The Happy Lawyer:
Tweak Your Law Practice & Increase Job Satisfaction

Original 'Smiley' logo (actually most often ca...

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Perhaps when you first started practicing law, it wasn’t everything you expected it would be. But you figured it had to get better over time. After all, there are hundreds of thousands of lawyers. If it was such an unpleasant job, there wouldn’t be so many of us, right?

And, it’s true, for some lawyers, their jobs are enjoyable. But for others, as we show in our recent infographic on lawyer depression, the stress, non-stop deadlines, constant conflict, and tediousness can sometimes take their toll and lead to depression, substance abuse, and even suicide. There’s no doubt about it, the legal profession isn’t an easy one and many lawyers burn out quickly.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to reduce burnout and make your job more enjoyable and less stressful. In fact, that’s the goal of our 15 post blog series–to help you take steps to increase your job satisfaction.

In today’s post we’re going to examine ways to tweak your practice areas and your day-to-day focus in order to help improve your outlook and make your job more enjoyable.

First, let’s take a look at the big picture. This recent Wisconsin Lawyer article examines the concept of what makes lawyers happy and suggests that oftentimes it’s all about autonomy and finding meaningful work. The article cites the results of a recent study based on the answers of 6,200 lawyers, judges, and law students, and other law-related professionals in four states. The results were somewhat surprising.

Respondents reported that the factors that corresponded the least to happiness were external ones and included income, school debt, class rank in law school, and law review membership. In comparison, the factors that increased happiness were internal factors and included:

  • Autonomy, or being authentic and having a sense of control over one’s choices
  • Relatedness to others
  • Feeling competent in performing one’s job
  • Internal motivation at work – that is, finding the work itself meaningful, enjoyable, rather than being motivated by external factors, such as pressure from others or needing to impress others
  • Autonomy support at work
  • Intrinsic values – these may include personal growth, helping others, etc., in contrast to such extrinsic values as power, affluence, and so on.

In other words, happiness apparently has little to do with income or status and everything to do with enjoying the work that you do on a day-to-day basis and working on your own terms and schedule.

These findings were applied in a recent post at the ABA’s Law Technology Today blog, “Reconnecting With Your Passion For The Law.” The author, executive coach Leah Jackman-Wheitner, Ph.D., echoed the conclusions of the report above, noting: “A sense of meaninglessness and lack of passion are common symptoms of professional burnout. Feelings of hopelessness and impotence at work can intrude into other aspects of life, creating a general sense of malaise.” Fortunately she offered some practical solutions.

She explained that the first step is to identify and address immediate work pressures that drain your energy and effectively reduce your enjoyment of the practice of law. So, if your transactional law practice deprives you of the types of client contact that makes you feel energized, then seek out professional volunteer opportunities outside of the office that increase your interaction with others while simultaneously increasing your exposure for business development purposes. Alternatively, simply honing in on the aspects of your job that you enjoy the most and reducing the amount of time spent focusing on less positive parts of your job functions will help improve your mindset and overall sense of well being.

Another way to address burnout is to reexamine why you chose a career as an attorney in the first place. For example, consider altering your career path to ensure that your day-to-day work forwards your original goals. This could include smaller changes such as being more selective when choosing which clients to represent and which cases to handle. Or it could mean changing to new practice areas entirely or simply adding a new practice area to your law firm’s focus.

Finally, find ways to increase your autonomy. As the results of the Wisconsin study shows, autonomy is a huge factor in job satisfaction for lawyers. So it’s important to identify ways to increase your sense of control over your workload. That could mean seeking to change the amount of autonomy that you have at your current job or leaving your job and joining a smaller firm or even hanging your own shingle.

At the end of the day, the only person who knows what’s truly right for you and your happiness is…you. It’s important to realize that you truly do have control over your career path and there are things that you can do today–whether big or small–to increase your job satisfaction. So seize the day and take steps to improve your mindset and become the happy lawyer you were meant to be!

–Nicole Black

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