How to be a Happy Lawyer

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We reached to attorneys, former attorneys, and others across the country, and found out what separates happy attorneys from the rest. Here's what they had to say:

I'm a happy lawyer. Am I alone? I don't think so.

I was very influenced by the writings of Steven Keeva who regrettably died recently at the age of 53.

He wrote "Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life" - a book I recommend for all lawyers.

Ultimately, I have learned that the practice of law is not about me. It is about "you" my clients, the judges before whom I appear, the other attorneys with whom I interact.

I have learned to be grateful every day of my life. I have learned that I am grateful for the gifts of my health and my ability to serve as an attorney.

I have learned I have a purpose in life. My purpose is to solve the legal and financial problems of my clients so that they may better enjoy their life. In so doing, I have the opportunity to change the world for the better. For this, I can be compensated for my services so that I can care for those who I love.

At the conclusion of my work day, I can love my loved ones and be loved by them. For this I am very grateful.

As I go through my day, I am happy that I have the opportunity to live my days as an autonomous professional, running my own firm, enabling my employees to take care of their families, taking care of our clients' needs and leaving the world better. Certainly there are challenges. But we overcome them every day.

We leave the world better.

I am not a Pollyanna. I've been practicing for almost 40 years now. There have been ups and downs in my practice and in my life. But today, life has never looked better and I am more satisfied than ever in my practice.

David P. Leibowitz
Waukegan, IL

Greetings, many of my friends who are comedians used to be lawyers. I'll tell you why they are unhappy - because it's freaking boring and the hours are awful! I've also done a lot of shows for lawyers' groups.

Let's face it, like doctors, most people decided to become lawyers because of no other reason than the money. So many people say they want to be a doctor or a lawyer - how could that be possible? Those professions have absolutely nothing in common (except for making a ton of money and impressing your parents.)

If someone chases money instead of happiness, then they are bound to be unhappy.

Dan Nainan, Comedian/Actor/Voiceover Artist/Computer Geek

I was in private practice for 5 years and then moved into fundraising in a higher education setting. I love it and have truly found my calling. I utilize my legal skills on a daily basis, from document drafting, negotiation, issue identification and more.

Carrie M. Collins, JD
Vice President, Institutional Advancement
University of the Sciences
Philadelphia, PA

I am a (happy) attorney and have also taught at GWU Law School for the past 18 years. I have some thoughts on lawyer happiness.

First and foremost, many law students enter law school without any knowledge of what a lawyer does on a daily basis. Prior to law school, they never work in a firm or otherwise obtain any exposure to an attorney at work. Instead, they base their expectations on what life is like as an attorney on movies and television shows, which vary in their levels of accuracy of what it is like to be an attorney. Moreover, those shows do not show the "grind," but only the dramatic moments (for obvious reasons). So, a great deal of the unhappiness is disillusion caused by the practice of law not meeting the lawyers' unrealistic expectations.

Second, many people enter law school not out of a desire to be an advocate or a business advisor, but because it is one of the limited options available to them. Specifically, for many majors, particularly liberal arts majors, law school is an attractive avenue financially. Law schools do not require any specific degree and there is prestige and many employers awaiting successful graduates. Therefore, many students who have no desire to practice law end up pursuing a law degree as the best available (or only) option after graduating college. The practice of law is demanding and without an actual interest in practicing, it can be very grueling.

Finally, with the high number of law schools now, it is relatively easy to get admitted to law school. However, if you are not truly adept at the skills required or truly interested in doing the work, it is hard to excel and obtain a good position. The prestige of being a lawyer actually becomes a burden - how can a lawyer not be rich or employed? That also leads to disillusion with the profession.

Happy lawyers generally go to law school for the right reason and enjoy the practice of law - whether it be as an advocate, business advisor, prosecutor or whatever.

Thomas J. Simeone, Esq.
Simeone & Miller, LLP

I am a young lawyer 2 years out of law school and the job the market is less than great. I decided to accept a job with Wells Fargo (underemployed) in order to start paying back my massive amounts of student loans. With that being said I have never liked the thought of working at a big law firm where young associates are working 50, 60 or 70 hours a week. Another issue women lawyers face is the decision of whether or not to have a family and how that will affect their career and family life.

