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On Being a Happy Lawyer

On Being a Happy Lawyer

Happiness and practicing law don’t always go together the way peanut butter and jam do. In law, it can feel like we put all our energies into making our peanut butter, ensuring that it is creamy and tasty, but more or less assuming that the jam—what makes us happy—will just naturally follow and be equally great. Of course, in my analogy, the peanut butter is our legal skills and practice, and the jam is our happiness.

How do we go about building our happiness as lawyers?

A groundbreaking study by Professor Larry Krieger at Florida State University in 2015 told us that lawyer happiness, or subjective well-being, was linked with intrinsic factors more than extrinsic ones. When I deliver presentations to law firms and legal community groups, I summarize this study’s findings with this chart:

Factors Most Linked to Lawyer Happiness Factors Least Linked to Lawyer Happiness
Autonomy/Authenticity/Integrity Use of Alcohol*
Relatedness Billable Hours*
Competence Making Partner
Internal Motivation Being on Law Review
Autonomy Support  
- money had a small-to-moderate correlation with happiness * Negative correlation

Notably, money was not the key to happiness—surprise! And the things that we believe to be the brass rings in law, being invited to join law review as a student or invited to become a partner in a firm, do not increase our happiness.

What are brass rings anyway? Brass isn’t a precious, or even semi-precious, metal—it is an alloy of tin and copper--I had to look it up. It was popular in the 1980s and 1990s as a home furnishing trend and it appears that it may be coming back on (probably because I have finally expunged all the brass from my house which was built in 1989).

But why should we be striving for brass rings? Surely, we can aim to do better—-perhaps a precious metal like silver, gold or platinum. We all want different things, but in my opinion, happiness is the platinum ring and that is what I am striving for. Let’s dare to aim for platinum rings!

How do we get these platinum rings? There is a path for lawyer happiness involving the five factors Professor Krieger identified: autonomy/authenticity/integrity, relatedness, competency, internal motivation, and autonomy support.

It is easy to dismiss one study, but a recent article by a Finnish philosopher and psychology researcher, reinforces these themes. Why am I citing a Finnish expert? Because Finland has consistently ranked as the happiest country in the World Happiness Report. Dr. Martela identified five ways of developing deeper connections.

First, Dr. Frank Martela explains that Finnish people are less concerned about status or a societal definition of success. Hmm—this looks rather like having internal motivation for what you are doing as opposed to achieving external benchmarks.

Dr. Martela postulates that if we live for our ourselves, rather than someone else’s expectation, we will be happier, and this makes us able to give to others, which will foster deeper connections with our communities and our passions.

Secondly, he notes that developing, and then sharing, expertise contributes to happiness. Finding something that you are good at, that excites you, and has a positive impact on others can have a positive impact when you share it with your community.

Some lawyers may be passionate about their work and how it has a positive impact on our larger community, but not all lawyer roles are altruistic or are even of interest to other people—few people want to go to a lecture about tax rollovers for corporations unless they own or work in a business. This is why it is important for us to develop non-law interests that we can share outside of our workplace. It isn’t selfish or frivolous to spend time on hobbies or passion projects—when we share them with others, we enrich ourselves and our community.

Dr. Martela’s third method for finding deeper connection is to practice random acts of kindness, actively helping others. Three easy examples he provides are offering a glass of water to the mail carrier, spending an afternoon with a grandparent, or helping someone from out of town find their way.

I live in a neighbourhood where we have a community mailbox. I don’t know when I last saw a mail carrier! And I no longer have grandparents to spend time with, nor do I readily come across tourists. But I take his point about helping people—especially when linked with research, a study which found that giving support to others improved longevity and health.

In a presentation earlier this year, Assist’s lead psychologist Dr. Brian Forbes, talked about how acts of kindness improve our well-being. He cited examples such as holding the door for someone or giving someone a compliment. And then he added one that I struggled to accept: let someone in in traffic rather than cursing them and trying to shut them out.

This one rankled me because, while I like letting in cars whose drivers clearly didn’t know that a lane disappeared or didn’t realize that you had to change lanes well in advance of an intersection, I view people who drive up to the front of the queue and expect to be let in as budgers. Pardon the digression, but when I was in school, we called it butting in—and children learned in elementary school not to “butt in” but to go to the back of the line. My kids laughed at what they thought was mispronunciation when I used that expression. The more current term is budging, so I am going to use that term (unless there is a newer term….)

So, when I am faced with someone seeking to be let in, I often discern who I want to help based on whether they appear to be asking politely and perhaps a bit apologetically. And when a driver pulls up to the front to the queue arrogantly expecting to get let in, my back goes up, I don’t make eye contact, and I try to make my car take up the maximum space in my lane possible. Asking me to do an act of kindness to these people is extremely counter-intuitive!

But expressing kindness without judgment might be an important part of how acts of kindness contribute to our well-being. After all, being kind to people who we deem to be worthy is not strictly speaking kindness—it is rewarding people whose behaviour pleases us. This summer I will be working on this (but in the meantime, please don’t cut me off in traffic!)

Dr. Martela’s fourth point builds on the kindness concept, but it extends it from kindness to individuals to kindness to a group on the basis that working together in a community helps build community and belonging. He cites a Finnish concept called “talkoot” where people join together to undertake big projects—kind of like an old-style prairie barn raising or perhaps a quilting bee—followed by sharing a meal and refreshments.

While I suppose a closing dinner after completing a transaction could fall into this category, I suspect that the fact that lawyers, and other people on the deal teams, are being paid converts this from a helping activity to a job activity, likely reducing the benefit. Again, like letting in only people we have assessed as “good,” we are not necessarily extending kindness gratuitously but because of work and merit.

Finally, Dr. Martela recommends spending quiet time with people we care about, putting a Finnish proverb, “Speech is silver, but silence is golden” into action.

The Myers Briggs personality inventory is controversial (see for one perspective and for the other), but as we learn more about the introversion-extroversion dimension (which exists outside of the MBTI), we know that introverts recharge their batteries through quiet time and internal reflection, while extroverts re-energize from action and external stimuli. As an introvert, I remember trying to appear more extroverted, going out with work friends on Fridays and using up my remaining energy only to go home and be unable to sleep. After a busy week, we introverts do better going for a walk in nature alone or with a close friend (or, realistically, curling up on the sofa with a special person or pet and watching Netflix!).

And whether you believe you are an introvert or an extrovert, spending quiet time in nature is generally considered to be both helpful in stress reduction and cognitive enhancement.

What can you do enhance your happiness? You could start by looking at Professor Krieger’s intrinsic factors and whether your work situation allows you to be authentic, to have positive working relationships with colleagues, to feel competent, to have meaning and purpose, and to feel supported. If you evaluate your work situation as lacking in several of these areas, perhaps you want to explore if you are in the right position or role—there is no shame in leaving a job (even a partnership) if it doesn’t fulfill you.

And you can consider Dr. Martela’s five Finnish suggestions for your personal life as well: setting your own values and living by them, sharing your expertise, practicing random acts of kindness, being a good neighbour, and embracing quiet time together, perhaps in the great outdoors.

You can also access professional counselling or peer support through Assist if you assess that you want something different from what your current career path offers. We can help you safely navigate a new path. We can also connect you with coaching resources (which are on a fee for services basis.)

You can choose happiness—a platinum ring—because you deserve it. Call me if you want to chat further. We can chat about how we are doing letting budgers into traffic as an act of kindness!