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Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, speaks with Student Lawyer’s Donna Gerson about her career path from Supreme Court law clerk to best-selling author, tips for increasing your happiness in law school, and ways to navigate a difficult job market.
Gretchen, why did you decide to go to law school? Like a lot of lawyers, I didn’t really know what else to do. My father was a lawyer, and he’s a very, very happy lawyer. I was a good student, and I enjoyed reading, writing, and research. I thought it would give me a lot of options, so I decided to go to law school.
Did you enjoy law school? I enjoyed it tremendously as an experience. I went to Yale Law School, which is, I think, an unusually enjoyable law school because the grading system there means that it’s not as cutthroat. And also it’s a small school, so I really knew everybody.
Were you involved in any activities during law school? Yes, I participated in the Barristers’ Union which is basically like moot court only you’re arguing like you’re in district court instead of the court of appeals. I worked on the law journal and became editor in chief during my third year. I also wrote a novel for academic credit during my third year.
You wrote a novel during law school? Tell me about that. I was obsessed by the question of why people would destroy their own possessions, which of course is very contrary to classic economic theory. I had a property professor who didn’t want me to write a paper about why people would destroy their own possessions. She thought they just didn’t because that didn’t make any sense. And yet examples abound. For instance, why would an art collector want to destroy a masterpiece, which happens. Potlatch, which is something that the Pacific Coast Indians have practiced, involves ritual destruction or gifting of belongings. I asked myself, why would that be? Why, sometimes, does it feel like the only way to own something or to control it is to destroy it? The idea fascinated me, so I wrote a novel about the idea. It was just a pass/fail course, but I did get credit for it. And then I went on to actually write a book that was published about it.
In terms of summer work experiences, what did you do during law school? My first summer I was a summer associate at Skadden Arps in D.C., and my second summer I was a summer associate at Davis Polk in New York.
Where did you work after graduation? I clerked for Judge Pierre Leval on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City. Then I clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. After my clerkships, I worked for the chairman of Federal Communications Commission.
What was it like to clerk for Justice O’Connor, the first female Supreme Court justice? It was a fantastic experience. Justice O’Connor is a remarkable person, and it was a privilege to serve on the Supreme Court. I spent my days reading and writing about cases before the Court.
You achieved incredible success as a law student and also following graduation. Were you happy practicing law? Yes, I was happy working as a lawyer. I really, really loved it. I was really fortunate. For me, the transition to writer stemmed from a compulsive desire to do something else. I think I was really lucky in a way because I think a lot of people don’t enjoy what they’re doing in law but they don’t know exactly what they would do otherwise, so they can’t really pinpoint what they want to be changed or to do differently. For me, the desire to become a writer really became overwhelming. I mean, if you look back at my life, there were all these clues that I really wanted to be a writer but I had systematically ignored them. At some point I felt that the time had come where I either had to give it up forever or give it a shot.
Was it difficult to make thetransition to a non-traditional career? It was hard to give it a shot because it meant abandoning all these feathers in my cap that I had acquired with such effort along the way and start over from nothing.
When you were in the process of transitioning out of law, what did you do to prepare for a writing career? My husband and I both worked at the FCC and we both decided that we didn’t want to get another Washington job. Instead, we decided to move to New York because that’s where we wanted to end up. He took a night class at George Washington University in financial accounting because he wanted to go into finance, which he did. I got a book called How to Write and Sell Your Non-Fiction Book Proposal, and I did.
When you transitioned to a full-time writing career, did you keep your law license? No. There came a day, which I remember very clearly, when we got our notices from the New York Bar, and I said, “Hey, are we going to keep paying our bar fees?” And he said, “No, we’re not, because we’re not going back.”
Any regrets? No.
How did you decide to write about happiness? My first book was called Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide, so that was all about power, money, fame, and sex, and happiness is sort of the logical next thing. My books (including Forty Ways to Look at JFK and Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill)seem very all over the map if you just look at them on the shelf. But for me they’re all very connected to human character, which interests me deeply. What is human nature? How do you explain mysterious things that people do and mysterious patterns that you see or the kind of the mysteries of character and temperament? By studying people like Churchill and Kennedy, they’re really gigantic figures, so they throw these issues into very high relief.
After a year of test-driving different philosophies and theories of happiness, do you find that you are happier? Yes, I do. I started the project hoping that I would be happier at the end, but I was prepared not to be. I tried to really keep an open mind about that, and I have to say that I’m surprised, really, by how much happier I am without really changing anything big in my life. I live in the same place. I have the same job. I have my two children and my husband. Externally, everything is very much the same, but my experience of my life is much happier.
