Town Hall sparks conversation on personal satisfaction
‘This is a life’s work for all of us, trying to figure out how to be happy’
By Gary Blankenship
Happiness as a lawyer is not dependent on income or making partner in a large firm. Rather satisfaction doing work deemed important, healthy relationships with others, and having a sense of “autonomy and authenticity.”
Florida State University Law Prof. Larry Krieger, who has spent a generation teaching and researching lawyer satisfaction, was the speaker February 20 at the first of The Florida Bar’s Town Hall meetings addressing the health and wellness of lawyers and getting feedback on what the Bar can do to help its members achieve more personal satisfaction.
While a mixed crowd of law students and lawyers munched on a buffet of salad, chicken skewers, and pita bread in the rotunda of the Florida State University College of Law in Tallahassee, Bar President Michael Higer repeated the sobering statistics about attorney mental afflictions and Krieger discussed the findings from his and others’ research.
Higer said it’s not surprising that lawyers have so many mental, stress, and satisfaction problems.
“We’re workaholics. We work 24/7 and we work weekends, we work 65-plus hour weeks, and we’re proud of it,” he said. “We wear it as a badge of honor that ‘I worked all day Saturday, I worked all day Sunday, and I worked until 8 or 9 at night.’”
Plus, the nature of the legal system is adversarial and antagonistic, and lawyers hate to lose cases for their clients —“We take their burdens and we make them our burdens,” he said.
Consequently, these statistics are not surprising, Higer said:
• 18 percent of lawyers, or double the number in the general population, have alcohol problems.
• 19 percent have “high anxiety” disorders.
• “33 percent of us are diagnosed with a mental disorder.”
• Lawyers are 3.6 times as likely to suffer from depression as the general population.
• That high depression rate means lawyers are twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population.
• 33 percent of lawyers, according to a Bar study, suffer from high stress.
• 32 percent struggle with the work/life balance.
• “And here’s the one that is crushing to me as a lawyer — because I love being a lawyer — and that’s that 70 percent of us, if we could, would change our careers.”
• As for law students — and Higer joked that those in the audience must be wondering what they signed up for after he presented the lawyer statistics — 23 percent report mild to moderate anxiety, 14 percent have severe anxiety, 17 percent suffer from depression and 6 percent have serious suicidal thoughts.
With numbers like that, “Let’s have a conversation, because this is something we all need to talk about,” Higer said.
Krieger began by observing: “This is a life’s work for all of us, trying to figure out how to be happy.”
Based on a study he co-wrote in 2015 that included 6,200 lawyers and 140 judges from four states, Krieger divided up factors in lawyers’ lives into two parts: internal and external.
External matters include things like pay, promotions, position in the law firm, and winning important cases. Internal factors are such things as feeling autonomous and authentic, feeling the work performed is important, having interactions and relationships with other humans.
“We thought success would make us happy . . . it isn’t quite true, which is why we have so many successful people who are struggling,” Krieger said. In fact, he said research has shown that “all of the internal factors are more important [to happiness and satisfaction] than any of the external success factors.”
The most important of the internal factors is a feeling of autonomy and authenticity, which Krieger said includes making choices that reflect a person’s values, shows his or her “true self,” and shows integrity, that he said is the core of professionalism.
Close behind is relating well to others, which requires decency and respect, which he called the “second pillar of professionalism.”
Next was satisfaction from work, which provides internal motivation. That involves having work that is interesting, enjoyable, and fulfills lawyers’ values and brings a purpose to their life. That in turn “generates engagement and excellence, the third pillar of professionalism.”
By contrast, external factors only produce a slight impact on well-being, Krieger said. One surprising finding is that partner status and 70 percent greater earnings resulted in no increase in lawyers’ sense of well-being, he said.
Lawyers who achieve the external, but not internal, successes often resort to distractions, such as pursuing material possessions (greed, Krieger said, is the number one distraction: “We think that money will make us happy”) or more destructively to drinking or other substance abuses.
After Krieger’s talk, Board of Governors member Dori Foster-Morales, chair of the Special Committee on Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers, which organized the Town Hall meeting with the support of the Tallahassee Bar Association, asked the lawyers and students for their ideas. She said the Bar is considering a variety of approaches, including a 24/7 hotline, virtual health and wellness groups that might focus on specific issues like lawyers who are parents of children with special needs or who are taking care of elderly parents, and perhaps small, in-person wellness groups.
Among the suggestions and observations:
• Recognition that in a high-stress, competitive profession, lawyers need ways to cope, including using mindfulness and treating each other with civility.
• Mentoring would help, both easing new lawyers into the profession and creating personal relationships that promote satisfaction.
• Law students are concerned about reporting mental health treatment on their bar admission applications.
In response to the conversation, Krieger said part of the problem is the culture and practices at law schools.
“There’s something that happens to us that doesn’t happen to others,” he said. “What happens to us is when we learn to think like lawyers, we learn to put aside all of these internal things. We learn that it’s irrelevant.”
Students face the anxiety of doing well in class, concerns whether they’ll get a job, and a setting that downplays values instilled by their families as they grew up.
“Conscience, caring, morality, a sense of fairness, everything is on the table. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s simply irrelevant. . . . [After law school] we haven’t overcome our inhibition toward sharing again and connecting. Everything we learn as a lawyer is about distinguishing, differentiating, becoming better, having a winning argument. That’s all that matters. When you go through three years repeating that is all that matters, you end up like this for a long time.”
Krieger suggested several resources for those who want more information. His study on lawyer happiness can be found on the scholarly research site, ssrn.com. Search for “What Makes Lawyers Happy.” (The full title is “What Makes Lawyers Happy?: A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success.”) The July edition of the ABA Journal will have an article, “How to Be the Happiest — and Most Effective — Lawyer You Can Be.” He wrote an article for The Florida Bar Journal in January, “The Surprising Master Key to Happiness and Satisfaction According to the Lawyer Research.” The FSU law school also puts out two pamphlets: “The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress” and “A Deeper Understanding of Your Career Choices.” They can be found on the school’s website at .
The Bar also has devoted a section to health and wellness issues on its website. Go to: www.floridabar.org/member/healthandwellnesscenter.
The Bar is planning more Town Halls on health and wellness. One was scheduled for March 2 in St. Petersburg, after this News went to press. Two more are planned:
• March 16, 11:45am-2 p.m., Eighth Judicial Circuit Bar Association Luncheon, The Wooly, 20 N. Main Street, Gainesville. Registration: 352-380-0333.
• April 18, 11:30-1:30, Palm Beach County Bar Association, Admiral’s Cove, 200 Admirals Cove Blvd., Jupiter. Registration: 561-687-2800.