Attorney Kristina Larry offers up her top four secrets to happiness in the stressful legal profession.
A law school classmate of mine recently posted an article on Facebook titled “5 High-Paying Jobs that Will Make You Miserable.” In response, the lawyers in our circle discussed the stress, lack of free time, and overall unhappiness of being a lawyer. One comment read, “I wouldn’t say I’m miserable, but I’m not happy.” This is nothing new, so why does it keep happening? Why are lawyers continuously miserable (or unhappy)?
The article mentions that lawyers are known for high suicide rates, have the highest rate of depression among 100 professions, and that “associate attorneys topped Forbes’ ‘Unhappiest Jobs’ list.” This was attributed to working long hours and the pressure of having to constantly bill clients. But this is a problem that can be fixed. You can be a lawyer and be happy.
Do some good
I have heard colleagues say that they work long hours and don’t actually feel like they are doing any good. So how do you change that? Well, you probably can’t get out of working long hours as an associate, but how about volunteering? I know, I’m suggesting adding more work to your already weighed-down shoulders, but hear me out. Having associates who volunteer their time makes the firm look good, so some firms allow their associates to volunteer a few hours a month at a legal clinic or something similar — and count the time as normal work hours. Many firms also take pro bono cases; ask if you can work on one. Pro bono cases offer a chance to get away from what you normally do and you’ll get the chance to truly help someone, which can be very rewarding.
Billing is another big issue that makes lawyers very unhappy — and who wouldn’t be, valuing your whole existence down to six-minute increments? I’m not sure if the dreaded hourly billing will ever go away completely, but at least lawyers are now exploring alternative billing methods. This makes for less stress on the lawyer’s part and you get happier clients who don’t hate you for charging them for a three-minute phone call. If your firm is not already trying out a new billing method, tell them to get with the times; billable hours are so 1991.
Strike out on your own
If you realize that law firm life is just not for you, you can always start your own firm. Being your own boss gives you the power and freedom to make your own choices, practice what you want, and decide your own schedule. All of that can definitely lead to happiness. The best part is you don’t have to do it the same way everyone else has. Be creative, find a niche, and enjoy what you do.
Care for yourself
Finally — and most importantly — let’s talk about the tough issue of depression and suicide. No case, client, or partner track is worth your health or life. If you are feeling depressed, talk to someone; there is no shame in asking for help. I think many lawyers believe that they must figure it out themselves, but that is not true. You don’t have to go it alone and you are not alone. If you are experiencing depression, many bar associations have lawyer assistance programs that promote self-care and attorney health (see the WSBA’s LAP program). If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.