Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

News & Events

Being a Successful Lawyer


Today, I have the pleasure of hosting an Assist booth at the LESA Real Estate Refresher in Kananaskis. This is the first large-scale conference I have attended since the onset of the pandemic, and it is wonderful to see and chat with so many lawyers and the LESA staff.
I love getting to come to events like this—and I didn’t realize how much I missed this until today. Assist has a gorgeous trifold setting out key findings from the National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants for Legal Professionals in Canada and how Assist is responding to stress, distress and crisis for Alberta lawyers and students. We have wonderful swag—resilience tip bookmarks and our signature Blue Buddy cell phone holders whose smiling face makes people smile. 

And I love any opportunity to bring presentations to law firms and legal departments—please consider inviting us for your next continuing education or staff meeting!
Driving out to Kananaskis gave me time to think about my career and what I value. On one hand, I sometimes feel that I remained in private practice and in in-house life too long, and I am not alone. Wishing that they had gone out on their own or with a partner or two earlier is a common theme for lawyers who have their own small firms. But, on the other hand, we need training and mentorship to develop the confidence and skills to have our own practices. There is no magic formula to determine when the right time to make moves or take a chance with a new venture.
One thing that holds lawyers back is a sense that being a “successful lawyer” means working in a high-powered and competitive environment, whether in a law firm or corporate setting. We wear as badges of honour that we are still standing, after many of our peers have fallen away. But is “still standing” the criteria with which we define success? And how do we build in our psychological wellness and perhaps even happiness (which we are entitled as human beings to aspire to)?
Right now, lawyers have been putting their names forward to serve as Benchers of the Law Society, and the KC appointment application is open. These processes cause lawyers to view their careers through the lens of external benchmarks, showing achievement of law practice success like high-profile clients and deals that are covered in the media. There are no awards for lawyers who build a practice around their personal values with well-being as a criterion, although many lawyers applying for KCs or Benchers have made significant commitments to well-being. We just don’t talk about it in the same way.
In my (humble) opinion, we need to support definitions of success in our profession that centre on well-being and perhaps even work-life balance.
There is no question that the lawyers who meet external benchmarks are seen as successful lawyers. Their work may be covered in news media. Clients who come to their offices may be impressed with the size and the upscale atmosphere, not to mention the fleet of juniors and assistants who can be called on at any time. And who doesn’t look at a luxury car or a beautiful house as a sign that someone has made the big time?
But here is my definition of a successful lawyer: a lawyer who enjoys the work they do, likes the people they work with (both clients and colleagues), and whose work aligns with their values. A lawyer who is successful according to my definition may have all of the outer trappings of success or they might not. What matters is whether the individual lawyer feels successful—and happy-- on the inside.
Being a data and research geek, I love to talk about my favourite lawyer studies (ad nauseum, some may say.) A couple of studies in the early 2000s found that law students had relatively normal mental health (compared with the general undergraduate population) when they began law school, but their well-being deteriorated during first year law school, while their motivation shifted from intrinsic (helping people and making the justice system better) to extrinsic (getting top grades, being invited on to Law Review, getting summer student positions.)
We all know that correlation is not causation, so we can’t say that the shift from internal motivation to external motivation causes a decrease in law student mental health. But I wonder what would happen if lawyers were to shift at least part of their focus from external benchmarks and reconnect with their earlier senses of purpose.
There isn’t a study that looks at this question, but Professor Larry Krieger’s work on lawyer happiness comes close. Professor Krieger was one of the researchers on the law student study above, so perhaps there is a level of connection between the two.
Professor Krieger conducted a research study of more than 6,000 lawyers in 2015 to determine what types of factors or events increased the subjective well-being (aka happiness) of lawyers. It may surprise you to learn that the factors which were most linked with happiness were all intrinsic factors not involving the attainment of external benchmarks:

  • Autonomy, integrity, authenticity
  • Relatedness
  • Competence
  • Internal Motivation
  • Autonomy Support

