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'Happy Lawyer' is not an oxymoron.

Jokes and false modesty aside, the legal profession views itself as a well educated, elite club of specialized, trained advocates and consultants that every intelligent American would want to join. Because lawyers view themselves as serving the public in a highly desirable profession, they have come to assume that jobs in law practices are prizes that every lawyer should want.

Yet, surveys by bar associations continue to reflect the low level of job satisfaction among lawyers. The 1998 Florida Law Opinion Survey reflected that 67 percent of lawyers were dissatisfied with their practices. (Judges and managing partners were the most satisfied.)

The 1999 Michigan Bar Quality of Life Opinion Survey reflected that 49 percent of lawyers were dissatisfied.

There is no question that happy lawyers produce a better work product, represent their clients better, engender more client loyalty and are stronger contributors to their practices as well as the profession.

A senior lawyer (male) with a sophisticated real estate practice told us: "I've talked to a lot of lawyers about this. They've tried part-time, mommy track, partner track, small firm, big firm, solo. It's just not possible to be happy in the practice long term."

The pervasive feeling among lawyers that the practice of law is incompatible with a happy life creates many problems, whether the lawyers are actively complaining to management or not. Actually, if lawyers are complaining, management should take that as a good sign.

It means they haven't given up and they still believe something can be done to change things they're dissatisfied with instead of resigning themselves to the futility of the struggle and simply marking time until they can leave.

Lawyers are people first, lawyers second. Research done in recent years on the pursuit of human happiness in Americans generally also applies to lawyers. Studies done on identical twins separated at birth confirm that humans are born with genetic predisposition to be happy or unhappy, but that predisposition, like other congenital set points, can be altered by lifestyle.

Research done over the past 30 years has established that the single most effective indicator of human happiness is appropriate goal-directed behavior.

After about seven years in practice, lawyers reach a point where life and practice goals are no longer set for them by schools, bar examiners or law practice managers. At this stage, they have at least 30 years of law practice before normal retirement age. How lawyers set goals in stages three (5-15 years) and four (15-30 years) of law practice can make the difference between a happy lawyer and a dissatisfied one.

But often, lawyers have never had any training in setting appropriate goals. Thus, in the final 30 years of law practice, some lawyers learn to set goals in a way that is acceptable to them by trial and error. But many simply give up.

Every lawyer wants to be happy and every practice should make the effort to help its lawyers achieve that goal. Happy lawyers may be born but definitely can be made by understanding basic goal setting techniques, the elements of human happiness and the antithetical training lawyers receive.

There are nine basic elements of human happiness best remembered by the acronym: Happy genes, Altruism, Purpose in life, Positive attitude, Intimate relationships, Never retire, Exercise, Spiritual life and Smile.

Laughter releases endorphins in the body and makes one feel better. To the extent that law practice is not fun, it is antithetical to happiness. The happiest people understand, that money cushions one against unhappiness but cannot make you happy.

Lawyers are trained to think negatively. Lawyers analyze the risks in every situation presented by clients as a mechanism to devise appropriate safety nets. The longer a lawyer practices law, and the more successful he is at doing it, the more he learns to see the potential harm in every situation. While this thinking may make a successful lawyer, when it is transferred to other aspects of daily living it creates an atmosphere of negativity that is difficult to overcome. Simply understanding that professional thinking is the antithesis of happy thinking is a giant leap toward creating a more satisfactory practice.

It is more than possible to be happy in the practice of law for 40 years or more. To do so requires an understanding of the issue, goal-directed behavior and a willingness to follow through. Appropriate goal-directed behavior understands and utilizes the relationship between challenges, skills, stress and boredom. Above all, happy lawyers understand that "Happy Lawyer" is not an oxymoron.

This People Wealth column is published here under the sponsorship of the Quality of Life/Stress Management Committee. People Wealth is a consulting firm serving the profession by improving job satisfaction for lawyers and keeping experienced lawyers available to the public. Contact PeopleWealth at (813) 221-0091 or The Quality of Life/Stress Management Committee's website is at The committee, in cooperation with the Florida State University College of Law, also has an interactive bulletin board on the web, called "A Happy Lawyer is Not an Oxymoron: Health and Satisfaction in the Profession." The Happy Lawyer board is located at[sim]happylawyer.
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Publication:Florida Bar News
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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