How Maya Angelou Can Help Us Be Happier Lawyers

The contrast between Maya Angelou’s joyful life and the misery of so many lawyers is unavoidable.  Yesterday, as I listened to remembrances of her, I was struck by how vibrant and full her life was, so unlike the lives of many lawyers.   According to the Dave Nee Foundation, lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer depression than non-lawyers; some studies show as many as 37% of lawyers suffer from depression.  What did Maya Angelou do so differently than we lawyers do?  Maya Angelou is, of course, unique and nobody can hope to replicate her life.  But we can learn from her, and maybe—just maybe—we’ll be better off.   There are at least two things Maya Angelou did far differently than most lawyers, and which we would be wise to replicate:  she didn’t specialize and she created.

Maya Angelou never specialized.  She was a dancer, a singer, a civil rights activist, a playwright, a poet, and a memoirist, to name a few.  Even her writing was tremendously varied.  Her wide-ranging career is the opposite of most lawyers’.  We begin to specialize before we finish law school.  Law students choose litigation or transactional work, and then they quickly become securities litigators or class action specialists or leasing experts.  Over time, practices become increasingly focused and narrow, quite different from Maya Angelou, who was both Miss Calypso and an acclaimed poet in the same life.

The deep specialization of lawyers increases the pressure on them.  Once you’re the expert on some arcane section of the IRS Code, you’re supposed to know all the answers about that section.  “I don’t know” becomes harder to utter, and the fear of not knowing and looking like a fraud grows.  It becomes unacceptable to be “figuring it out.”  Nobody likes that kind of pressure.

Specializing also gets boring.  Many people went to law school (me included) at least partially because they hoped  for a varied and interesting career.  Naively, I had visions of learning all about a medical device one year and then saving the trees the next.  The variety and constant learning were enticing.  But, given rate pressures and the complexity of modern law, it’s hard to have wide variety in a legal career.

Without variety and change, attorneys lose opportunities to create—something else that marked Maya Angelou’s life.  Humans need to create.  In Angelou’s words, “There is no greater agony greater than bearing an untold story inside of you.”   When you deal with the same section of CERCLA year after year, you’re not afforded many avenues to tell your story.  Sure, you can try to craft the world’s most eloquent section on the standard for summary judgment, but let’s be honest:  there’s not tremendous room for creativity there.  And once you’ve written that really great section, you’re likely inclined to recycle it to save yourself time and your client money.  We all use forms and templates every day, the antithesis of writing “Still I Rise.”

Most of us probably can’t become wide ranging, Renaissance lawyers.  Nor are most of us ever going to write our own version of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”  But we can aim for more wide ranging pursuits.  We can, as Roman Krznaric suggests in his book “How to Find Fulfilling Work,” strive to become  “wide achievers.”  We each have multiple selves with multiple talents and interests.  To satisfy our complex personalities, we might consider pursuing several careers or hobbies at once.  Why not try a hobby (that might become a career)?  Perhaps you’d enjoy writing poetry or becoming a master gardener.  Or, if law doesn’t leave you any time for hobbies, consider becoming a serial specialist, as Krznaric puts it, who pursues multiple different  careers, one after the other.  Perhaps just giving yourself permission to acknowledge that you might not be a lawyer (or at least not an ERISA lawyer) for the rest of your life would add some joy to your day.

We can also look for opportunities to create, whether within our law jobs or outside.  We can refuse to let the local rules of court or a domineering partner drain every ounce of our own voice out of our briefing.  Even if it’s only in the first draft, the one that never gets shared, we can create as our authentic selves.  Or maybe we can sign up for a watercolor class or a cooking class, anything that gives us a bit of a creative outlet.  Even a blog or a private journal might help.

I readily admit that the legal profession is not conducive to living a wide-achieving, creative life, especially if you are an associate.  But even taking small steps toward creating and adding variety might lift—just an inch or two--the fog of misery that’s hanging over  our profession.                                                               



Kate: Thank you so much for writing this piece.  First it’s a beautiful tribute to Maya Angelou who is one of my favorite writers of all time.  Second, I love the idea of multiple pursuits to satisfy all parts of ourselves.  No one job or one person is going satisfy our every need whether you’re a lawyer or doing something else entirely.  For me, participating in Ms. JD is a huge part of satisfying other sides of myself.  When people ask me “how do you do it (i.e. be a young associate and serve as President of Ms. JD)?” I often say, “Because I need to.”  By that I mean that working with Ms. JD and building this incredible community helps me satisfy another side of my personality that my every day as a young associate cannot.  Of course so does dancing in my living room, cooking with my family, yoga, and movie nights with friends!    We have to create space in our lives for all parts of ourselves and this was a fantastic reminder about how to honor those parts! -KMLW


Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment.  I’m glad that the piece resonated with you.  Thank you, also, for your hard work with Ms. JD and for inspiring women attorneys and law students!

Amber Burton, J.D.



I’m glad you enjoyed the piece, Amber!

Elisabeth Pickle, Esq.

What an absolutely gorgeous article. So glad I happened upon your blog/site. I recently started a Personal Chef business with no formal culinary experience, but others have encouraged me based on my cooking skills. I’ve scaled my solo practice way back, and considered myself a failure because of it.  You may have just turned my perspective on its head! Thank you. How can I become more involved?


Elisabeth, Thank you for sharing your story.  I’m so glad that this piece may have been useful to you.  I, too, had a solo practice for a while, so I can relate.  Your transition doesn’t sound like failure at all, but just that—a transition.  Best of luck!

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