Our guest blogger today is Dan Bowling, who penned 10 Happy Tips for Lawyers for us. He is the managing principal of Positive Workplace Solutions, a visiting scholar at University of Pennsylvania, and a senior lecturing fellow at Duke Law School.
Lawyers aren’t psychopaths—at least most of them aren’t—despite what The Business Insider says. Actually, lawyers are a pretty normal bunch. Or maybe resilient is a better word. They better be, given that they are working in a stressful, competitive, and rapidly changing field with ridiculous hours and an uncertain future.
But like The Dude, lawyers abide. This what I have found in interviews, surveys, and coaching engagements with over 1,000 lawyers and law students in a number of law schools. Yes, I know this is contrary to the prevailing narrative about the misery of the profession—a narrative that I admittedly have been a contributor to.
So let me clear up the misconceptions and share what I've learned over the years:
Myth 1: Lawyers are miserable. Not so—lawyers are generally satisfied with their lives. The Bell Curve is alive and well. Well-being seems distributed among lawyers in a fairly normal statistical pattern, with most reporting life satisfaction around the middle.
What's more, law students entering law school actually show higher than average well-being. (This spring, we will be surveying 3Ls to measure what law school—and job hunting–has done to their happiness. Stay tuned.)
Myth 2: If you're depressed, that's your problem. For those lawyers and law students not doing so well, there's growing institutional awareness of this problem. There is no question that law practice and law school induce or exacerbate depressive symptoms in a percentage of the population, but law schools are taking this more seriously. Almost every law school makes some level of counseling resources available to students, and some go a step further, like Yale Law's “therapy” dogs during exams. Still, few if any legal institutions are providing the sort of formalized resilience training that is needed to better insulate this at-risk population.
Myth 3: Negative, cautious types get better grades. Personality traits don’t predict first-year grades. This is based on character strengths studies I conducted at two top 50 law schools with Peggy Kern of the University of Pennsylvania. This was surprising to us. It has long been believed that traits like pessimism and prudence translate into better law school grades (as opposed to grades in other professional schools).
Myth 4: Lawyers are cynical. They are skeptical, but no more so than most highly educated people. In other character strengths surveys, every group of lawyers sampled—from North Carolina country lawyers to their big city counterparts—rank themselves high in critical thinking. Guess what? So do most Americans with postgraduate degrees who took the same surveys.
Myth 5: Successful female lawyers are cold and emotionless. Instead, they attribute their success to humanistic traits. In a 2012 study of high-achieving women lawyers, we found that strong emotional awareness was a robust element of their success. (The study was led by attorney/psychological researcher Pat Snyder.) Which leads to the final myth:
Myth 6: Emotional intelligence is overrated. Actually, it becomes more important with career advancement. Lawyers tend to have a higher I.Q. than the general population, but score lower in emotional or social intelligence, meaning the ability to read and respond appropriately to other people.
Recently, I have noticed more firms talking about the value of emotional intelligence among its partners, arguing that it leads to better client attraction and retention. I agree.
Of course, I have yet to have a recruiting partner ask me to send him my most emotionally intelligent law students.
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