GPSolo Magazine - October/November 2004

So You’re a Lawyer. Can You Be Happy?

When I tell new acquaintances that I help lawyers improve their lives and workplaces, I invariably get a response along the lines of, “Boy, they sure need it!” I appreciate the job security, but it’s unfortunate that this is the common perception.

Perhaps you are like the proverbial frogs in the kettle of cold water placed on the stove. You don’t notice the gradual temperature change until you’re too cooked to jump out. My purpose in this article is to raise your consciousness about the temperature of the water surrounding you, to help you think about your practice and why you’re doing it, and to suggest that you are powerful beyond all imagination.

Professional Hazards that Turn Up the Heat

Let’s take a look at several factors that hurt lawyers’ performance, relationships, and satisfaction with their work: under-functioning, over-functioning, and exploding.

Under-functioning. I use this term to describe any set of circumstances in which quality of life or work does not match potential. I’ve seen many sad cases in which lawyers implode and simply can’t, or won’t, do what they need to do to maintain a healthy practice.

You are avoiding a file at the bottom of a pile because you’re not sure how to take the next step—or you haven’t figured out what the next step is.

• You’ve intended to develop a healthy exercise and diet regimen since you made that New Year’s resolution—in 1999.

• You’ve heard a hundred times that a business plan will help your business prosper, but it’s dropped off the end of your to-do list because you can’t bill for it.

Procrastination is usually about fear and/or shame. You don’t know what to do or how to do it, and this feels scary or humiliating. Or you may be afraid of the reaction you’re expecting from the client or opposing counsel, so you avoid the discomfort by avoiding them and the file. Procrastination can also be about laziness or a lack of commitment to your priorities. Whatever the cause, it is the bane of most lawyers’ existence.

Sloppy business practices are another symptom of under-functioning. Your capacity to be effective in your work cannot exceed the health of your business. Most of you didn’t learn how to run a business in law school. But if you’re in private practice, especially as a sole practitioner, you are an entrepreneur whether you planned to be or not. To what extent do you behave like a successful businessperson? Failing to do so can have serious consequences, such as debt, attention from the IRS, or trouble with your state bar. Perhaps all of the above.

So, please, take your business seriously by making it a priority and thinking like an entrepreneur. Many resources are available to you. Last month I attended an all-day seminar on how to write a business plan. Hosted by the Small Business Administration, it cost $60, featured terrific speakers, and included free software. Several state bars offer law office management assistance programs. Private consultants and coaches can help you with motivation and organizational skills if these are lacking. The point is to take care of your business so that it can take care of you.

Untreated mental health issues are a third symptom of under-functioning. Depression and substance abuse occur with alarming frequency among lawyers. These problems alone are implicated in roughly half of all disciplinary actions in Washington state, and I don’t think we’re unusual. In addition to diminishing your quality of life, these problems can ruin your practice and thereby your livelihood. This is both tragic and unnecessary.

Over-functioning. Just as working below your potential can be hazardous to your professional health, overachievement can also limit your effectiveness.

Perfectionism poses a problem for many of you. It’s important to prepare thoroughly and to turn out a product that gives you pride and accomplishes what you set out to do. But if your need to “do it right” is causing you to miss deadlines or is provoking your clients to frequent phone calls and complaints, you may be dealing with an obsessive-compulsive streak run amok.

Your products don’t need to be perfect, just effective. Fretting and revising endlessly will not make them more effective. Because practicing law is an art rather than a science, it takes a while to learn the point at which something is good enough to send out. Learn where that point is before you drive your self, staff, and clients crazy.

Workaholism is a second hazard of the overachiever. (It can also be a hallmark of the underachiever if she/he doesn’t have much to show for all the hours logged.) I’m not sure what the official definition of a workaholic is, but in my book it’s someone who uses work to avoid something else, like having a life or functional relationships. In the world of law, workaholism is often seen as a virtue.

If you consistently bill ten hours per day, is there something—or someone—you are avoiding? What’s the point of working nonstop if you have no time or energy to enjoy your life? Will anyone care in two years? Ten? Twenty? Who will you want in your life when you want to stop working? Will they still be around?

Which leads to our third aspect of over-functioning, relationship neglect. You may believe 14-hour days are necessary to provide your family with a certain standard of living or to pay for private schools. Or you may simply feel more comfortable in the realm of ideas rather than people—and so avoid the people.

Trust me. What matters to your children, partner, family, and friends is that they have a real relationship with you. You must spend time with people to have real relationships with them. And don’t buy into the myth of “quality time” as a substitute for quantity time. You need quantity to produce quality, and you need both. Otherwise you are giving your relationships only lip service.

Exploding. Many of you communicate with skill and compassion, behaving respectfully toward staff, colleagues, and clients. You are making the world a better place. Bless you.

The horror stories I hear about lawyers behaving badly astonish me. I’ve heard of lawyers nearly throttling associates, running through support staff faster than toothpaste, hollering at deponents, and referring to clients as “morons” and “scumbags.” More than a few lawyers have the people skills of a porcupine.

Maybe you think you have to behave like a pit bull to be effective. After all, isn’t the other side doing the same thing . . . or worse?

