I Fought the Law and the Law Won: Barriers to Thriving in the Legal Profession

The Thriving Lawyer: Lawyers face challenges unlike those found in many other professions.  The combination of long hours, time away from family, pressure to find (and keep) clients, stress, and the ever-present focus on the bottom line doesn’t leave much room for balance or a general sense of well-being.  This column will explore why the journey into the legal profession can be a difficult one, and it will offer stories, tips, and tools readers can use to initiate a new conversation within the legal profession – one that promotes thriving.

“Who practices law to be happy?  Who goes to law school to be happy?  Bunch o’ sissies.”

This quote was written by a person responding to a Wall Street Journal blog about a new law school course at Duke addressing well-being in the legal profession.  As the quote quite succinctly points out, not all people think that happiness or well-being has a place in the legal profession; but, I strongly disagree.

So why is the legal profession such a tough place in which to work?  The legal profession presents specific challenges that are different from other careers, and they are as follows:

  1. The legal profession is adversarial.  The default mode is to treat all interactions as arguments to be won.
  2. The legal profession is a zero-sum game.  One person’s win is another’s loss, and vice versa. 
  3. There are values conflicts.  Lawyers have to defend people and make arguments that often clash with personal values.
  4. The law firm culture is, well, different.  Often, the bottom line and billable hours are truly the only things that matter when assessing lawyer quality and performance, and lawyers are subsequently treated and valued in direct proportion to their monetary value to the firm.    

The Decline Starts in Law School…
This potent blend of factors negatively impacts attorneys in a number of ways, and the decline starts in law school.  Research spanning almost two decades shows that before law school, future law students are as emotionally healthy as the general population; however, just six months into law school, negative symptoms such as anxiety and depression increase dramatically and continue throughout all three years of law school, with as many as 20-40% of students being clinically depressed.  This sharp decline in emotional well-being appears to be unique to law students because these findings have not been seen in other overworked populations of graduate students. 

…And Continues as Attorneys Begin Their Practice
Levels of depression and anxiety among law school graduates have been found to still be significantly elevated two years after graduation.  In addition, a 1990 Johns Hopkins study found that out of 104 professions, when adjusted for socioeconomic factors, lawyers suffer from depression at almost four times the rate of other professions.  Even for those lawyers who aren’t diagnosed as depressed or anxious, many feel burned out, stressed beyond what they can handle on a long-term basis, out of balance, and left with strained family and friend relationships.

Dr. Larry Richard has studied the lawyer personality for over two decades, and his research shows that lawyers display an unusually high sense of skepticism and urgency in combination with a disproportionately low sense of resilience and sociability.

Dr. Richard explains that this specific blend of traits may allow a lawyer to do good legal work, but it often means that lawyers can be poor listeners, bring a level of tension to meetings, add frustration to mentor/mentee relationships, annoy non-lawyer colleagues, friends and family, and might prefer to spend time in interactions that emphasize the intellect rather than the heart.

Where Do We Go from Here?
While I’ve unloaded a lot of negative information about the legal profession, it’s necessary to understand the forces working against attorney well-being.  It’s unlikely that the profession will change its ways, at least in the short term, which means that lawyers become responsible for building the necessary tools to thrive despite the hurdles. 

Future columns will explore ways that lawyers can begin to feel more productive, more engaged, foster better connections (and communication) with colleagues and family, perform at a higher level, effectively manage change and conflict, and in general, thrive.  I’m excited to share with you additional research, my own stories, and the stories of others to illustrate that thriving is not only possible in the legal profession, it’s required! 




Very interesting! I think it’s great that you will be touching on these issues because I don’t think they are addressed as much as they should be.

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