The Happy Lawyer: A Year-Long Experiment

My last year of law school, I took a seminar class called “The Happy Lawyer”. The concept was simple; ten law students, one dean, and one professor read six books about happiness and discuss them over dinner throughout the school year. Full disclosure, I took this class because it was at the dean’s house (who doesn’t want to see their law school dean’s house?) and was taught by one of my favorite professors. The happiness and mindfulness aspect of the class was secondary at best.   

Over the course of the year, we read six books including; Happiness: A Very Short Introduction by Daniel Haybron, The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, How to Have a Good Day by Caroline Webb, Designing Your Life by Dave Evans and Bill Burnett, and Grit by Angela Duckworth. While our reviews of each book ranged drastically, many of us had eerily similar stories about the struggles we’ve faced in law school to maintain our happiness. Some lamented the difficulties of balancing school, work, family, friends, and significant others. Others were dismayed by their inability to seek refuge from their anxiety because of their never-ending to-do list. Universally, we were all plagued by varying degrees of impostor syndrome (especially because the class was almost all female-identifying), stress, and uncertainty. So… how could we ever be happy?

Fast-forward to a year later, several of our classmates and my professor had a small reunion. Over several bottles of wine and a plethora of cheese, we talked about how the class has defined our practice. We compared war stories of annoying and great co-workers, wonderful and challenging clients, the horror of billable hours, and the joys of getting a paycheck. But the most present was the new form of stress and anxiety we constantly feel. In law school when you procrastinated on a deadline or made a mistake, only you were personally impacted. Now, it’s someone’s money or life on the line.

It surprised me to hear that all these smart, confident, amazing women were having the exact same problems I was having. We were all stressed in a way we had never felt before. We all felt the anxiety of straddling the line between no longer an intern but not really an attorney (yes, this is a Britney Spears reference). It was common that our paralegals and legal assistants knew more than us about almost everything. For those of us doing direct client work, we felt the emotional strain of carrying our client’s worries on our shoulders. For those of us working for bigger corporations, we felt the burden of being constantly available at the drop of a hat for any and all legal questions.

And while it was scary and nerve-wracking to admit our hardships, hearing about our shared struggles was liberating. It brought me back to one of the main lessons I learned in my happy lawyer course. It amounts to this; comparison is the thief of joy but commiseration is the queen of it. Basically, it’s okay to talk about the hard time you are having! Really, I promise. You will feel a lot better once you’ve given your internal strife a voice. Hearing our collective experiences kept me from feeling like the sole resident on sad lawyer island. I was now a proud citizen of the heavily populated new lawyers figuring their shit out island. Commiserating created an automatic support system and sounding board for our daily struggles at work.

As I enter my fifth month as a “real” lawyer, I’ve learned how important creating support systems of other female lawyers is to my well-being. Aside from my happy lawyer get together, I’ve also joined a young woman in practice group that meets once a month. Not only is it a great way to meet new people, but it also allows us to speak openly about our experiences as young female lawyers in a male-dominated work environment. It’s been a great opportunity to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of different firms in the area as well as get to know new professional contacts. Most importantly, we all celebrate each other for the work we are doing!

At the end of the day, I’m not quite a happy lawyer. My stress and anxiety are constant companions. My impostor syndrome has blossomed into an entirely new beast. I’ve somehow forgotten everything I’ve learned in law school. But, sharing these experiences with badass, empowered woman has helped to remind me that being a happy lawyer is possible and within my grasp.

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