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Are Lawyers Too Smart to Be Happy?

Vivia Chen

June 1, 2010


Correction, 6/3/2010 at 9 am: We misidentified James Rubin as a hedge fund manager in the original post; he is a private equity investor. We regret the error.

Remember that eighties shampoo commercial in which a luscious brunette purrs, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful"?

Well, try not to hate Gretchen Rubin because she seems blessed with a perfect life: She has a to-die-for resume (she edited the Yale Law Journal and clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor). She found the love of her life as a 1-L in the Yale Law Library (that would be fellow law student Jamie Rubin, now a private equity investor and Gretchen's husband). Her father-in-law is rich and famous (remember Robert Rubin, the former Treasury secretary?).

Topping all this, Rubin's now written a best-selling, hyper-buzzed-about book, The Happiness Project (Or, Why I spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun).

Just getting through the title is a chore. What’s covered in between the covers is even more daunting: Rubin packed her yearlong quest for greater happiness (she says she wasn’t unhappy) with countless resolutions and projects. Among her pursuits, she immersed herself in the study of St. Therese, started a children’s literature group, and renounced nagging and gossiping. (Real Housewives of Bravo, take note!)

So here's the big question: Can the average law firm drone relate to, and even benefit from, Rubin’s lofty quest? How can an associate break away to pursue a yearlong happiness project when she barely has time to refill her coffee cup?

"My favorite resolutions [for happiness] take no time, no energy," says Rubin matter-of-factly. Lawyers can start by paying more attention to those at home. "It can be touching more and hugging more," she says. Another no-time method to increase joy, she says, is to begin the day with singing. “It's just a step to create a calm, cheerful approach to the day," she explains.

What about lawyers with no one at home to hug, or those with no pitch? "If you take 20 minutes to clean your desk, it'll make a difference," she says, adding that the elimination of mess creates a sense of order and, hence, happiness. The point, she explains, is that small actions can have an impact.

You can't argue with her advice, though it's not terribly earth-shattering. Basically, it consists of the Golden Rules that your second-grade teacher beat into you: Be nice, sit up straight, eat your vegetables, and to thyself be true. (Rubin lists her own 12 "commandments," which include "Be Gretchen," "Be polite and be fair," and "Lighten up," and suggests that readers develop their own list.)

Some of the advice Rubin offers about achieving greater family harmony sounds like it came from an episode of The Berenstain Bears: "Jamie came up with a great one: Polite Night. He suggested that every Sunday night, we set the table properly, enforce good manners, and have a nice meal together."

The book is not scholarly like the law review articles that Rubin once penned--and that’s a compliment. It’s a breezy read. It's helpful and practical, like a magazine article on creative ways to use empty Cheerios boxes or sheets of Bounce. It's accessible and encouraging, which is probably why it’s become a best seller and spawned dozens of happiness groups throughout this country and beyond.

But will this type of how-to book pass muster with sharp, analytical legal minds? "I've been surprised by people who are stressed out who reacted positively to my book,” says Rubin. "I worry that what I talked about would seem trivial to them, but these little things [about achieving happiness] are reassuring."

Rubin definitely has lawyer fans. Even before her book came out, Wall Street Journal law blogger Ashby Jones, a lawyer himself, was smitten; he calls Rubin's happiness blog, "one of our flat-out favorites." A Yale Law School classmate of Rubin's calls her book "transformative."  "Nearly every page offers another tip, large or (usually) small that might capture a reader's imagination," he says. "For me and my family, it was the seven-second hug. For someone else it might be clearing closet hangers." The book, he sums up, is "superficial but full of wisdom. . .It's the book that Gretchen was put on earth to write."


Even though there's something soothing about her advice, I am skeptical. Like Rubin, I have sought out a greater sense of order by trolling the aisles at the Container Store or delighting in the idea of an afternoon spent doing decoupage (though neither of us have finished). Who is to say that busy lawyers couldn't benefit from these ideas too?

Readers, have any of you heard about a lawyer happiness project? Tell us about it.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected].

Photo: Ruby Washington, The New York Times, courtesy of Gretchen Rubin


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Money can't buy happiness...but it can sure enter into a long-term lease with it. I have a very nice and profitable little law firm. But its sure easier to search for "happiness" when you are not searching for a livelihood.

Why wouldn't she be happy? Her father was a former executive officer at Goldman Sachs. Her life is set. If she never makes a dime as a lawyer she will inherit and probably has already been gifted millions of dollars. What stress does she have to worry about? Connected and wealthy. Her life was set from the womb of her mother. How about sharing a story about somebody that works in the real world like most of us?

I've read The Happiness Project and enjoyed it very much. The legal industry is going through a great shift right now. So, the topics of personal and professional fulfillment, worklife balance, and happiness in and out of the office is getting more common each month. More and more people are focusing on their quality of life as a whole (not just their profession).

Lawyers can take the current employment situation as an opportunity to really create careers, businesses, and a life that they love. Too often, we do what we "should" want to do. We do this for so many years that we can forget what truly makes us happy.

Lawyers who are in transition right now or employed and not feeling any fulfillment from their work have the opportunity to really look inside at what it is that they value, what inspired them to go to law school from the start, and what skills they've obtained that can help them start their business or firm, get the job of their dreams, find more satisfaction in their current jobs, or transfer out altogether. The key is to identify your strengths and values, integrate them into your career goals, and take action- this assures happines and fulfillment.

Sonia Gallagher, Esq.
Helping lawyers create a career, business, & life they love.

We know her father-in-law Bob was happy cuddling with his sexy girlfriend in Miami.

There is a growing effort on the parts of some firms, corporate law departments, and major law schools to address the well-documented woes of the legal profession. Much of it is based in the work of Marty Seligman (UPenn) and positive psychology, and focuses on teaching lawyers resilience skills - following a model being used with the US Army - and strengths alignment (steering lawyers into roles suited for their personality types). I think these efforts (I am glad to share with anyone interested) are more serious and credible ways to get lawyers to take mental health seriously than hugging and singing.

Daniel S. Bowling, III
Duke Law School
[email protected]

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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