My dilemma was trying to figure out how I could possibly love being a lawyer and stay home and raise my children. I have started my own estate planning virtual law office, Patterson Law PLLC PLLC, which allows me to work with people I love to help: families preparing for their future and also allows me to have the ability to start a family and stay home with my kids. The best of both worlds.

Jenn Patterson, Attorney | Owner
Patterson Law, PLLC

I have anecdotal evidence from a lot of miserable lawyers who changed the way they practiced to align with their values and became happier.

J. Kim Wright, J.D.

I maintain a part-time private law practice in Washington, but I spend the great majority of my time as a musician and songwriter in Nashville. The happiest lawyers are the ones who are trusted and not micromanaged. They are permitted to expand their expertise and not kept in a pigeon hole.

Two problems:

First, people want to grow and develop different interests. Money is a great reward. Personal growth and satisfaction is the best reward. It's what I receive from music that I do not from the average law job.

Second, unfortunately, most lawyers focus on minutia. They nitpick and look over everyone's shoulder because they are afraid of a mistake being made. If the micro-manager is also generally unhappy with life, they will most certainly find someone to bear the brunt of their scrutiny. This extends to junior attorneys, paralegals and support staff.

I know what's it like to have a great law job - I was the boss. And I know what it is like to be in an unhappy one - I was the subordinate. Unhappiness is contagious. People do their best to spread it.

Shai A. Littlejohn
Attorney & Music Publisher

I am an attorney who is truly satisfied by my job. In 1995, at the age of 29, I started my own law firm. With minimal capital, and only one (contingent) case to begin with, I gradually grew my practice. The process of growing a law practice was slow, difficult, and oftentimes felt overwhelming. However, I love what I do. Each time I appear in court, I am honored to play such an important role in my client's life (I handle primarily family law cases). The independence of running my own office has been one of the keys to my happiness. I work very long hours - but I have control over my time, and ensure that the environment in my office is collegial.

Marc A. Rapaport
Rapaport Law Firm, PLLC
New York, New York

Being a lawyer and being happy together are one of the hardest journeys I've ever been on - and the most fulfilling…

I left Big Law about three years ago to start a small practice with my brother that focused on socially conscious lawyering - leveraging high end niche practices to increase the availability of sophisticated legal services to everyone - regardless of ability to pay. Our pro bono billables are larger than any firm we've come across, and we've grown from 2 to 30 people in three years.

We have a basic thesis - lawyers aren't unhappy because they work long hours or miss the occasional holiday. Rather, they're unhappy because they make these sacrifices without finding meaning in their efforts. The most brilliant legal minds we know find themselves advocating for individual clients on arcane points of law that result simply in the transfer of zeros from one ledger to another. We believe lawyers, just like every other profession, become happy when they can work to deliver on their passion to make the world a better place.

Seems to be working so far - we just launched a non-profit incubator that supports 10 organizations within our office space on a daily basis and leads to incredibly fulfilling conversations between lawyers, NGO leaders, and beneficiaries regularly -making us better lawyers as we go.

Vilas S. Dhar
Dhar Law, LLP
Boston, MA

My new book, Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the JD You Have (launch date: Sep. 24), devotes the entire first chapter to the multiple reasons why lawyers are unhappy based on hundreds of interviews with current and former lawyers. They include:
  • overly controlling or inadequately attentive, ill-trained managing partners
  • "face time" cultures that prize long semi-solitary hours in the office
  • billable minimums that ignore relative efficiency
  • for women, lack of female role models in equity partnership
  • broken promises of career stability
  • inadequate opportunities to effect justice in big firms
  • lack of interest in or sympathy with large corporate clients
  • working with other unhappy people tends to create more unhappiness
  • loss of interest in the conflict-based model of litigation, as opposed to collaborative problem solving
  • perceived inability to leave law without significant loss of income and/or status
The bigger picture, I'd suggest, is that so many people go into law for the wrong reasons - because they believe they "can do anything with a law degree," because they have unrealistic ideas of what lawyers do, or because law school has often seemed like the logical default grad school option for high-achieving liberal arts majors.

