Illustrations by Katie McBride
Illustrations by Katie McBride

In his third year of law school, Luke Bresnahan, L’16, made the decision to switch out of a course in Mindfulness and the Legal Profession. “I assumed that, based on the other individuals in the class and the strict curve applied to the course, it would be difficult to add another coveted A to my transcript,” wrote Bresnahan. “Instead, I enrolled in a course in which I had no interest because I was sure I’d be able to maintain my GPA.”

Still, the choice stuck with him and nagged him to dig deeper. He was tapping into a series of worries increasingly being examined by those inside and outside the legal profession: Why are legal practitioners so unhappy? Does the profession somehow value perfection over well-being? Is discontent a feature, not a bug? Do the long hours of stress and arguing just make it more appealing to people who are already unhappy? And, most importantly, how can the culture change?

Bresnahan decided to investigate in an independent project, “Healing Our Profession from Within.” He combined personal narrative with research to offer theories behind — and solutions to — unhappiness in law school and the legal profession.

Bresnahan’s study is part of a growing collection of books, news coverage, and articles on the topic. 
Unhappiness in the legal profession has become part of popular culture, with coverage ranging from media stories like CNN’s 2014 “Why are lawyers killing themselves?” to academic scholarship like Martin Seligman, Paul Verkuil, and Terry Kang’s 2001 “Why Lawyers are Unhappy,” published in the Cardozo Law Review. And it’s this field of research, and experiences like Bresnahan’s, that have led many law schools to integrate the study of wellness and the “practice” of happiness into their curricula. There’s Personal Satisfaction in Legal Practice at Stanford, or Well-Being and the Practice of Law at Duke — or The Happy Lawyer at the University of Richmond.

It's our generation of students ... that is looking for something more than a career that just pays the bills. We're looking for more purpose during the 9 to 5 as well.

The Happy Lawyer course, which launched in the fall of 2016, was developed by dean Wendy Perdue and professor Christopher Corts, who primarily teaches legal writing. They wanted to find a way for students to engage in active thinking about professional satisfaction.

“One of the goals is that by going through this course, students will appreciate how to measure happiness, how to define happiness,” Corts said. Perdue added, “It’s important for us as legal educators to give students the toolbox of skills that will allow them to be successful.”

The class meets three times a semester for a full academic year and is offered for one pass-fail credit. Each class centers on discussion related to an assigned reading. Local practitioners also make guest appearances. During the first semester, alumni discussed their personal experiences with the pursuit of happiness in the profession, and the group heard from a member of Lawyers Helping Lawyers, an organization dedicated to supporting attorneys with addiction and substance abuse problems. The goal was “to pull from a diverse set of professional experiences and personal narratives,” said Corts. “I wanted students to hear actual practitioners of law who’ve navigated the pressures of law school.”

The content isn’t the only creative component of the class; the format is uncoventional, too. Each session meets at Perdue’s home for dinner on a Sunday evening.

“We capped the course at 10 because that’s how many people can fit around my dining room table,” Perdue said. The intimate format was an intentional and carefully planned aspect of the course, which relies on honesty, good listening, and solid communication skills.

“There is something about sharing a meal with your fellow humans that changes the nature of the interaction,” Perdue said. And, as 3L Colin McNamara put it, “The idea of having dinner at Dean Perdue’s house was just awesome.”

The Pursuit of Happiness

The Happy Lawyer was devised after a conversation between Perdue and Corts, who has a master’s degree in theology, about the differences between educating lawyers and ministers. 

“Not surprisingly, the emphasis on self-reflection and self-examination is one component of seminary that’s not as present at law school,” Perdue said. “But the two areas — ministry and the law — are actually a lot alike. We are in a service industry, one that requires a connection with others. Doing that effectively requires more self-reflection.” 

That’s why Perdue and Corts ask participants to start each session by sharing something that incited happiness since the last meeting. The idea, 3L McNamara said, is that “you’re constantly checking in with yourself … to make sure that you are noticing the things in your life that are good and not just dwelling on the stress and angst that can come with the legal profession.” 

It’s that stress and angst, after all, that have brought these students to explore the role happiness — or its absence — might have in their future careers. Numerous studies point to higher levels of depression, substance abuse, and divorce in the legal profession. It’s what led 2L Julia Miller to ask several attorneys about their experiences before she applied to law school. 

“Almost all of them told me, ‘Don’t go to law school. Don’t do it. You’re going to be miserable, not just in law school, but in the legal field.’” 

But Miller felt strongly that the legal field was a good fit for her. “Obviously, I didn’t take their advice,” she said.

