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10 Happy Tips for Lawyers

Vivia Chen

August 24, 2010

The Careerist's guest blogger today is Dan Bowling, who holds faculty appointments at Duke Law School and in the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program in positive psychology. Formerly head of global human resources for Coca-Cola Enterprises, he now advises institutions about employee well-being. He can be reached at [email protected].

by Dan Bowling

Being a happiness guru, as The Careerist calls me, is hard work. My years as a labor lawyer battling Teamsters was easy in comparison. So was fighting my way up the corporate ladder at Coca-Cola Enterprises. But since I started working with Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, the world famous expert on the science of well-being, things have gotten really tough. All people want from me now is the secret to happiness.

My lawyer friends sometimes ridicule me about my new vocation (“Hey, are we playing golf today or searching for truth and meaning?”). But they also want to learn about well-being. So do a growing number of law schools, law firms, and legal departments. The demand for answers (I would say cries for help, but everybody knows there’s no crying in law) is enormous. Everyone wants to know if happiness and law can coexist.

They have good reason for asking. Lawyers, as a group, are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, alcoholism and drug abuse, and a host of other psychological and emotional disorders than any other occupational group. These facts seems unfathomable, given the relatively high social standing, affluence, and educational attainment of lawyers--factors that correlate with well-being in most careers. But the facts, as we like to say, are the facts.

So, at the risk of sounding trite while compressing centuries of thought and research into a list, here are ten ideas for greater well-being in law.

1.  Play to Your Strengths. The research is overwhelming that you are happiest when you use your strengths and personality in your work. If you are a happy-go-lucky extrovert, try to avoid spending ten years doing discovery requests.

2. Choose Optimism. Although happiness is partly genetic, it is partly of our own choosing. The good news is that optimism can be learned. Start by challenging your own thoughts. Pessimists develop negative thinking patterns, such as believing that a bad outcome is a career ender.  Optimists perceive every setback as temporary.

3. Keep Perspective. The universe doesn’t revolve around you and your worries. If you aren’t in the top half of your class, it's not the end of the world, although it might seem like it when first-year grades come out. If you don’t make partner, life will go on.

4. Keep Moving--Literally. Don’t fight evolution. Your DNA comes from those early humans who could outrun prehistoric predators. The sit-around types became dinner and didn’t pass on their genes. Take frequent breaks and walk around. Get some air and sunlight. Sure, take a file with you so you can keep billing, but move around.

5. Be Sociable. The famed positive psychologist Chris Peterson, teacher of the year at the University of Michigan, defines happiness as follows: “Other people matter.” Pay attention to your old buddies from school, your family, the person next door. Go to reunions. Or at least happy hour every now and then.

6. Practice Gratitude. And thank those friends of yours. Studies show that people who express gratitude to others, and have a sense of thankfulness for the good things in life, experience much higher levels of well-being than those who don’t.

7. Be Resilient. At Penn, we are working with the U.S. Army to teach soldiers resilience techniques to cope with the stresses caused by never-ending deployments into a war zone. As with #2 above, the techniques involve developing thinking patterns to help navigate through life’s inevitable challenges. Most of the items on this list are taken directly from the training being done with the military.

8. Pause/Meditate. Stop! Right now. Focus on what you are doing. Block everything else out in your mind other than this present moment. Take a deep breath. And another. Relax.  There is abundant evidence that a few moments of mindfulness, or simple meditation, during the workday brings significant health and happiness benefits.

9. Keep a Sense of Humor. And work around people who do. Humans are biologically programmed for fun and play. I am not talking about nerf football in the library, but try to lighten up a bit. I once had a job where laughing--I kid you not--was frowned upon as being unprofessional. I quit.

10. Make Law a Calling--or Get Out. There is work, and there are callings. The happiest people find both at the same place. If you are moved by helping clients solve thorny legal issues, or sense you are fighting for a cause larger than yourself, you are in a calling. And I bet you love being a lawyer. If you hate it, get out. Follow Melville’s advice and go to sea. Buy a bar in the islands. Or bus tables until you have enough money to buy it. Do anything, but don’t stay in a job you hate.

But I am a pragmatist and a realist. If you are saddled with debt, desperate to find a job, or feeling stuck at a high-paying firm because of a mortgage and private school for the kids, a list like this sounds glib. But I challenge you to try at least one or two of these interventions and send me an e-mail letting me know if they helped a bit.

Related posts: "Are Lawyers Too Smart to be Happy?," "Depressed People Make Better Lawyers."

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email The Careerist's chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected].

Photo: Fotolia.com


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Hey Dan,

Loved your optimism and Be resilient point. You made some nice points and yes i agree that Lawyers face and go through different emotional and difficult phases when dealing with different cases.

Regular practice, Gym, proven ways to improve their mental functioning and preventing brain aging makes them much stronger and sharp in their analytical approach.

A good lawyer is born to face and solve difficult situations easily.

I especially liked your "choose optimism" point. There is something to be said for people who can bounce back after setbacks. Rather than feeling like a failure, they know that everything is temporary. In a high-stress field like law, that kind of a perspective can make a big difference.

My brother is a lawyer in Cambridge and he can get pretty stressed and down sometimes. I will definitely show this article to him and maybe it will help him out. Thanks for posting!

Very useful and interesting tips! I'll be sure to utilize this list in the near future. Thank you for posting and I look forward to more!

If you are happy with what you are doing, then you have found the perfect career. Happy people are those who excel in their given profession. Love what you do, and you won't have to work a day in your life.

6. Practice Gratitude. I agree.

Hey Dan,

I really enjoyed your tips!

I especially agree with making law your calling or getting out. I practiced law in Florida for about seven years and knew more clearly each day that passed that it was not my calling. It became more difficult to hide from when I ran my own practice.

Life always has a way of reflecting whether you are following your calling or not. I closed my law firm and have not looked back. I now follow my passion of helping other lawyers find fulfillment inside or outside of the law as a lawyer coach. Statistics on lawyer depression and addictions are staggering and only getting worse with the shifts happening in the industry.

It's really important to remember it isnt' illegal to be a happy lawyer.

Sonia Gallagher, Esq.
Lawyer Coach

Great article, Dan! Thanks for sharing these tips based on science with us. I will be sure to pass them along to all my stressed out lawyer friends in NY. Keep up the great writing. Look forward to reading more of your articles.


Interesting article, Dan. I think too many lawyers are a special kind of unhappy because their expectations about what being a lawyer would mean have collided with realities of a job that has turned out to be much different. Over the past 20 years, we haven't helped ourselves with the rise of the dominant, metrics-driven BigLaw business model -- billings, billable hours, and profits-per-equity partner. Too often, it produces behavior that exacerbates the disconnect. So, in addition to advising an ever-expanding group of dissatisfied attorneys (as you properly do), perhaps the profession's greatest challenges in the long-run are: 1) better to inform prospective lawyers about the path ahead before they take on law school debt equal to a home mortgage -- albeit without the house; and 2) persuade BigLaw business leaders that attorney satisfaction is, in fact, an important contributor to the bottom-line -- even though they may not be able to measure it in ways that are obviously visible in their Am Law 100 PEP rankings. Neither is easy.

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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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