Liz Brown

Many attorneys are unhappy because the job comes with much pressure, stress, long hours and sacrifice. Dealing with the attitudes of other lawyers, clients, judges, and meeting critical deadlines could be problematic. It can really ware on you. At the same time, I love the practice of law because of the changes that you can affect, the lives you can change and the difference you can make. There is no feeling in the world like helping others, working to benefit others, and making changes that affect society. I am thrilled to go to work every day because of the challenges posed, opportunities presented, and outcomes that differ because of your efforts.

Joey Jackson, Esq.
Koehler & Isaacs LLP
New York, New York

I'm a lawyer in private practice and being able to help people and have a work life balance is the most rewarding.

Tami Wells Thomas
The Wells Thomas Law Firm

I love my job. I have been practicing about 15 years and started my own practice about 11 years ago. My worst day with my own practice is still better than my best day working at another person's law firm!

In 11 years, I have built my practice to a point where I bought my office so I am my own landlord. I bring my dog to work every day. I know that a lot of lawyers - probably most lawyers, struggle with job satisfaction so I feel extremely lucky -- but I worked diligently to get where I am today. I never even dared dream I would have my own practice or own my office --- it seemed out of reach. Law school was expensive and I am still paying back some loans -- but without those loans I would not have been able to afford my education.

Linda A. Kerns
Law Offices of Linda A. Kerns, LLC
PA/NJ/LLM in Taxation

By and large lawyers are an unhappy lot. The legal profession has significantly changed. Consumers no longer view a lawyer as providing a service but a commodity. This puts downward pressure on fees and requires a lawyer to take on more volume. Taking on more volume sometimes means accepting cases that one really does not want to handle. This increases level of the stress in an already stressful business. Moreover in the State where I practice law there are too many lawyers. This further increases the stress level!

Being an advocate requires having a thick skin. Some lawyers just don't have that character make up. Some go to law school because they perceive that lawyers are affluent. Some lawyers are affluent but the vast majority are not. This misunderstanding results in unhappiness.

Big firms require a large number of billable hours which means no social life. The billable hours need to exceed the high (6 figure) salary based on a formula. The associate has no time for a social or family life. To make things worse as the associates investigate junior partnership they are told that they aren't partnership material because they aren't developing new clients, i.e. need to work even longer hours.

As the rewards for a successfully handled case go to the partner the associate feels no connection. Does not feel appreciated. Work seems unrewarding emotionally. As regards new grads, jobs are scarce. Many lawyer above age 50 who work in firms believe that they are being squeezed out because their compensation packages are too expensive.

Ramsey A. Bahrawy, Esq.
North Andover, MA

I wanted to share with you two attorneys who are very happy because they are repaving a path for female attorneys with their new commercial real estate law practice, Pursley Friese Torgrimson .

Founding and managing partners Christian Torgrimson and Stephanie Friese Aron, have created a business model focus for their own Atlanta-based, women-owned, women-managed law firm: incorporating a personal life while ensuring that women stay in the workforce, particularly the practice of law.

PFT achieves this by helping to develop female careers (not limit them) and their own book of business while having a personal life, and being a true contributor to the success of the firm. PFT staff know more about how the firm's business runs and are accountable for its success more so than staff at other law firms. Usually, associates have no idea what the numbers are or the financial goals of the firm. Each PFT lawyer has his or her own strategic plan that incorporates in the firm's goals. PFT attorneys also have choices to create flexible schedules, and even work less hours in arrangements, where they are paid based on what they bill. These attorneys have full associate status in terms of client/case management and partnership track; they are not limited or on a "separate" path apart from the mainstream path of the firm. At PFT, the only path is a supportive, flexible legal career path. I think it's a great message to say that more firms like PFT are the new normal and are keeping more women (and hopefully men) thriving and happy in a law career regardless of evolving personal interests.

Pursley Friese Torgrimson
Commercial Real Estate Law Practice

University of The Sciences In Philadelphia


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