Lawyers happier than gas station attendants, says new book

Lawyers happier than gas station attendants, says new book
By and large, I’m happy with the career path I’ve chosen, but I can’t say there haven’t been a few occasions when I’ve wondered if I should have gone into a less stressful line of work, like air traffic control.

A criminal law client tried to attack me in the holding cells once. Another young accused I was representing fled the courtroom and locked herself in the bathroom — twice. And then there was the experienced solicitor with whom I was negotiating division of matrimonial property, who bellowed “Damian, are you retarded?!?” in front of our clients.

According to University of Missouri-Kansas City law professors Nancy Levit and Douglas O. Linder, authors of The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law, we aren’t the least satisfied professionals out there, but we could be happier about what we’re doing with our lives: “. . . it is revealing that lawyers, as a group, are decidedly less happy than are members of many other professions. Members of the clergy, travel agents, architects, scientists, engineers, airline pilots, physicians, financial planners, and detectives are all happier than lawyers. Even repair persons, housekeepers, and butlers report higher levels of happiness than do members of the legal profession. Still, it could be worse: lawyers do report more career satisfaction than either roofers or gas station attendants.”

Why are so many of us so disillusioned with the practice of law? Levit and Linder list several reasons, but the most convincing may be that we entered the profession with unrealistic expectations. You have to be pretty smart to make it into law school in the first place, and after three tough years of studying, examinations, and moot courts, many law students come out expecting something approaching the glamorous and exciting life portrayed on television.

“Few would line up to watch a film titled Adventures in Document Production or The Man Who Did Due Diligence,” write the authors, though to me both sound preferable to the upcoming film version of Yogi Bear.

The Happy Lawyer attempts to explain how law students and lawyers can become happier and more fulfilled in their practice, how law students can choose the right school and subsequent career, and how law firms can make things better for their associates. By and large, Levit and Linder succeed; there are some excellent ideas and insights in this book.

My favourite thing about my current position is the autonomy I’ve been given. When I made the decision to concentrate on family law, and phase out other areas of practice, the firm gave me its blessing. And as the parent of a 17-month-old child, I’ve been able to adjust my work hours to accommodate my wife’s work schedule and my son’s activities (read: napping).

It turns out that flexible hours, a favourable work-life balance, and control over one’s position are highly touted by the authors of The Happy Lawyer. Levit and Linder describe a famous experiment in which several rats were subjected to powerful electric shocks, but only one of the rats’ cages contained a switch for turning off the power. After six weeks, the rat who could occasionally shut off the juice was the only one still living — even though it had received exactly the same doses of electric shocks over the course of the experiment.

Lawyers may bristle at being compared to rats again, but the same principle applies to humans. By its very nature, the practice of law is one in which you can only have so much control over your work — you may have your own methods of doing what the client wants, but you ultimately have to do what he or she wants — but lawyers who are given more control over the clients and assignments they take, who can work hours of their choosing and decorate their offices as they see fit, are more content and productive.

In my own experience, since my wife went back to work a few months ago, I haven’t been spending as much time at the office — but my billing has increased.

Speaking of billing, The Happy Lawyer authors are not fans of the standard billable hour, which they argue rewards inefficiency. They encourage firms to look at flat-fee or other alternative arrangements.

They are, however, fans of public-sector and pro bono legal work, which allow lawyers to handle cases which may better reflect their values and interests.

“No one forced you to take the job with the fancy downtown firm with its list of well-heeled clients,” they write. “You could have taken a job with the county prosecutor or the public defender (which one would have given you a sense of contributing to society’s betterment depends upon your own views on law, order and justice).”

Some lawyers, of course, want to practise corporate and commercial law for larger firms, and good for them. But there are many others who may have been happier in a small firm or a government agency, who went for the money and glamour without thinking about whether they’d actually enjoy the work. The lucky ones find a position that better suits their personalities and values. The less fortunate plug away at work they find dull and/or spirit-sapping, while others leave the legal profession altogether.

It’s never too late to read The Happy Lawyer, but the earlier the better. When I was studying law at the University of New Brunswick, I wish I’d thought about Levit and Linder’s recommendation for absorbing all that material: instead of thinking about how to explain this stuff to a professor in order to get an A, think about how you would explain it to the client sitting in your office a few years from now.

Damian J. Penny, a native of Mt. Pearl, Nfld., is a family law practitioner with Bedford Law in Bedford, N.S. His blog can be found at, and his Twitter feed at He can be reached at [email protected].

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