Finding Happiness and Practicing Law are Not Mutually Exclusive

by Kaitlin Edleman | January 23, 2014

I showed up for my first day of law school with my shiny new case books and 50 pages of perfectly typed notes in hand. I was eager, ready to espouse all of my knowledge about Vosburg v. Putney and, apparently, doomed.

Rather than kicking off the class with a rousing discussion of 19th century shin injuries, the professor climbed on top of his soap box and proceeded to launch into a speech detailing the perils of a career as an attorney. I learned that (1.) my classmates and I would soon become substance addicts and (2.) when self-medication failed to ease the pain, we would probably just off ourselves. It was an uplifting first day.

The inspiring narratives didn’t end there. During the Virginia State Bar swearing-in ceremony, we raised our right hands to take an oath and were simultaneously handed in our left-hands a laminated card to keep on our desks listing the signs of substance abuse. I guess I should just put that next to my diploma?

Do attorneys really lead such a miserable existence? Well, in a word, yes. Attorneys have the highest rate of depression and are almost twice as likely as other Americans to abuse drugs and alcohol. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. We, yes, even practicing attorneys, can make better choices that will allow us to find happiness, or at the very least, to put down the bottle and step away from the ledge. Dan Bowling, faculty at Duke Law School and the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program in positive psychology, provides the following six suggestions:

  1. Focus on the Big Picture: Sure, that weird guy who didn’t wash his hair in law school landed a big firm job and you’re stuck in the endless cycle of contract work, but you are both still lawyers, and comparing yourself to him won’t make you feel any better. Overcoming setbacks is difficult, but looking at the long term will help you gain perspective and lead tomore happiness.
  2. Laugh: What do you call a nun who just passed the bar exam? A sister-in-law! Don’t you feel better already! If that didn’t work, try this.
  3. Look on the Bright Side: Don’t get sucked into the polar vortex of negative thinking. While expressing your dissatisfaction can be cathartic, constant complaining will only reinforce how terrible you already feel. Focusing on the positive will help you feel, well, more positive.
  4.  Focus on the task at hand: Stop trying to do everything at once. Close g-chat and write that brief. I highly doubt your Facebook feed has been updated with anything life changing in the past 30 seconds, so just finish your reading. Put down your smart phone and actually communicate using spoken language with the person with whom you are having lunch. Concentrating on one task will help you feel less scatterbrained, minimize stress and probably lead to more productivity.
  5.  Get out of your chair: Sitting hunched over your keyboard all day is going to destroy your back and make you feel awful. Get up and take a spin around the office. I dunno, you could even, go outside for five minutes or, GASP, try to exercise after work. If you are that afraid to leave your desk, at least, just stand up and stretch for 30 seconds every six hours. Getting your endorphins flowing will certainly lead tomore happiness.
  6. Stay in touch with friends and family: You know, your friends and family, those people outside of law school and the office that you feel obligated to see around the holidays. Have a conversation with them.Talk about something other than your job. Maintaining and building relationships will help you feel less isolated and will contribute to your over-all well-being.

It’s tough out there for lawyers and law students, but you can change your outlook on life. Remember, “The answer lies within ourselves. If we can't find peace and happiness there, it's not going to come from the outside.”--Tenzin Palmo (in Tenzin Palmo: Cave in the Snow

What do you do to maintain happiness against the endless grind of being a lawyer? Let us know in the comments!

If you are struggling with addiction or depression, please find help here.

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Filed Under: Law | Workplace Issues


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