Is Law Wrecking your Life?

Do Legal Careers Ruin Lives

For all the high numbers of law students and young lawyers around, there are vast numbers of people who simply hate being a lawyer.

I’m not one of them.

In fact – I love being a lawyer. I love going to work, I love interacting with my colleagues, and I love the nature of the work itself. There’s a reason I sign off on my articles and emails with “happy lawyering” – it’s because I genuinely believe that it’s possible.

The usual sticking point when it comes to wellness among lawyers isn’t necessarily the career itself – it’s that people aren’t willing to do what’s needed in their own lives.

And that’s not an accident. In fact, it’s the result of a lot of hard work and a series of deliberate decisions on my part to craft a career that I love and which inspires me.

Although I don’t believe that everyone should be a lawyer, I do think that there are plenty of lawyers who simply haven’t been taught the necessary skills, habits and practises that will help them really enjoy their careers.

Importantly, though, just reading about these things won’t help you – you need to actually do some things, or there is no point.

In fact, if you’re not prepared to adjust how you approach your career, how you structure your day, and how you practice law and life – then you might as well stop reading now, click back to whatever fast scrolling social media site you were on, and keep wondering why you hate being a lawyer.

This Series for Lawyers who Hate Their Jobs

This is the first in a series I’ll be putting out on creating a career that you’ll actually enjoy.

The starting point, and the position of this article, is to see why we need to bother caring about this subject, and to take a look at the real problems people face as lawyers.

It’s a bit of a downer, but it’s important to see what we’re facing before we get in to some of the solutions.

I’m not going to minimise some of these issues or the complexity of them.  But for young lawyers who genuinely want to avoid falling into some of these pits, there are some specific strategies that can really help you design a career you love.

I said “design” because it’s deliberate – it involves conscious effort and decision making on your part.

Why Bother?

I guess it’s a worthwhile question for those who are resigned to living lives of quiet desperation – why bother striving to create a legal career that you actually enjoy?

For starters, it’s more fun. Imagine for a moment actually getting out of bed in the morning with a positive outlook, an energetic feeling, and a desire to get to work.  Sounds like a pipe dream? Well it’s not that common, and it takes some work, but that just makes it all the more satisfying once you get there.

In case the sheer nature of being happy doesn’t appeal to you (I have to wonder why) then there’s always this: people in positive psychology fields have found that those with more positive, happy outlooks on their lives and professions actually do their jobs better. People who are “happy” are smarter, more motivated and more successful.

Beyond that, however, a summary of over 200 studies on happiness (or positivity, if you want) has found that it leads to success in all aspects of our lives: marriage, health, friendship, community, creativity, careers and business.

It’s important here to recognise that the current view is that positivity comes BEFORE those things, not as a result of them. It is a distinct and discernible difference that many have yet to grasp – success does not cause happiness – rather, happiness causes success.

The usual sticking point when it comes to wellness among lawyers isn’t necessarily the career itself – it’s that people aren’t willing to do what’s needed in their own lives. The result is that they end up trapped on a path that they really can’t stand, and it gradually erodes at their lives.

The Standard Useless Advice for Lawyers that Hate their Jobs

Let’s get the useless advice out of the way now, so we can get into dealing with the issues properly:

  • Get a hobby – yipee that’ll fix it;
  • Change careers – sure, that’s an option after you’ve invested $100k into your education and have to pay it back (realistically though it might be all you’ve got if things are dire enough – but let’s try some other strategies first);
  • Work part time – absolutely, if you can find a firm that offers it, and appreciate that “part time” in a law firm means 35 hours a week;
  • Work/Life balance – if this exists at all, it’s code for going out to a party every now and again after work, which fixes nothing and costs you money;
  • Get a new job – that way, you can blame others for your problems and find a bunch of interesting new things to be unhappy about.

Problems can Start in Law School – Law Students have Mental Health Issues

Yale Law School Mental Health Alliance - "Falling Through the Cracks" Dec 2014
Yale Law School Mental Health Alliance – “Falling Through the Cracks” Dec 2014

I think it’s important to see that the issues in the profession don’t only relate to the practice of law. In fact, in a study done by Yale law school, 70 percent of law students were identified as having had mental health issues.