Most lawyers are self-starters who are achievement-oriented (although whether that was a natural condition or a state that was nurtured is open to interpretation.) We generally like finding a solution to a problem and then working towards implementing that solution, whether through drafting, advocacy or other means. And we like to be in charge, so that we are determining our strategy and work plan based on our professional experience. We like autonomy, and we complain when we don’t have it.
While more of us are introverts than extroverts, we value having good relationships with our colleagues. This is not a surprise—going to work with people you dislike, or distrust, sounds like a circle of Hell. Lawyers are probably not alone in valuing quality relationships at work!
But do we give ourselves credit for building positive relationships? Anyone who has ever been married or in a long-term relationship will attest that good relationships take work and that they often involve subordinating some of our needs and wants to the needs and wants of another person. So, congratulations to the lawyers who have built supportive and caring teams. Not only is a lawyer only as good as their team, but this also embodies successful lawyering in action!
Feeling competent is fundamental to our well-being. We can infer this from its polar opposite: when we feel incompetent or under-competent, we are stressed and distressed. This is likely a big piece of why articling students have high levels of distress—almost everything they are asked to do every day is completely new to them. And tasks carry a heavy weight of potential failure: not only do students worry about the quality of their work but many also have to fear the reaction of their principal or supervising lawyer!
So, if you are able to do autonomous and authentic work, have great relationships with your colleagues and you have enough experience that you feel competent (or don’t have to fear being yelled at if you make a mistake), you are more likely to be happy—it looks like another linkage between succeeding at important components of practicing law and happiness.
The fourth criteria, internal motivation, has always resonated with me. I was one of those law students who went to law school so that I could help people (even though I had absolutely no idea how I wanted to do that!) And while I clung to my internal motivation through law school and articling, I reached a point during my first year of practice where big law beckoned. There would be steady work, with no pressure on junior lawyers to market themselves (one of the things that terrified me), the pay was great, and the offices were beautiful. But I felt badly for losing my plan to help people.
I reconnected with my sense of purpose when I moved in-house and assumed responsibility for the human resources profile—I was helping my employer provide an excellent workplace. I used to joke that I was in the business of firing people, but we only fired employees who had been given warnings and clear communication about expectations for success and we provided fair severance packages to employees who were terminated without cause. I took pride that we treated people fairly! When I set up my consulting practice with an HR colleague, our tagline was “helping your business do the right thing for the right reasons,” and we turned down clients that didn’t share our philosophy.
Think about why you went to law school and see if you can re-engage with a sense of purpose that led you to this career. Not all of us are on the frontlines, saving truly innocent people from harm—but the roles that we play are still connected with the fundamental values of our society. We just may have to work a bit to make sure we understand and celebrate the connection.
The final criteria identified by Professor Krieger is autonomy support—having support or structures in place that allow you to function autonomously. Many of us felt disentitled to autonomy when we were articling students or junior lawyers, receiving indications from frustrated senior lawyers when our work products did not meet their expectations. One of my friends endured an egregious assessment when he asked a question of a more senior lawyer and got the response “why am I not surprised that you are asking me a question like that,” meaning not only was the question a dumb question but the lawyer associated lack of knowledge and dumb questions with my friend.
But I also remember gaining the confidence of one of the partners I worked with who told me that he no longer needed to review my letters before I sent them out. This happened more than thirty years ago but I vividly remember the burst in pride that I felt from this support of my autonomy.
Even when we work alone, we receive a form of autonomy support from clients who trust us, from our banks who supply our lines of credit, from our staff who come to work every day believing that we know what we are doing. And it is okay—and perhaps even necessary—for us to celebrate these small wins.
One of the most interesting aspects of the lawyer subjective well-being study is that money had a very small impact on subjective well-being, while making partner or being invited on to law review for law students were neutral to happiness. Somehow, in our path to become and then advance as lawyers, we learn to associate success with money and partnership status, sometimes at the expense of our own happiness. I question whether the brass rings associated with a successful legal career are what we really want to strive for, and that perhaps happiness and subjective well-being are platinum rings and are more worthy of our cravings.
My message this week isn’t really for lawyers who have reached benchmarks for success and are happy. My message is for lawyers who aren’t happy, regardless of visible indicia of success, and my message is about empowerment.
The first step toward empowering ourselves to value happiness is to take fifteen minutes or so to look at how much autonomy we have, the quality of our work relationships, what work we feel competent to do, how our work connects with our inner missions, and what factors support our autonomy. I think that many of us will be surprised to find that we have more autonomy and more positive relationships than we realize, and that there are support structures in place that we rely on every day. Sometimes we just need a bit of encouragement to realize that we have good things in our work worlds even if everything isn’t perfect.
And if you are struggling to feel authentic, to have positive relationships with your co-workers or to feel competent, you are not alone. It happens in our profession. But you don’t have to suffer in silence—you can look at where there is a deficit between what you have and what you need in order to feel happy and successful. Most importantly, please know that you have the right to be happy and to take steps, both in your legal practice and in your life, to enhance your happiness.
If you want to talk to lawyers who have made changes in their practices for lifestyle and happiness reasons, call Assist for peer support. While Assist focuses on intervening so that stress does not become distress and distress does not become crisis, we are also actively involved in helping lawyers adapt their work environments.
I spent years apologizing or trying to justify my choices, from working on a reduced hours basis, to job-sharing, to running a small practice out of my home. I felt like I constantly had to explain why I was doing what I was doing when it didn’t align with mainstream lawyer culture. But I realize now that the problem wasn’t me being a round peg trying to fit into a square hole, although there was some of that, but rather that law culture celebrates some models of practice over others and that what we celebrate may not be healthy. Why don’t we celebrate lawyers who deploy their legal skills in a way that maximizes their personal values rather than attainment of external benchmarks which we know are unlikely to result in happiness?
Please take my fifteen-minute challenge to look at whether your practice supports your subjective well-being goals. Remember that the object is not to take a definitive yes/no model to whether you have enough autonomy or competency but to identify gaps. Gaps can be filled, and Assist is here to help you.
Looking forward to working with you toward success through happiness,