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How happiness can save the practice of law

By James McConvill and Richard Edney - posted Wednesday, 11 May 2005

In the past two decades there has been an explosion in the number of studies conducted into human happiness and well-being. Most recently, on January 17, 2005, a special edition of Time magazine in the United States was devoted to exploring “The New Science of Happiness”. While noting the diversity in the range of activities through which people choose to express themselves, happiness studies show that at the base we are not that different after all. At the core, humans are “wired” pretty much the same.

Furthermore, in the past five years, US psychology professor Martin Seligman has inspired the new 21st century “positive psychology” that aims to promote happier lives, personal strengths and virtues, and healthier institutions. The connection between happiness studies and the positive psychology movement is explained in Professor Seligman’s book, Authentic Happiness.

What relevance is all this happiness mumbo-jumbo to the practice of law you may ask?


Well the evidence suggests that both lawyers, and law firms for whom the human capital of lawyers is by far their most important asset, should turn to some of the recent writings on happiness for the sake of their professional survival.

In Authentic Happiness, Professor Seligman also refers to a poll conducted in the United States in 1992 which found that 52 per cent of practising lawyers described themselves as “dissatisfied”, and notes a John Hopkins University research survey which found that lawyers are the most depressed group in the United States. According to the James Hopkins study, while lawyers have now surpassed doctors as the highest-paid professionals in the United States, lawyers suffer from depression at a rate 3.6 times higher than employed persons generally.

In Australia, things aren’t much better, as shown by the 2004 Australian Young Lawyers Survey, commissioned by the Law Council of Australia. According to Rachael Patterson, the survey indicates that "almost half of the young lawyers surveyed indicated that they did not see themselves practising law in five years time or that they were unsure". Further, as stated in the survey's Executive Summary, of those lawyers "admitted in 2002, 52.5 per cent of respondents reported they were considering leaving their current job in the next 12 months".

Even more concerning are the results of SEEK’s 2004 annual survey of the legal sector. SEEK found that 55 per cent of respondents considered themselves either unhappy or very unhappy with their current job. Further, according to the survey, it is generally not the level of pay that contributes to one’s happiness (and indeed unhappiness), but rather one’s confidence in management.

Rather than devoting their energies to treating their clients like God, or pursuing the ever-increasingly hard buck, lawyers and law firms should be concentrating on what actually might save the profession from the depths of despair: the pursuit of personal happiness. In an article by Professor Seligman (along with Paul R. Verkuil and Terry H. Kang) entitled "Why Lawyers are Unhappy", published in a special edition of the Deakin Law Review, on the implications of happiness studies for the law, Professor Seligman and his colleagues shed some important light on why lawyers, particularly young lawyers, have become a miserable bunch, and how law firms - particularly those at the top end of town - need to fundamentally change the way they operate to prevent their most valuable assets walking out the door … or jumping out the window.

In their article, Seligman et al argue “much of the unhappiness of lawyers can be cured” and contend that this unhappiness “stems from three causes”, which are:

  1. lawyers are selected for their pessimism (or "prudence") and this generalises to the rest of their lives;
  2. young associates hold jobs that are characterised by high pressure and low decision latitude, exactly the conditions that promote poor health and poor morale; and,
  3. American law is to some extent a zero-sum game, and negative emotions flow from zero-sum games.

As to the second cause of unhappiness being low decision latitude and high pressure, Seligman and his co-authors offer the following solution:

[With the] high pressure-low decision latitude problem, there is a remedy as well. We accept that pressure is an inescapable aspect of law practice. But high pressure itself does not seem to be the problem; rather, it is the combination of high pressure and low decision latitude that causes negative health effects. By modifying this dimension, lawyers can become both more satisfied and more productive. One solution is to tailor a lawyer's day so there is considerably more personal control over work. Some law firms have begun this process as they confront the unprecedented resignations of young associates, and these efforts should be expanded.

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About the Authors

James McConvill is a Melbourne lawyer. The opinions expressed are his personal views only, and were written in the
spirit of academic freedom when James was employed as a university lecturer.

Richard Edney is a Senior Lecturer at Deakin University Law School, Melbourne, Australia.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by James McConvill
All articles by Richard Edney

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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