Home All Hope about Lawyer Happiness

Hope about Lawyer Happiness

written by Dave Shearon 17 December 2008

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.

Lawyers and Happiness 1

Scene from the movie
To Kill a Mockingbird

Of course, it stands to reason that attorneys whose commitment to intrinsic values has been eroded may well lack commitment, energy, and engagement with their practices.  Intrinsic value is a component of motivation.  In a survey of a random sample of Tennessee attorneys in 2007, 41% picked “lack of commitment, energy, and engagement” as the primary cause of poor lawyer performance.  In comparison, only 16% picked “lack of substantive knowledge of the law.”  Furthermore, the reduced importance they attach to values that are more strongly held by their clients, family, friends, and the rest of society does not bode well for relationship success or societal respect.

What Causes This?

This process is not without its causes, four in particular.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Lawyers and Happiness 2

Scene from the movie,
12 Angry Men

Note that our system of justice, both civil and criminal, exists exactly because these aspects — tough conflicts, zero-sum situations, and “necessary evils” — are inescapable for society.  The alternative to a system of justice is blood feuds.  Quite literally for attorneys, “It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.” 

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.

Lawyers and Happiness 3

Scene from the movie,
A Few Good Men

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:

Post Seminar Well-Being

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:

Post-Seminar:  Commitment, Energy, and Enagement

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:

Lawyer well-being:

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.

Images: To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, A Few Good Men

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waynej 17 December 2008 - 2:12 pm

Dave – think big. Perhaps the law needs to change from an adverserial to inquisitorial model.

I’ve had some gigs with lawyers teaching mindfulness and EI+. I now outsource lawyer work to other people because I found lawyers to be a “pain in the …”. And here in lies the problem – to generalise they aren’t pleasant people and as a consequence they probably find it difficult to find the psychological nourishment that is needed to thrive in the world.

KevinT 17 December 2008 - 3:25 pm

Why would law school diminish morality or social context? Isn’t a jury trial a social context vis a vis the jury?
What are the “actions” that you reference as improving the lawyers’ lots in life?
Seligman and others make the point that some tasks/professions lend themselves to pessimism as preferential to optimism. Isn’t law one of them? Does that expalin some of your “data”?

My sense is that lawyers feel empowered to question/challenge others’ ideas, facts and opinions. That makes many peole uncomfortable, but might be very worthwhile –in an Ignatian kind of way…

Doug Turner 17 December 2008 - 4:05 pm

David: One of the pictures you included in your article is from “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Coincidentially, I finished reading that book (again) this morning! Of course, it is a work of fiction, but are there things lawyers can learn from Atticus the lawyer in the book? This character seemed quite happy in a Positive Psychology sort of way – Why? Perhaps because “other people mattered” in his life (Jem, Scout, etc.), or because he had the ability to see a larger perspective – the bigger picture, or because he had an established set of core values that guided his behavior and became a anchor for him. What do you think?

Dave Shearon 17 December 2008 - 5:02 pm

Yes, Wayne! Big thinking is needed. And, yes, lawyers can be a tough audience, but I like dealing with them and find that many are ready to move forward.

Dave Shearon 17 December 2008 - 5:23 pm

KevinT, thanks for the comment! Law school does erode lawyer values in many areas — the data is pretty clear — but we do not know if that is necessary. Elizabeth Mertz’ book, The Language of Law School, goes into this in some detail based on a major anthropological/linguistic study of eight first-year contracts classes in eight different law schools. It’s a powerful and persuasive piece of research, and it fits with and helps explain the work Larry Krieger, Ken Sheldon, Susan Daicoff, Andy Benjamin and others have been producing since the late 80’s.

As to what actions lawyers who attended my programs might have taken, I’ve talked about and provided workbooks that focused on some standard positive psychology interventions. Some are relatively simple to start, such as Three Good Things, Using Strengths in a New Way, etc. I also have, in some programs, worked a bit on explanatory style and its applications to resilience. One respondent wrote that she had put “Out There, Only That, Over and Done With” (a version of Not Me, Not Always, Not Everything I sometimes use)on her computer monitor. Plus, I talk about exercise, mindfulness/meditation/relaxation, and some relationship things like Active Constructive Responding. So these would be some of the actions participants might have taken.

