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CLE & Positive Psychology

written by Dave Shearon 17 May 2007

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.


(Expand post for image.) That’s the response from sixty participants in a CLE ppresentation I made last week  At a presentation in January, 55% of MCLE administrators from around the country also agreed that a lack of lawyer commitment, energy, and engagement is at the route of most poor lawyering.   These are the folks who manage the requirement that attorneys attend continuing legal education!  And yet, probably 85% of all CLE is aimed at increasing knowledge.  Another 10-12% is oriented toward skills.  That leaves somewhere around 3-5% focused on any sort of affective component to good lawyering, and almost all of that is either stress-relief or substance abuse.

Lawyers are significantly more depressed than the population as a whole and than other professions.  They are significantly less happy than than other professionals.  Depression and unhappiness equal low commitment, low energy, and low engagement.  Today we know ways to help individuals increase their experience of positive emotions, positive thought patterns, and positive relationships.  These changes are necessary for increased commitment, energy, and engagement.  If, as the CLE participants and administrators above believed, lack of commitment, energy, and engagement is a significant source of poor lawyering, MCLE should support the most promising pathways to improvement.

Further, other people matter.  The norms, customs, and culture of the organizations in which we are situated shape our experience of the world.  Individual change and growth is significantly more difficult if the institutions around the individual are actively hindering change and growth.  CLE focused at improving commitment, energy, and engagement may be best delivered within the context where those qualities must manifest:  the firm, corporate law department, or government agency.  Thus, CLE programs that focus on the application of positive psychology within the structure of the firm, department, or agency should be preferred, not prohibited.  “In-house” programming is not accredited in many states.  At least in the context of programs aimed at commitment, energy, and engagement, those prohibitions should be reconsidered.

Positive psychology and positive organizational studies offer pathways for individuals and organizations to move toward more commitment, energy, and engagement.

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Senia Maymin 18 May 2007 - 7:32 am

That’s a HUGE visual result, Dave.
I like your entire thesis that “ok, this is the status quo, but Pos Psych has already often dealt with these status quo issues like energy and engagement, so let’s apply some Pos Psych results to this situation.” Once you say it, it’s such a clear, “of course, why not!?!?” analysis! Make a lot of sense.

Dave Shearon 18 May 2007 - 10:00 am

Thanks, Senia. I think lawyers, as a profession, have in some ways just become numb to the emotional, affective aspects of our professional, collegial, and, too often, personal lives. The lack of energy, commitment, and engagement is just accepted as a fact of life. As you say, positive psychology and positive organizational studies offer some pathways toward a better profession. My engagement right now is with building a sense of self-efficacy in leaders of the profession to move along those pathways.

Thanks for all you’ve done to make this site a reality!

Candace Cain 18 May 2007 - 9:36 pm

Hi. I am a public defender in Pittsburgh and have explored the idea of creating a CLE based on Positive Psychology. I’d love to talk to others interested in this topic.

Tony Wright 19 May 2007 - 5:21 am

Dave – I’m a big fan of your work and commitment; and I’m hoping to run a positive psychology programme for a law firm with whom I’m working presently. That said, I was surprised by a recent survey of 1,000 professionals in the UK by recruitment consultant Badenoch and Clark that contradicts your assertion of lawyers as significantly more depressed than the population as a whole and than other professions’. B&C’s survey (available at The Lawyer – http://www.thelawyer.com/cgi-bin/item.cgi?id=125890&d=122&h=24&f=46) cited lawyers as the most satisfied constituency among professional employees.

I wonder if you have any additional, recent research to support your assertion; or indeed any take on the research cited in The Lawyer?

Dave Shearon 19 May 2007 - 12:16 pm

Candace, positive psychology could make the basis of a great CLE for pulic defenders. However, it might take some positioning and negotiation with PACLE to get it approved. I’d be happy to work with you on it. Email me at dave.shearon@yahoo.com.

Dave Shearon 19 May 2007 - 1:02 pm

Tim, that survey is a bit surprising. My first questions would go to the survey and its methodology. What instrument was used and what do we know of its properties? If it were only 1000 professionals surveyed, how many responded? How many respondents were lawyers? Was the difference between lawyers and other groups statistically significant? I would hope so since they published it, but would want to make sure.

As to recent data, I am currently analyzing a large dataset that includes lawyers and other professionals. I am not finished yet, but I have looked at happiness figures and lawyers do NOT show up as the most happy. As for other recent surveys, a doctoral dissertation published in 2004 by Mary Howerton (UNC-Charlotte)reports on her study of the North Carolina Bar. Over 27% of the respondents were depressed. Fifty-three percent had pessimistic attributional styles with males and younger lawyers being the most pessimistic.

There are some other reports that seem, on the surface, to run contrary to the idea that lawyers are unhappy and depressed, including the “After the JD” study by the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education and the American Bar Foundation. However, as far as I can tell, it only asked about job satisfaction and the published report I have does not give any information on the instrument used. That report also states that _Urban Lawyers: The New Social Structure of the Bar_ (Heinz, Nelson, Sandefur, and Laumann. University of Chicago Press) found levels of career satisfaction highly correlated with income. Again, I do not have details on the instrument or methodology, but the suggestion that income mattered significantly raises questions in my mind as to what was being measured. Certainly, this doesn’t seem to square with the weight of well-being research.

Hope this helps. I’d love to hear more about your work with the law firm.


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