She and the students in The Happy Lawyer are looking for ways to combat those trends. “I’d love to learn some ways to be proactive … at learning about happiness and what contributes to it,” she said. “How, even if you’re a young associate in a major law firm, you can create happiness in a lot of different ways.”

The happy lawyer

The Lawyer or the Law?

Before researchers can tackle these problems, they first have to uncover the sources of unhappiness — and that can be a complicated web.

Many law students are drawn to the field for the chance to help people. They’re searching for purpose and meaning in their careers. “It’s our generation of students … that is looking for something more than a career that just pays the bills,” Miller said. “We’re looking for more purpose during the 9 to 5 as well.”

That the legal profession is susceptible to unhappiness is not news to law students. “We’re uniquely dispositioned for misery,” said McNamara. “We speak for people who can’t speak for themselves because they don’t know the language, and they don’t know the profession. Taking on someone else’s problems, making someone else’s misery your own — you have to keep distance … but to a certain extent it’s unavoidable.”

Tensions arise when their vision of helping others starts to meet the realities of life. As Corts explained, students “tend to come in as 1Ls with a very idealistic vision of being a certain type of lawyer. As law school unfolds, realities start to creep in. In many cases, they start to lose that vision.”

It can be even harder to keep that purpose in mind when facing debt after law school. “When you have $100,000 hanging over your head, you tend to cast aside purpose and mission in the interest of expediency and in the interest of not living in poverty the rest of your life,” McNamara said.

Once a lawyer graduates and enters the workplace, other challenges may arise. According to Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder, in their book also titled The Happy Lawyer, “Researchers suggest that lack of control is linked to depression and noted that lawyers and secretaries (two of the three highest-risk groups) have relatively little autonomy.” 2L Miller agrees: “We all want to feel like we’re in a little bit of control over what we’re doing.”

Some researchers argue that it’s not just the rigors of the field at play. The personality traits that make lawyers well-suited for their careers could also contribute to their unhappiness. Seligman, Verkuil, and Kang took on that concept in their popular 2001 study.
Part of the answer, they argued, is in one key trait: pessimism. In most circumstances, pessimism is not an asset. “Pessimistic undergraduates get lower grades,” they said, and even “pessimistic swimmers have more sub-standard swims.”

However, their research revealed a striking correlation between pessimism and success in law school, and that pessimists may fare better in the field. But, they continued, while pessimism may make for a better lawyer, it doesn’t necessarily lead to a happy person.

“Pessimism is well-documented as a major risk factor for unhappiness and depression,” they said. “Lawyers cannot easily turn off their pessimism (i.e., prudence) when they leave the office.”

Obstacles, and Solutions

Over those meals at Perdue’s house, the students in The Happy Lawyer have examined and discussed many sources of unhappiness — as well as some possible solutions. The positive psychology movement is a central focus of much of this conversation. It’s what Corts described as “the way psychologists have found that human beings are motivated by things other than rewards.” That includes things like autonomy, but also mastery and purpose.

For Perdue and Corts, these conversations are a way to prime law students for a lifetime of self-reflection that could lead to career decisions that prioritize well-being.

Happy graduates, they argued, are good for Richmond. Last year, the law school conducted an alumni survey, gauging their ability to thrive based on Gallup’s Five Essential Elements of Wellbeing: career, social, financial, physical, and community.

“We want a body of alumni who are satisfied on all these fronts,” Perdue said. “We are a stronger organization if our alums are thriving.”

Today’s graduates are more likely to have help overcoming barriers to happiness. Some firms and corporations are incorporating resiliency programs and well-being offerings into their employee benefits packages in an effort to promote retention. As Seligman and his co-authors put it, “Unhappy associates fail to achieve their full potential at a cost to them, their firms, their clients, and even their families.”

In other words, a happy lawyer is good for the organization, too.

For students and lawyers, the happiness solution will continue to be a complicated match-making process that involves examining oneself, examining prospective employers, and hazarding a guess on the best fit.

“The perfect job is the one that lies at the intersection of our deeply held values, our personal strengths, and our pleasures,” according to the authors of The Happy Lawyer.

Miller has learned the importance of “putting [the work] into a context where there’s purpose behind it; realizing and remembering that you’re doing it for a human being — what you do does matter.”

McNamara said he expects stress to be part and parcel of the job.

“But what I’ve decided is that it doesn’t have to be the whole job,” he said. “We can do our jobs, … we can represent our clients with zealous advocacy, but we can also be happy in the process.”

Emily Cherry is director of communications for the University of Richmond School of Law.