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Is It Lawyer Unhappiness or Depression?

Posted Jan 12 2011 4:54pm

Since you get more joy out of giving to others, you should put a good deal of thought into the happiness that you are able to give – Eleanor Roosevelt

There’s a Difference

Is there a difference between discontent and depression, a lack of fulfillment and true melancholia? 

The lines between murky malaise and downright clinical depression are blurred in everyday conversation, the popular media and discourse amongst professionals and academics about what troubles the legal profession.   Two journal articles – which, by the way, I enjoyed immensely, “ Stemming the Tide of Law School Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology ” and “ On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession ” took this approach by canvasing studies that have been done on law student and lawyer unhappiness, discontent, stress, anxiety, depression and wellness.

But unhappiness is not depression, not even close.  I am not saying that this was the authors’ intentions, or for that matter, even their suggestion.  Nor I am saying that these issues aren’t related to one another.  Yet, I don’t think this lumping-of-the-maladies approach is particularly productive because it plays into the popular myths that depression is just an amplification of everyday sadness or, worse, a banal self-absorption with all that’s wrong in one’s life.  Remarkably, a recent poll showed that 45% of Americans think of depression as a failure of will.

Another problem with the lumping together approach is that sadness and depression call for radically different solutions.  In the two journal articles cited above, the first concentrates on positive psychology and how it can help alleviate distress and the later on living an ethical life and picking the right job no doubt important considerations for everyone.  Yet I’m not sure that any of these approaches is a panacea to the epidemic of depression in the law.

To me, unhappiness and discontent are part of the human predicament.  It’s unavoidable that all of us will go through epochs in our lives when things unequivocally stink; we mope and wonder why meteorites always seem to pelt us when our car battery’s dead, our kids are in an uproar and the day at the office was survivable at best.  In the book Zorba the Greek , the larger than life Zorba was asked if he was married and replied with great gusto, “Me? Wife, kids, job the full catastrophe!!”

But depression isn’t part of the human condition.  It’s a multifaceted illness, for some disabling and for many cruel. For many of its victims, the pain isn’t so much a feeling of sadness, but of nothingness.  There’s no air to breath, little room to escape this type of pain – until one, hopefully, gets treatment or it passes, mercifully, of its own inscrutable violation.  

How can nothingness be painful? Perhaps, it’s because it’s emotions that give life its vibrancy. These visceral forces energize us, heighten the intensity of our lives and make the human experience so rich.  The absence of this life force leaves us impoverished, longing and mourning for that richness in our being we once knew.

Psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, herself a depressive, captured this experience when she wrote:

“Others imply that they know what it is like to be depressed because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or broken up with someone. But these experiences carry with them feelings. Depression, instead, is flat, hollow, and unendurable. It is also tiresome. People cannot abide being around you when you are depressed. They might think that they ought to, and they might even try, but you know and they know that you are tedious beyond belief: you are irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and you’re “not at all like yourself but will be soon,” but you know you won’t.”

At least when the problem is one of discontent, we have our faculties (e.g. the ability to concentrate), are capable of making choices and bring focused energy to bear on changing matters in small or large ways.  For someone in the throes of depression, the power to choose is diminished if not extinguished.  Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., in his seminal book Undoing Depression , writes in his blog :

“Everyone knows what depression feels like.  Everyone feels the blues at times.  Sadness, disappointment, fatigue are normal parts of life.  There is a connection between the blues and clinical depression, but the difference is like the difference between the sniffles and pneumonia.”

No, depression isn’t unhappiness.  But discontent in one’s vocation is a real problem and often very painful.  We feel like a jammed door that won’t let us open into a life that works on some fundamental level.  We know something is wrong, sense that we’re stuck like in the traffic of our lives.  Our happiness is trying to tell us something and we know it.  Our emotional core senses we’ve been living a life out of sync with who we really are.  And if we’re in the legal profession, we’re not alone in this experience – far, far from it. 

Drifting Towards Unhappiness in the Law

There has been much debate about whether lawyers are really unhappy, to what degree, why that is so and what can be done about it. The Wall Street Journal interviewed Gretchen Rubin, a Yale Law School alumnus who clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor, about her book “The Happiness Project.”  Here’s her take on why so many lawyers find themselves in funks:

“There’s [this] whole notion of ‘drift’ that I think a lot of people fall into with law school.  They’d don’t decide, necessarily, to go to law school, but they drift into it, really for a lack of a better idea.  And that’s one of the reasons so many lawyers are unhappy.  They hear these lines that, on their face, seem to make sense: ‘It can’t hurt to take the LSAT.’ ‘I can always go to law school.’ ‘I can always change my mind later.’ That’s what happened to me.  I drifted into it.”

