Why are lawyers so unhappy?

by Jamie Pennington on September 22, 2017

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Lawyers are almost 4 times as likely to be unhappy as other employed people. Who says so?  

Martin Seligman, who knows what he’s talking about.  His website says, Martin Seligman is a past-President of the American Psychological Association, and is commonly known as the founder of Positive Psychology. He is a leading authority in the fields of Positive Psychology, resilience, learned helplessness, depression, optimism and pessimism.”

So why are lawyers so unhappy?

In his book, “Authentic Happiness”, Martin Seligman devotes an entire chapter to the question “Why are lawyers so unhappy?”.  He notes that researchers at John Hopkins found statistically significant elevations of major depressive order in only 3 of 104 occupations surveyed, and lawyers topped the list, suffering depression at a rate 3.6 times higher than employed persons generally.

Are you surprised?  Wonder why this unhappiness is so widespread?

Seligman sees 3 principle causes:

  1. The first is pessimism.  He notes that pessimists view bad events as pervasive (it affects everything), permanent (it will never get better) and uncontrollable (there’s nothing I can do about it).  Lawyers think like this. The good news is that these traits make for a good lawyer, and studies confirm this. Pessimistic undergraduates and sports people do worse than optimistic ones, but it’s reversed in lawyers: pessimistic ones outperform optimistic ones.  Seligman found this out by studying an entire 1990 law school class, and discovered that it was the pessimists that got better grades and had more successful careers.  This should be good news.  But this professional pessimism cannot be turned off in private life.  Lawyers who see how things could turn out badly for their clients can also see clearly how things might turn out badly for themselves.  They believe they won’t make partner, their spouse is unfaithful and the economy is headed for disaster.
  2. The second principal cause is low decision latitude – particularly in junior lawyers. Decision latitude refers to the number of choices you believe you have.  An important study of the relationship of job conditions with depression and coronary disease showed one combination that is a killer: high job demands with low decision latitude.  Individuals with these jobs have much more coronary disease than individuals in the other 3 quadrants. The law firm culture is an interesting one -I wrote a white paper on “The Law Firm as an autistic organisation” which you can download here.
  3. The third principal cause – and the one Seligman says is the deepest of the factors making lawyers unhappy – is that law is become a win-loss game.  He says “American law has migrated from being a practice in which good counsel about justice and fairness as the primary good to being a big business in which billable hours, take-no prisoner victories and the bottom line are now the principal ends”

Seligman is writing about American law, but I believe that pessimism and low decision latitudes are equally true in the UK.  His third factor - the win-loss game - may be less in UK law, but all those in big firms will know the pressure on personal billing and profitability, coupled with the end of partnership for life. 

Is there a solution? I’ve been coaching lawyers for over 20 years, and it’s not simple.  So I will devote my next blog to discussing it.



Topics: law firm, leadership, lawyers, behavioural change, empathy, law firm career

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