Happy lawyer – sounds like an oxymoron, right? Having practiced law for seven years, I can’t think of many of my colleagues who I would classify as happy, or even mildly enthusiastic. More troubling, when I ask my 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 of the lawyer jokes you hear) that affords most in it a very comfortable income, prestige and respect – 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 groundbreaking study examining lawyer satisfaction. They discovered that the things that lawyers think will make them happy long-term in the profession (e.g., 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. Rather, it’s these three pathways that most strongly correlate with long-term well-being:

    1. Autonomy. Lawyers who are highly autonomous feel like they can make their preferred choices and can express themselves authentically. This was a consistent problem for me as an attorney because I often felt like 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.
      Working with people who actively support this need in others is strongly tied to well-being, while working with a partner with a more controlling style is predictably de-motivating. Importantly, autonomy-support can be taught, and research shows that even formerly controlling teachers can be trained to provide better autonomy support to students. 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.
    2. 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), coaching in areas that need development, and mentoring all help to develop a sense of mastery.
    3. Relatedness. 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 to speak up about potential or actual problems. Harvard Law School professors Scott Westfahl and David Wilkins emphasize the importance of networks and connecting in their recent Stanford law review article. Networks and 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 to your direct partner/supervisor) are the ultimate key to lasting satisfaction in the legal profession.

Westfahl and lawyer/consultant Avery Blank offer these other suggestions to build the three pathways outlined above: (1) give attorneys greater responsibility for hiring, pro bono and charitable activities, including real leadership roles; (2) ask associates to develop new training, lateral integration programs, metrics for success and report regularly to management about associate preparedness and perceived gaps; and (3) provide more opportunities for lawyers to write, speak and otherwise represent the firm through activities that can also promote business development.

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 impact. That’s important when lawyers are engaged in the practice of law; however, when lawyers practice looking at issues through such a pessimistic, rigid lens 12-14 hours a 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.

So yes, happiness is in fact possible in the legal profession; firms, organizations and the individuals in them simply need to pay attention to what actually cultivates it, which is often the opposite of what society tells us really matters.

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