What are the top three things that have propelled you to a happier state? I have 12 personal commandments, and the first commandment is to Be Gretchen. This sounds very obvious, and for thousands of years people have been saying “know thyself” and “to thine own self be true.” You hear that all the time, but it wasn’t until I really focused on this that I realized how challenging it was and how in many ways I had allowed myself not to Be Gretchen.
In what way were you not true to yourself? I didn’t realize that going to law school was an easy, obvious thing. I didn’t really do any soul searching. I didn’t say, “Is this really what I want?” “Is this the right choice for me?” “Is this going to be something that’s going to make me happier?” Now, it ended up making me happy anyway, but it wasn’t because I made a mindful choice. I am happier now because my life reflects my own temperament, interests, and values.
The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law, coauthored by law professors Nancy Levit and Douglas O. Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, explores how lawyers can be happier in their careers and their personal lives. According to coauthor Doug Linder, "As teachers, we ask ourselves, 'can we help students become not only successful lawyers, but to be happy lawyers?' Ideally, we want to produce competent, successful, and happy lawyers."
Why should happiness matter to lawyers? For one, says Linder, happy lawyers "care about their clients and have a passion for their work. Career satisfaction has a direct correlation to career competence." In short, happy lawyers are better advocates.
Who are the happiest lawyers? Levit and Linder explain that more than two-thirds of lawyers working the public sector-government and public interest law-describe themselves as happy. Small firm lawyers are, by and large, happier than big firm lawyers.
What can law students do to be happier in law school? According to Levit and Linder, consider the following tips:
FIND YOUR PASSION. Follow your passion; follow your heart. There's a tendency to think that there's only one way to be a success in law school; that's not the case. By doing what you love, you will find the right career choices.
KEEP YOUR OWN COMPASS. Ask yourself what matters to you and stop focusing on what matters to others. Evaluate your own strengths, weaknesses, and values and how they relate to your job search going forward.
CONNECT WITH OTHERS. Talk to people who have already graduated about their career paths. The best predictor of how you will fare in a particular work situation is to understand how others have fared in similar situations.
HAVE PATIENCE. It takes time to find the right job; your first job is not your last job.
It's easy to focus on short-term worries when job seeking (particularly when student loan debt looms on the horizon). Remember, notes Levit, that there are several types of happiness. "There's transient happiness (having fun, enjoying life), career happiness, and-finally-a life well-lived." In other words, don't allow the current limitations of the job market impact your search for long-term happiness as a professional.
Another excellent resource, The Creative Lawyer, by Michael F. Melcher offers guidance for lawyers and law students who seek authentic professional satisfaction. Melcher offers practical tips, exercises, and resource materials for a law student who wants to envision and manage his or her own professional development. To order, call 1-800-285-2221 or go to http://www.ababooks.org.
Anything else that can contribute to happiness in law school? Building relationships with other people can have a huge impact on your happiness. Go out of your way to make friends and make an effort to stay in touch with people. Show up at birthday parties, reunions, and enjoy connecting with friends and family. Start a group—this really worked for me. It can sound kind of calculating, but a really efficient way to see a lot of friends all at once is to pull them together in some kind of group, so then you meet every four weeks or every six weeks, and that’s enough to feel like you’re in touch with somebody, that you’re seeing them, that you have that strong connection. I think I joined or started 11 groups since I started my Happiness Project, which sounds totally excessive, but actually I’ve experienced a much larger social circle and a sense of much greater connection to the people around me which, in turn, influences my level of happiness.
I just joined a book club and realized a great deal of happiness by meeting new people who want to discuss literature. I found out that the friend who invited me happens to have great friends! That’s exactly right. What you describe is called triadic closure. Triadic closure refers to the fact that the people that we’re most likely to become friends with are the friends of our friends so you see it as a triangle. So the best way to solicit friends is the friends of your friends.
What is a typical day for you? It’s hard to say because everything that I do kind of feeds into everything else that I do. Typically, I spend a couple of hours doing things like e-mail and posting to my blog.