I know Marty suggests that pessimism is a success trait for lawyers, and there is a study from U.VA. that showed negative explanatory style (sometimes called pessimism) helped in that law school. But, I know of no research establishing pessimism as a benefit to law practice and some evidence that it might not be. I remain unconvinced that beeing pessimistic, in either the explanatory or the expectational sense, helps produce good lawyering.

Finally, you are exactly right, I think, in suggesting that lawyers’ often create negative dynamics in a group as we lapse into adversarial questioning modes and advocacy statements. Although our critical skills can be helpful occasionally, Dr. Losada’s work suggests that, as a preferred mode of communication, adversarial questions and advocacy statements produce failure.

Dave Shearon 17 December 2008 - 5:28 pm

Hey, Doug! Always good to hear from you. I’ve thought about you as I’ve studied “necessary evils” because the authors use some HR examples. TKAM is a favorite of many lawyers and one of our local bar groups produced a great video CLE piece entitled “Before Atticus Said Yes.” Other people, relationships, core values — all very important. And so was his willingness to accept representation that was likely to damage his marketability as a lawyer. Criminal defense attorneys often view their practices as really defending you, me, and all citizens from governmental agencies that would get used to unconstitutional and unethical shortcuts if they weren’t challenged frequently by skilled advocates defending the accused.

Sean Doyle, JD, MAPP 17 December 2008 - 10:24 pm

Thanks for this article Dave. As you know, this is a topic near and dear to my heart as well! Lawyers ARE a tough audience. But they are also tenacious problem solvers – they push me hard, and make me really think through what is possible with positive psychology. That makes me better at what I do, and makes the work with them more successful. You just have to work at it though. The law offers ample opportunties for thriving. I know many lawyers who absolutly love what they do.

Jeff 17 December 2008 - 10:26 pm

You baited me with the motivating lawyers bit, bless your soul. Yes, how do you herd cats? Lawyers, in my imagination, are a diverse lot and probably have pretty decent verbal & analytical skills. How can you convince the key stakeholders and inspire them to want to change, to change, then to maintain the change? All very PP questions. For some reason the word “supports” popped into my head. As in behavioral contextual supporting. There needs to be the CLE before the CLE and after the CLE. You after-survey was brilliant. Even further, what are some supports that you can do to help a)the lawyers themselves, and b)the people who train the lawyers to stop wrecking lawyer satisfaction and start building it instead.

This may sound very high school teacher-ish..but a handy chart might help some. Somebody smarter than I am came up with it, but it is called the Do More of This and Less of That Chart. The hard part is finding the proof to back up WHY you should do more of one educational activity and less of another. Luckily, it sounds like you’ve already done that bit.

Dave Shearon 18 December 2008 - 5:29 am

You are welcome, Sean — glad you are working on this. We need more!

Dave Shearon 18 December 2008 - 5:30 am

Thanks, Jeff, for the great ideas! I especially like the Do More / Do Less!

Marcial Losada 18 December 2008 - 5:37 am

Your article is heart warming, Dave. I have a son-in-law who is a lawyer. And the old school has poisoned him with negativity. He even extolls the power of negativity, which in that kind of world seems to bring tangible results. But among these tangible results he is paying dearly with his health, both emotional and physical.

I have often been asked whether I don’t think that negativity can be good. I say sure, but at the right ratio. Like salt in a meal.

Dave Shearon 18 December 2008 - 5:42 am

Marcial, it hurts to hear about your son-in-law, but it is true that some lawyers don’t want to hear about this. Even at programs I run where lawyers come knowing what they are going to hear about, I get a noticeable percentage who just cannot open up to these ideas. What’s funny is they will often give me high marks as a speaker but pan the subject matter! My hope is that I’ve planted a seed that will lie dormant until conditions are right, the sprout into new growth!

