Is Lawyer Wellbeing an Oxymoron?
Being a lawyer makes for some bad karma
I’ve had my feet in the legal world for fifteen years now. There have been many lessons learned in that time, and a lot of personal growth. I’m grateful for the privilege of practicing the law and for everything I’ve gained from being a lawyer. But in that time, I’ve also come to recognize many (MANY) unhealthy behaviors excused as simply “part of being a lawyer” that must change if we are to survive as a profession.
For the past three years or so (since moving to California-big surprise there), I’ve noticed how lawyering has conditioned me in unhealthy ways. The past year has been focused on finding solutions that do more than merely mask the symptoms of my stress—with an eye toward practical actions I can integrate into my practice and daily life to make me more consistent and calm. This newsletter is intended to share some of my experiences and thoughts, let you know what has worked for me, and to hear from you as well about your own unhealthy experiences in the law.
I call this newsletter “The Karma of Law” for a reason. It is to appreciate the impact that our jobs as lawyers have on us as non-lawyer, everyday people. After all, we are all just making it day-to-day, but being a lawyer has an impact on us that often can only be seen from a distance and with good perspective.
A book titled “The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis”, by Steven J. Harper, scathingly analyzes some of the challenges facing lawyers and law firms today. Harper, a former litigation partner at Kirkland & Ellis comes to the conclusion that many of the dangers and downsides of the profession stem primarily from greed. I’ve observed the same, saddened that the noble profession I thought I was entering largely disappeared decades before I even started law school, and also recognizing in myself those greedy instincts that framed my thinking during my first few years of practice.
For me, part of working through this has entailed being honest with myself about my motivations for going to law school in the first place. Only after considering how my past and background led me to decide on law school (with the help of several very good psychologists and therapists) was I able to understand what I originally wanted to get from being a lawyer, and why my experiences as a lawyer may have been less than fulfilling. Here’s a hint—its because the things I originally wanted did not deliver the happiness I expected, even after I accomplished them. What happens when your purpose doesn’t really provide the purpose you expect?
Like many lawyers, I didn’t come into the legal world with the cleanest of slates from a stress-management perspective. I had been an infantry sergeant in the Army less than a year before I moved to Manhattan and started law school, with a fresh diagnosis of PTSD after countless days and nights patrolling the western outskirts of Baghdad. While law school did provide the direction and structure I needed to move past the most difficult of my PTSD symptoms, I would only learn a decade later that being a lawyer (particularly in today’s non-stop world) creates its own trauma that most of us are ill equipped to truly face and move through.
Over the course of the last fifteen years, I’ve tried everything to figure out where I fit into the world of lawyering while also maintaining my sanity. At the end of this search, I’m convinced that the very system itself is broken, and simply not easily amenable to changes that will universally increase all lawyers’ wellbeing. While some of us can operate in this broken system with minimal harm to ourselves and others, the only way to truly become peaceful as a lawyer is to force yourself to move beyond the unrealistic expectations that we wrongly believe are the norm, and to figure out what work will provide you with true purpose while also providing a living and support for yourself and your family. In some cases, this may mean simply finding a better relationship with our work that brings in some light and fresh air. For others, this may mean transformational career change. Regardless, this newsletter is here to open up this discussion and support the journey of lawyers who understand the need for a better way to work with and find purpose from our JDs.