And then I probably spend four or five hours focused on thinking and writing. The rest of my day is spent editing or taking notes. I take a huge amount of notes, which is very time-consuming, unfortunately. I also put a lot of emphasis on networking and spending time with people. Before my Happiness Project, I had always felt like if it was a workday I should be working, and to me working meant sitting in front of a computer typing. And if I wasn’t doing that I felt like I was sort of blowing it off. But I have come to believe that the shortest distance between two points is not just the most amount of group work, and sometimes you work better by getting to know people, learning things from other people and all that. So I spend a lot of time having meetings with people or having coffee or lunch with people.
These are tough economic times for law students and recent graduates. What advice do you have for law students about happiness generally? This very bad economic time has nothing to do with you and your skills and your abilities. The economy creates this context that you really can’t affect. One of the most important things is to take care of yourself. Don’t pull all-nighters. Don’t leave things to the last minute. It’s going to be hard to be happy when you’re feeling completely run-down and overwhelmed. Also, don’t make choices based on safety and comfort. Ask yourself, “What do I really like to do?” “What really does appeal to me?” “What catches my interest?” “What would I look forward to doing?” “What do I really want to learn about?” This economy illustrates that there really is no safe choice. There really isn’t something that you can decide to do that’s going to mean that you’re not at risk. And if you do what you love, I think it’s kind of safer because if it doesn’t work out, you haven’t just wasted everything.
So your advice to law students is “do what you love”? Yes. If you work toward something that you don’t want only because you want to achieve some goal and you don’t achieve that goal, then everything has been wasted. But if you try to do something that you love to do and you don’t reach your goal, well, at least you had fun along the way and you enjoyed the process. Also, people tend to be more successful, more persistent, and more creative when they’re doing something that they truly enjoy. In addition, it seems to lead to more possibilities because it’s something that you’re really interested in pursuing.
What’s your take on “hot” practice areas? If someone predicts that tax law is going to be in demand, should you ignore “do what you love” and do what’s practical? People I know who are tax lawyers love it because a certain kind of personality is very drawn to tax law, and they tend to be the people who are really good at it. So if you’re not one of those people, you’re not going to be as good as they are because they like sitting around for fun trying to figure out the Tax Code. It’s very hard to match someone who is enthusiastic about what they do.
What suggestions do you have for students and recent graduates who may be feeling unhappy in their current job? I highly recommend Michael Melcher’s The Creative Lawyer (see sidebar for further discussion). I truly believe that this is an outstanding book written specifically for lawyers. The author doesn’t necessarily mean that you should leave the profession and become a painter. Instead, it’s about creating the kind of life that you want as a professional using exercises, examples, and planning.
If you’re unhappy in your work, first you need to identify the problem. What needs to change if you are going to be happier? What is it that’s bothering you about this or what’s not working for you? Or if you’re trying to make a transition into a nontraditional career, how could you think about making a transition in a way that’s not completely risky?
Some people will say, “I hate my job.” Well, do you hate your commute? Do you hate your boss? Are your coworkers driving you crazy? Is the work boring? Do you feel like you’re not good at it? Do you feel like no one appreciates you? Do you feel like there’s no essential value to your work?
There are all kinds of reasons that people don’t like their jobs, and there are all kinds of solutions. It just very much depends on what your particular situation is and what your particular temperament is. This takes a lot of self-examination that can be very difficult and painful.
Yes, it can be difficult, and many law students don’t realize there are resources such as the career services office, faculty advisers, university counseling services, and others. You have to ask for help but take ownership of the process. Absolutely, 100 percent. Nobody can do it except you, and it’s painful particularly if you’re seeking a nontraditional path. The thing about law school is it’s meant to help you get a job as a lawyer, and you can’t really fault it for that. For example, if you want to find work as an entertainment agent, then you’re going to have to figure that part out on your own. Being a lawyer can help you become an entertainment agent, but you have to work at finding those resources, networking, conducting informational interviews, and more. No one is going to offer you the steps on how to make that happen, and I think sometimes people become paralyzed as a result.
Why do students become paralyzed when faced with these types of tough career issues? I think law school attracts people who want to be told how to succeed, what’s expected of them, and what they need to do next if they want to shine. That was absolutely true for me. But that doesn’t help you decide what you want to do as a career. So at some point you have to really face the challenges and take ownership of your career. To admit that you want something is to risk failing to get it, and that’s hard.
So happiness is risky? Oh, yes. I think so.
Interviewer Donna Gerson speaks at law schools and writes on legal career issues, including small firm hiring strategies, networking skills, and business etiquette. She is the author of numerous books, including Choosing Small, Choosing Smart.