Gretchen realized that she had never made any real choice about whether to go to law school, let alone join the legal profession.  Yet, how many lawyers really chose their jobs? Most of us stumble around. There is a steep learning curve to life and there are few instruction manuals.  It’s often through trial and error that most people find their way.  The discovery that you’ve invested lots of time and money into a career that you later find was a bad fit is troubling indeed.  Many aren’t willing or able to make the leap to change matters; hence, unhappiness and distress. 

Perhaps the notion of happiness depends on how long you’ve been in the profession.  Recently minted lawyers seem to expect something more from their jobs than their predecessors.  The New York Times article The Falling Down Professions notes:

“Especially among young people, professional status is now inextricably linked to ideas of flexibility and creativity, concepts alien to seemingly everyone but art students even a generation ago. ‘There used to be this idea of having a separate work self and home self,’ notes Richard Florida, the author “The Rise of the Creative Class: And How it is Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life.”  ‘Now they just want to be themselves.  It’s almost as if they are interviewing places to see if they fit them.”

In a sense, it’s amazing that young lawyers are even taking into consideration flexibility and creativity; all the more so given the sour economy and the glut of law school graduates currently about 150,000 per year.  But an increasing number of young lawyers seem willing to seek a job fit that jives with their desire for not only a decent paycheck, but a decent life.   Many middle-aged or older lawyers eventually get there, but often after a lot of struggle and pain.  Some switch jobs to find a better fit (the litigator who starts a real estate practice) or others chuck the whole profession and start life anew in other fields.

In the new book “ The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law ,” the authors point out that six experiences that are critical to making a person satisfied with her life, including security, autonomy, authenticity, relatedness, competence, and self-esteem.  Certainly, money can and should be part of the equation, but not to the exclusion of other intrinsic values. 

There’s nothing new here, but don’t we all need to be reminded of this message over and over again?  At the very least, it’s a counterweight to the popular and legal culture which puts way too much emphasis on money and deludes us into thinking that more of it will mean greater happiness.

According to psychology expert and lawyer Dan Bowling , “Common sense, though, would suggest that the happiest lawyers are those who feel they are really good at law practice, who deal with clients and can see results of their work, or who have a sense that they are involved in a greater cause. Another question about the research, he say, ‘and I think it’s a fair question is this one. ‘It’s the so-what question.  It is: Whoever said law is supposed to be easy? Law is a career sacrifice for clients. . . . Who said we’re supposed to be happy?’ Bowling has an answer: ‘I think the law can be a jealous mistress, but I also think she can be kind, too,” he says.

A contrary view is offered in “ Scholars Debate: Is Law a Picnic ?” by Harvard Law Professor David B. Wilkins who reports that in a study of 4000 lawyers in the first decade of their careers:  “. . . contrary to what many believe, there is ‘no evidence’ of ‘any pervasive unhappiness in the profession,’ he says – at least not among those who began practicing in 2000. In that group, nearly three-quarters reported being ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with their jobs.

Perhaps happiness is somewhat determined by the type of law we go into.  In The Happy Lawyer, the authors note that those who work for government, in a small firm, or in a solo practice, as well as those attorneys who work aligns with their values, are more likely to be satisfied with their careers.

In “On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession,” Patrick Schlitz writes:

“This is the best advice I can give you: Right now, while you are still in law school, make the commitmentnot just in your head, but in your heartthat, although you are willing to work hard and you would like to make a comfortable living, you are not going to let money dominate your life to the exclusion of all else. And don’t just structure your life around this negative; embrace a positive. Believe in somethingcare about somethingso that when the culture of greed presses in on you from all sides, there will be something inside of you pushing back. Make the decision now that you will be the one who defines success for younot your classmates, not big law firms, not clients of big law firms, not the National Law Journal. You will be a happier, healthier, and more ethical attorney as a result.”

We each have to take our own journey in life to find out what makes us happy.  Just don’t get stuck in negative rumination about what’s wrong in your life.  Think about what could be “right” in your life.  Believe, at the very least, in the possibilities and follow your passion.  Make no mistake about it, there will be a cost.  If one follows one’s passion there may be risk, the displeasure of our peers and family members and financial concerns.  But if one doesn’t take this journey, if money carries too much weight in what we’re willing to do to make a living, we will be unhappy; if this situation goes on to long, maybe depressed.

Further reading:

Chicken Little: Lawyer at Law ” by Stephanie West Allen

The New York Times Dissects Lawyer Unhappiness with a Note on Following Your Dreams ” by Victoria Pynchon

 

 

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