Let’s stop passing the buck with regard to civility. Every time you engage in behavior that causes grief, hardship, or unnecessary expense, you diminish someone’s quality of life. You make the world poorer and yourself smaller. You lose the respect of others and you damage your profession. Is this really the legacy you want to pass on?

You don’t have to behave like this. Even if the other side “deserves” it, you don’t have to respond in kind to be effective. You can make choices that demonstrate your interest in building versus destroying. You can bring your considerable skills, talent, and imagination to bear on solving problems rather than creating more. Your staff can feel proud of you . . . or not.

Angry, hostile behavior hurts you as well as others. Studies have shown that these qualities are related to higher rates of heart attack and stroke.

Purpose: Why Are You Doing What You’re Doing?

We’ve looked at patterns of under-functioning, over-functioning, and exploding that contribute to the poor health of individual lawyers and the profession as a whole. Next, let’s look at purpose and the meaning of (your) life. Stop and think about why you became a lawyer. Was it to help others? Make the world a better place? Earn lots of money? Prestige? Political aspirations? Make someone proud of you?

Lots of lawyers are doing what they love and are very good at it. But many others have lost their way. Some had notions about lawyering that proved highly inaccurate and disappointing. Others got off to a bad start by working in the wrong job or failing to get a job at all. Still others abandoned a dream because they needed or wanted to earn more money. Many have been in a muddle for years because they’re unhappy but don’t know what else to do.

Given the high rate of job dissatisfaction among lawyers, it’s good to assess your career often and to correct your course as needed. This will help you avoid burnout, frustration, and performance problems down the road. Here are some questions for reflection:

• What mission are you working to accomplish? To what extent are you accomplishing it?

• What’s your vision for yourself? For your clients? For the legal profession?

• What meaning does your work have for you? What would you like it to mean?

• What’s your relationship to money? Are you under-earning? Are you confined by golden handcuffs?

• How are you making yourself more valuable in the workplace? To your clients?

• How long do you want to continue doing what you’re doing? What’s next?

• What plans have you made for retirement?

• What do you really want?

• How do you plan to turn things around if you feel off course?

Don’t be surprised if the questions feel a bit overwhelming. It’s no wonder we avoid thinking about such things. Sit with the questions one at a time, and listen carefully to your answers. If you need some help staying on track with the process, hire a good professional coach or counselor. A small investment of time and money now can save you from asking yourself later, “What was I thinking?”

Power: You Have No Idea How Influential You Really Are

It’s easy to go through life feeling as if you and your work are insignificant in the grand scheme of things. However, I suspect you are largely unconscious of the effect you have on those around you.

Benjamin Sells, in his excellent book The Soul of the Law, tells us that the root of the word litigation means “to carry on strife.” If you litigate, you encounter in the course of a case many “choice points.” One choice may be between complicating matters (creating more work for yourself or the opposing party) and resolving a problem (satisfying both parties’ needs as efficiently as possible). Another choice may be between behaving with dignity or hollering at clients, staff, and opposing counsel. Your choices have a profound influence on costs, stress levels, and how calm or angry people feel at the end of any given day.

Consider your staff, if you have one. To what extent do your employees feel respected and valued? How do you provide opportunities for them to improve their skills? What will they remember about the years they’ve spent working in your office? If they left today, how would they describe you as a boss? As a person?

Consider your clients. How would they describe you? How do you demonstrate that you have their best interest at heart and that you work diligently on matters they’ve entrusted to you? How often do you remember how vulnerable they feel and, in fact, are? To what extent do you demonstrate patience, return their calls, keep them informed, and treat them with kindness and respect?

From the courthouse clerk to your spouse, you are enormously powerful in the lives you touch each day. Your attitudes and behavior create an atmosphere. You make choices about the use of your power each time you open your mouth or write a sentence. Everything you do makes a difference to someone.

You can use your power for good or for ill. You can make the world a better place by conducting yourself in ways that enhance the lives of those around you. This isn’t idealism—it’s reality.

However, you can’t give what you don’t have. You will pass along exactly who and what you are with each interaction. You can create health, prosperity, and security for others only if you possess them yourself.

I believe that you really can be a happy, decent, and successful lawyer despite the systemic and personal obstacles you may encounter. By attending to your own health, business acumen, purpose, and people skills, you will make the world a better place. I encourage you to take advantage of the many resources available to you. You’ll have no regrets.

Rebecca Nerison’s mission is to improve lawyers’ lives and workplaces through executive coaching and law firm consultation. A licensed psychologist, Dr. Nerison has worked exclusively with lawyers at the Washington State Bar Association since 1997. She is available for telephone consultations nationally through her private practice and can be reached at s , or on the web at


The text of this article may be reproduced for classroom use in an institution of higher learning and for use by not-for-profit organizations, provided that such use is for informational, non-commercial purposes only and any reproduction of the article or portion thereof acknowledges original publication in this issue of GPSolo, citing volume, issue, and date, and includes the title of the article, the name of the author, and the legend, “© 2004 by the American Bar Association. Reprinted by permission.”



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