Marcial Losada 18 December 2008 - 7:22 am

Your work is noble and most needed, Dave. I wish you U-speed (U is for the Unnamed, the Unknown, the Uniting, the Universal).

I have worked with miners in the Atacama desert in Chile. Those people are as tough as they come, but they are mostly engineers and, differently from lawyers, I can win their hearts with the math in my model. Yes, lawyers must be the toughest of them all.

I must disagree with something that you said in your article. A P/N ratio of 2.9 doesn’t locate you in the mediocre range. At Meta Learning Consulting, we have developed a set to measures to differentiate performance categories. I’ll give you the P/N ratios (the whole set of measures will be published in my forthcoming book The Nonlinear Path from Languishing to Flourishing.)

Top performance: P/N ? 4.8
High performance: 2.9 ? P/N < 4.8
Medium high: 2.06 ? P/N < 2.9
Medium Low: 1.51 ? P/N < 2.06
Low performance: P/N < 1.51

Marcial Losada 18 December 2008 - 10:47 am

Dave, I just run my meta learning model for lawyers making two assumptions:1) that the negativity bias is higher by 50% than for most other professions; 2) that in the environment in which they traditionally operate, they’ll face 30% more viscosity than other professionals.

Results: for lawyers operating under those assumptions, they need a P/N of 5 or more in order to flourish and, consequently, be healthy and happy. No wonder is so hard for them to get out of that viscous negativity.

You have a lot of work to do, Dave, and as I said, I wish you U-speed!

waynej 18 December 2008 - 10:51 am

Marcial, like you I also use science to convince people. I use biofeedback software that measures positive emotionality. I find it very convincing as people can see in real time how their emotions impact on themselves and others.

I have taught lawyers and engineers. The lawyers wanted to “nit pick” whilst the engineers were convinced when the research aligned with their own emperical observations while they were using the software.

Interestingly the engineers mastered the techniques and the lawyers didn’t. I guess there in lies Dave’s problems – lawyers negativity will always impede their ability to change.

I guess I should confess to the fact that my first qualification is engineering which I then augmented with undergraduate psychology.

Marcial Losada 18 December 2008 - 11:27 am

Amen, Wayne, amen. My exact same experience with engineers. They are pros at mastering the material once they are convinced.

I particularly liked this part of your comment: “Lawyers negativity will always impede their ability to change.” Yes indeed. Not only lawyers but anyone on the P/N = 1.5 or less. When you run the ML model under that kind of ratio it goes to a fixed-point attractor like a fly goes to the honey and, like the fly, they get stuck in there. Only this honey is really viscous and bitter.

Kathryn Britton 18 December 2008 - 1:41 pm

Marcial & Wayne,

In my experience, engineers ‘get it’ pretty quickly. But they have a lot of habits to change. As one of my colleagues said, the ideas of positive psychology seem like common sense once you think about them, but he didn’t see many people living according to that particular form of common sense.


wayne jencke 18 December 2008 - 4:30 pm

Kathryn and Marcial, I agree – but at least Engineers have the awareness which is gneerally the fisrt stage in any trabsformational process. The trick with engineers is to pose the application of PP as a problem that needs to be solved – engineers love solving problems.

There is the line about the optimists seeing the glass as half full, pessimists as half empty and engineers wonder why the glass wasn’t made the right size in the first place.

Marcial Losada 18 December 2008 - 4:43 pm

Wayne, do you know the engineer’s prayer?

“Lord, please make this world solvable and linear.”

Well, that’s the old’s engineer’s prayer. The modern ones would perhaps say,

“Lord, please make this world solvable, and if it is nonlinear give us a way to linearize it”

adam 21 December 2008 - 10:41 am

I particularly liked this part of your comment: “Lawyers negativity will always impede their ability to change.” Yes indeed.
“Lord, please make this world solvable, and if it is nonlinear give us a way to linearize it”


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