Similarly, Harvard found similar results in a 2004 study on its students published in the Harvard Crimson (Kaplasn, K.A, 2004, “College faces mental health crisis”).

What can we see from this? We can see that, despite the tendency to blame things like “work/life balance” or to lump all the problems on having to record our time, the issues that lawyers ultimately face in fact have an earlier genesis than many people think.

If we’re going to create a career that we love – we need to accept that the things stopping us from getting there are not all external circumstances.

The Symptoms of the Unhappy Lawyer

Before we can embark on creating a career that you love, we do need to look at the opposite end of the spectrum, just to get a realistic idea of what we’re trying to combat.

Sky High Rates of Depression in Lawyers (and not-quite-depression)

Occupations and the Prevalence of Major Depressive Disorder,” 32 Journal of Occupational Medicine 1079 (1990)
Occupations and the
Prevalence of Major Depressive Disorder, 32 Journal of Occupational Medicine
1079 (1990)

I’m sure by now that you’ve heard it, but this is the reality of the profession that we are in. Depression among lawyers is a massive issue, and it cripples firms, families, friends and lawyers every day.

To see just how depression affects not just us but those around us, we need only turn to the symptoms (source: www.beyondblue.org.au):

  • not getting things done at work;
  • withdrawing from close family and friends;
  • unable to concentrate;
  • overwhelmed;
  • lacking confidence;
  • indecisive;
  • tired and sleeping problems;
  • sick and run down;
  • increased substance abuse.

The list could go on and on, but what do we see? We see a list of debilitating issues that will prevent a lawyer from functioning both in their jobs and in their lives.

We also, disturbingly, see a list of traits that are fairly common among lawyers.

Having some of these traits doesn’t automatically mean you have depression, of course, but you can see the issue – the similarities to what many lawyers experience, even if they don’t have depression, is startling.

Stress, Hours, Time – Facets of the Same Issue

Here are the complaints – let me know if any of these sound familiar:

  • I’m stressed up to my eyeballs;
  • I’m too busy all the time;
  • I don’t have enough time to spend [insert desired activity];
  • I spend all day in the office;
  • I’m exhausted from work;
  • Nothing I do makes any difference;
  • I never see my family

As you can see, some of these are issues resulting from the nature of the legal profession, some are perception issues, and some are expectation issues.

It’s complex, but not unmanageable.

Not Getting Paid Enough

It’s interesting to see just how many lawyers are deeply unsatisfied with their pay. For example:

Quote about Hating Job Optimized

And yet, despite it all, lawyers are paid pretty well in relative terms to the rest of the community.

What’s that tell us? It tells us that the problem isn’t necessarily the pay scale – it’s a combination of:

  • feeling undervalued;
  • a sense of entitlement (or a lack of contentment);
  • a mismatch between expectations and reality.

Since money is the source of all evil, it’s something that’s worthwhile giving some attention to.

So Where do We Find Ourselves?

We can see a pattern here pretty easily.

Lawyers work in high stress jobs for which they want to be well compensated.

There is frequently a mismatch between expectations and reality, which causes all sorts of issues.

Finally, we see that lawyers are prone to depression – whether it’s the nature of people who want to be lawyers or a consequence of legal studies and a legal career doesn’t really matter (at least – not for this series) – the problem is there and needs to be approached head on.

Recognition Is Only A Start

If I can leave this article with just two thoughts for you to consider:

  1. You are not powerless against these problems. We’ve been trained to simply accept that there are certain realities of “being a lawyer” that come with the territory. Of those “realities”, only a few are in fact true.  The rest are constructs that we permit around us, and refuse to accept that we can actually do something about them.
  2. There are specific, actionable things that you can do (and we’re going to cover soon enough) which are going to dramatically change your outlook on your career for the better.

So stay tuned – and let’s start re-creating our legal careers.

Happy lawyering!

>