found on pages 34-47 of The Resilience Factor.

    25Martin E.P. Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life 218 (New York, NY: Random House 1991).

    26Christopher Peterson & Martin E.P. Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification 1-32 (New York, NY: Oxford Univ. Press 2004).

    27Christopher Peterson, A Primer in Positive Psychology 160-161 (New York, NY: Oxford Univ. Press 2006).

    28Tom Rath, StrengthsFinder 2.0 i-vii (New York, NY: Gallup Press 2007).

    29Id. at 40, 102.

    30James K. Harter, Frank L. Schmidt, & Theodore L. Hayes, Business-Unit-Level Relationship between Employee Satisfaction, Employee Engagement, and Business Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis, 87 J. Applied Psychol. 268, 273-274 (2002).

    31Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King, & Ed Diener, The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? 131 Psychol.
    Bulletin, 803, 822-825 (2005).

    32Barbara L. Fredrickson, Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive 226 (New York, NY: Crown Publishers 2009).

    33Id. at 121-24.

    34Id. at 200-13.  

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