January 03, 2018 Practice Points

A Review: The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law

By Amanda Semaan

Retention and satisfaction with a Big Law career is a hot topic among women lawyers. Many aspects of the Big Law experience are outside of a lawyer’s direct control, but The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law, written by Nancy Levit and Douglas O. Linder offers practical tools for lawyers to achieve intermediate-term happiness, or what the authors label “satisfaction”—happiness that is not fleeting or transient but that is long-lasting—with their careers.

While the authors identify three components of satisfaction (genetics, circumstances, and our own internal decisions and actions), it is the third factor—those things over which we have control, regardless of our genes or specific circumstances—on which they focus. In doing so, the authors identify the “keys to life satisfaction” that each person can develop or erode based through his or her choices, which include security, autonomy, authenticity, relatedness, competence, and self-esteem. This article focuses on autonomy and relatedness and provides strategies for attorneys in private practice to improve their job satisfaction.

First, autonomy is the ability to make choices without being dictated by fear or other constraints. Most lawyers would probably agree that they don’t have much control at work—unlike a store owner, for example, who controls when the shop opens and what products are sold and for how much. As lawyers, our work is dictated by our clients’ needs. The authors surmise that this lack of control might explain why lawyers have a higher rate of major depressive disorders compared to those in other occupations.

If a lack of control decreases happiness, then how can lawyers in Big Law gain more control at work, especially with the pressure of billable hours and deadlines? The authors suggest that lawyers first make a conscious effort to appropriately balance work demands and life demands (those of being a parent, spouse, friend, and most importantly, a person with his/her own emotional, physical, and mental needs). Next, Big Law attorneys can create more opportunities at work for what the authors label “downward comparisons,” by spending time serving those less fortunate than themselves. People who make downward comparisons (e.g., “My salary isn’t as high as I’d like, but I am very well off compared to those living below the poverty line”) are more inclined than those who make upward comparisons (e.g., “My friend got a bigger bonus than I did”) to have an optimistic outlook. Volunteering for pro bono work that will increase contact with persons who are disadvantaged can increase a lawyer’s downward comparisons and thus increase their happiness.

At an institutional level, law firms can provide greater flexibility to give lawyers more control over their work. Flexibility in hours requirements and work location, infants-in-the-workplace programs, and flexibility in choosing, approaching and completing work assignments are a few options. The authors suggest that turning over smaller files to junior associates while mentoring their progress can also provide learning experiences and a greater sense of control.

A second key to achieving satisfaction, and arguably the most important of the six, is relatedness, or “social connection.” The workplaces that produce the highest levels of happiness, the authors explain, tend to be those where workers deal directly with other people—for example, the clergy. Clergy members are constantly developing close personal connections with those they help. On the other hand, lawyers focus on meeting clients’ immediate and often monetary goals, as opposed to establishing a bond that enhances their client’s overall sense of peace and well-being. But if deepening our connections with those for whom we work will make us happier, lawyers can take the time to get to know clients on a personal level by sharing meals or visiting their companies. Lawyers can also make a conscious effort to develop connections with colleagues by going out to lunch once or twice a week as opposed to eating at their desks—something that is all too often neglected after summer associate programs end.

And law firms can implement initiatives to encourage social interaction. Assigning both associate and partner mentors to associates, arranging periodic office lunches, and encouraging attorneys to participate in charitable events together are a few examples. Law firms can also seek inspiration from trendsetters in other industries, such as Google, to create a more playful workplace.

Yes, being a lawyer at a big law firm can be challenging. But the authors of The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law provide all lawyers with inspiration to take control of what they can, make changes, and increase their level of happiness in both work and life.

Amanda Semaan is an associate at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP in Los Angeles, California.


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