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Depressed People Make Better Lawyers

Vivia Chen

July 22, 2010

IStock_000013080855XSmall There seems to be a whole slew of books and articles on lawyers and happiness. I can't quite understand the phenomenon, and I don't know any practicing lawyer who's actually read one.

But we can't seem to stay away from the topic. Just a few weeks ago, I queried: Are lawyers just too damn smart to be happy? At that time, I was discussing The Happiness Project, a best seller by former Supreme Court clerk Gretchen Rubin.

This time, Dan Bowling, a labor lawyer and happiness scholar, is chatting with us about this topic. This fall, he'll be teaching a course on lawyers' well-being at Duke Law School. A former law firm partner and head of Coca-Cola's human resources, Bowling has been studying the mystery of lawyer happiness with famed psychologist Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania.

Why should we care whether lawyers are happy or not? What so special about them?
As a population, lawyers suffer from depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and suicide more than any other profession. Lots of people say, "So what?" But I think we have to care; we shouldn't have such a large number of our membership be miserable.

Is there more misery these days because of the economy? 
Most of the the evidence on lawyer unhappiness predates the economic crisis. The evidence dates back 20 to 25 years.

Okay, so lawyers have always been a miserable lot. You also say that studies show that optimistic people outperform all others in every measure of job success except lawyers. So why do pessimistic people make better lawyers?
That's the popular interpretation of Seligman's study. There's some validity to that, because lawyers look for the worst-case outcome and plan around it. Pessimism is useful in many types of law practice.

If being miserable makes you a better lawyer, why mess with that formula for success?
I'm not sure I totally buy that. There are lawyers who are happy and successful. There's a study that says trial lawyers tend to be more happy than most people.

What about lawyers who never set foot in the courtroom? Are they doomed to be unhappy? 
There are people who are delighted about working with documents and making a lot of money. I'm not here to bash big law.

You don't think big law firms are to blame for the lawyer malaise?
Institutions like law schools and big firms create some of the damage. There are those who want to change the profession, and those who look at the psychological roots and advocate techniques like resilience training, and finding work that's more aligned with people's personality.

So you're not out to change law firms?
I am a realist, not a reformer, and don't think major changes in the way we practice law in big firms and the way we teach it in big schools are on the way.  However, I do think we can better inform law students about different career paths in law, and provide more resources to help them develop the resilience and optimism they need to thrive in a legal career. This is the focus of my work and research.

You keep mentioning resilience training. That sounds like you're parachuting into enemy territory.
At Penn, we taught resilience training and positive thinking training to the U.S. Army. There is an analogy between those in the military and those in law. Both are demanding jobs that entail making sacrifices, long hours, time away from family, and where failure is not an option. The positive training techniques we brought to the U.S. military can be applied to lawyers.

Can you give me an example?
Catastrophic thinking is part of both being a soldier and lawyer. You teach people not to always assume the worst. If a fellow soldier is late, you shouldn't assume that he's lost, had an accident, or has defected. For lawyers, if a client doesn't call you back, you shouldn't assume they hated the opinion letter you drafted.

The U.S. military has bought into this idea of improving morale--but will Am Law 100 firms? 
Big law firms pose the greatest challenge; they hold the keys to the kingdom.

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].

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I think depression is a part of a Lawyer's life. But a good Lawyer always keep it aside and think about the case.

Depression may help up to a point, and then it becomes debilitating. I know this as I've gone from a happy optimistic person to a pessimistic depressed person thanks to the law. I'm a trial lawyers, and I've been very good at it.

But now, quite frankly, I fear that my depression and anxiety has reached a point that it keeps me from being effective. I can hardly stand to look at the law anymore.

I too am skeptical if depressed lawyers really are better lawyers. Correlation of course does not equal causation; the causation may be reversed or there may be other confounding factors at work.

It would seem that better lawyers are more conscientious and pay more attention to details. Perhaps taking all these problems too seriously may lead the lawyer to be depressed, not the other way around.

A more depressed lawyer may be less enthusiastic about the client's project, and therefore may be less aware of other concerns that must be balanced with legal risks. Many lawyers are overly risk-averse because they may face unhappy clients or liability if something goes wrong. But if a project is nixed entirely, not all attorneys will see the downsides to the company of reduced profit, reduced employment opportunities, and a reduction in socially-useful work. It would seem a mentally-healthy person would best be able to give a realistic assessment of the risks and benefits.

Lawyers are not only more depressed than most people but they also lie a rate 50% greater than the population at large. Source Americans for the Enforcement of Attorney Ethics

There is little doubt I am depressed, and I must say, a damn good lawyer. Though I would not call myself a pessimist at all. And it all seems a bit specious. Also how do you define "better?" More productive? I am not. Greater success in court? I do enjoy that advantage over some of my colleagues. Which though is being measured? I like law and being a lawyer; much happier when I am in Court or at a deposition practicing my trade -- but keeping track of every six minutes of my life, being held to billable quotas, chased around by managing partners with recaps of my hours and micromanaged by people who have the title of partner but otherwise are paper pushers who lack a clue about litigation is demoralizing and dehumanizing. Hence the depression.

For the record, I don't think depressed people make better lawyers. There is research suggesting pessimism is helpful in the practice; however, I feel like in all other fields the highest performers and happiest people tend to have strong psychological resources. Whether that is natural optimism, or learning to be resilient in the face of adversity, both lead to better outcomes professionally and personally.

Dan Bowling
Duke Law School

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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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