Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.
Dave's articles are here.
Lawyers and Well-Being
A significant amount of research now exists to support the following statements:
- Lawyers as a group are more unhappy, depressed, and generally lower on well-being than other professionals. Not all lawyers, mind you, but far more than one would expect.
- Students who choose law school look much like other college graduates; low lawyer well-being is not a function of self-selection by unhappy folks choosing to become lawyers.
- Law school causes the drop in well-being, primarily by eroding students’ commitment to intrinsic values and systematically marginalizing emotion, morality, and social context as important components of decision-making. Power and materialistic values, however, are not systematically de-valued by “learning to think like a lawyer.”
- Although practicing lawyers recover somewhat from the effects of law school, many never achieve the levels of well-being they had prior to the law school experience.
What Causes This?
This process is not without its causes, four in particular.
- Lawyers deal with the toughest conflicts, ones where ordinary methods of resolving have failed (trial lawyers), or they must anticipate and plan for how to avoid or address such conflicts in advance (transactional lawyers). If there were even a somewhat obvious win-win resolution, it would have been reached prior to reaching the attorneys.
- Lawyers must deal far more regularly with zero-sum situations than other professionals, and zero-sum conflicts elicit negative emotions. This makes it harder for lawyers to stay above the Losada line of 2.9:1 for mediocrity, 5:1 for excellence.
- The adversarial skills in which attorneys are trained are “negative” communications in the Losada analysis. Further, when deployed in close relationships such as a marriage, critical or advocacy responses are “turning against” the bids of the other for interaction, and Gottman’s research indicates a 5:1 ratio between “turn toward” and the other two bid responses, “turn against” and “turn away,” is necessary for relationship success.
- Lawyers are required to perform “necessary evils” — the exercise of professional skill to inflict physical or emotional pain on another in service to a higher good — more regularly than almost all other professions, and to do so with a skilled advocate on the other side arguing against the necessity, the manner, or both.
Further, they often must do so in the presence of the recipient of the evil and his or her family and friends. Think of a criminal defense attorney defending a child sex abuse case who must conduct a probing, challenging cross-examination of the child victim, or of a plaintiff’s lawyer in a personal injury case who must assign the “blame” for his clients severe injuries and suffering to the defendant.
Yes, some attorneys — a pretty small percentage — make far above average incomes. But, even for them, positive psychology research pretty clearly establishes that the game is not worth the candle — the money will not undo the psychological damage incurred in earning it.Attorney well-being is more than an attorney problem, however. Low well-being and the too-infrequent experience of positive emotions have consequences for the way lawyers discharge their role in society. Lawyers are quite likely less creative and collaborative than we could be. Instead of becoming non-zero masters who can find the non-zero resolution others have missed, we often become negative-emotion-fueled brawlers intent on winning the battle regardless of the cost. One consequence is that litigation has been needlessly turned into an emotionally and financially draining process that few can afford and virtually none would choose as a reasonable process for dispute resolution. Thus we have seen increasing use of alternative forms of dispute resolution while civil court rooms very often sit empty and unused, a waste of societal resources.
There Is, However, Hope
Law schools are beginning to take seriously the challenge to produce lawyers capable good relationships, skilled advocacy and non-zero solutions as well as good lawyering, and thus to produce professionals who work for “necessary evils” only when necessary, only as much as necessary, and without the fuel of anger, contempt, derision, scorn, and humiliation. Furthermore, we are finding that many practicing lawyers both want to change and can change.
Over the past two years, I have spoken to over 900 Tennessee attorneys on topics of positive psychology in sessions ranging from under an hour to about 4.5 hours. Of course, it is nice to get good reviews as a speaker, but, as director of the mandatory continuing legal education program in Tennessee (MCLE), my real concern is to change attorney behavior, specifically toward better lawyering. Thus, I decided to survey those participants for whom I had email addresses — about 800 attorneys. Within a few days, I had well over 200 responses: about 60% of which had taken specific actions since the seminar and about 40% who had not. The results were encouraging, both for those seeking to help attorneys learn how to achieve greater well-being, and for attorneys wanting to be happier:
Almost 6 out of 10 took some action, and, overwhelmingly, those who made the effort reported greater improvement in well-being. Further, this improvement translated into greater commitment, energy, and engagement with their practices for many lawyers:
Hope Is Action and Is Around Us Today
Conclusion? Lawyers may not be doing well today. And their lack of well-being may be impairing their abilities, both to represent clients well and to craft legal institutions for society that achieve legal agreements and organizational structures, civil dispute resolution, and society’s response to criminal behavior in the most positive, productive ways. But lawyers can improve their well-being and their commitment, engagement, and energy with their practices, and they can do so based on learning opportunities short of therapy or personal coaching. Some forms of group workshops and seminars can provide attorneys the tools they need to become happier, and therefore to become better lawyers, partners, employers, colleagues, spouses, parents, friends, and community members. Now the challenge for those of us working in the realm of positive psychology is to identify the most productive approaches to providing opportunities to learn and the most supportive structures for change for attorneys seeking to re-discover and re-attach to their intrinsic values and character strengths, to become happier, and to achieve increased commitment, energy, and engagement with their practices. We’ve got evidence that pathways exist to the goal of offering real options for growth to significant numbers of attorneys at affordable prices. With grateful acknowledgement to the late Rick Snyder, that is hope in my book!
For research on the points made in this article, see:
Benjamin, G. A. H., Kaszniak, A., Sales, B., & Shanfield, S. B. (1986). The role of legal education in producing psychological distress among law students and lawyers. American Bar Foundation Research Journal, 11(2), 225-252.
Daicoff, S. S. (2004b). Lawyer personality and the professionalism and public opinion crises. In S. S. Daicoff (Ed.), Lawyer, know thyself: A psychological analysis of personality strengths and weaknesses, (pp. 99-112). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.
Seligman, M.E.P., Verkuil, P.R., & Kang, T.H. (2001). Why lawyers are unhappy. 23 Cardozo L. Rev. 33.
Molinsky, A., & Margolis, J. (2005). Necessary evils and interpersonal sensitivity in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 30(2), 245-268.
Effects of law school (general):
Daicoff, S. S. (2004a). Lawyer and law student distress. In S. S. Daicoff (Ed.), Lawyer, know thyself: A psychological analysis of personality strengths and weaknesses. (pp. 113-139). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.
Sheldon, K. M., & Krieger, L. S. (2004). Does legal education have undermining effects on law students? evaluating changes in motivation, values, and well-being. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 22(2), 261-286.
Sheldon, K. M., & Krieger, L. S. (2007). Understanding the negative effects of legal education on law students: A longitudinal test of self-determination theory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(6), 883-897
Effects of law school (morality and emotion in decision making):
Mertz, E. (2007). The language of law school. New York: Oxford University Press.
Law school efforts to change:
Schuwerk, R.P. (2004). The Law Professor as Fiduciary: What Duties Do We Owe to Our Students. 45 S. Tex. L. Rev. 753.
Krieger, L. S. (2004). The inseparability of personal satisfaction and professionalism. Clinical Law Reviews, , 06/02/2006. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=549361
But, to the contrary:
Althouse, A. (2007, February 20). A Skull Full of Mush. New York Times.
And my response: Dear Ann Althouse — No, it’s not ok. 2/20/2007. From my blog.