How Values, Personality, and Faith Fit into a Florida Law Career
By Aaron H. Wallace, Esq.
People in the general public might assume lawyers know a thing or two about “the pursuit of happiness.” After all, those words are bedrock to the system of law we’re sworn to uphold. But in modern times, the practice of law isn’t exactly known for its soaring satisfaction rate.
Not even two years ago, CNBC published seven tips for finding happiness in life. Number 5 on the list? “Don’t be a lawyer.”
The basis for that advice: a 1990 Johns Hopkins study that found lawyers are 3.6 times more likely than non-lawyers to suffer depression, and a 2016 ABA Study that found attorneys “experience problematic drinking that is hazardous, harmful, or otherwise consistent with alcohol use disorders at a higher rate than other professional populations.”
So why do so many lawyers struggle with unhappiness, and what can we, as a community, do about it?
To answer those questions, in 2016, a collection of entities within and beyond the ABA formed a National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. Its findings were stark:
To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being. The two studies referenced above reveal that too many lawyers and law students experience chronic stress and high rates of depression and substance use. These findings are incompatible with a sustainable legal profession, and they raise troubling implications for many lawyers’ basic competence. This research suggests that the current state of lawyers’ health cannot support a profession dedicated to client service and dependent on the public trust.Report from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being (2016)
Among other things, the Task Force led to the creation of an Institute for Well-Being in Law (IWIL), which is working to remold the profession into one that serves clients, earns the public’s trust, and fosters good health and happiness for those who practice in it. It’s the IWIL we have to thank for this month’s Well-Being Week in Law, including today’s focus on Spiritual Well-Being and Alignment — issues that just might sit at the very crux of the problem.
Unhappiness Reveals a Misalignment of Values
“Research has shown that people are more prone to feel burnout and a lack of balance when there is a mismatch between their values and their work,” writes Patricia Thompson, a psychologist who focuses on executives and corporations.
The key, Thompson argues, is to focus not on “work-life balance” but on “work-life alignment.” That means “crafting a meaningful professional life that matches up with who you are what’s important to you.”
This requires self-assessment. Who are you? What is important to you?
Having answered those big questions, now ask yourself: how can your life — in both its personal and professional capacities — align with those defined identity traits and values?
The Relationship Between Alignment and Professional Responsibility
As a professional liability insurer for Florida lawyers, we understand that happy lawyers are better lawyers — more confident, more competent, and more careful. Excess stress, too much work, unhealthy coping mechanisms (e.g. alcohol abuse,) negative self-image, and unaddressed mental health concerns are often at the root of ethical lapses and legal malpractice claims.
Truly, it is in everyone’s best interest to promote happiness in the practice of law.
The message we want our readers to really take home and internalize is this: the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of professional excellence are one and the same. So please, resist the stubborn inner voice that tells you “serious” lawyers don’t let silly worries like happiness concern them. On the contrary, by being the best and most authentic version of yourself, you can reach the highest plane of professional achievement without it feeling like a fight against your inner self.
A life that puts the bulk of your waking hours in conflict with your passions, interests, and desires is not sustainable. So don’t spend your days trying to be someone else’s idea of “lawyerly.” You are not an archetype. It takes all types to create community. That’s true for a legal community too.
You are welcome. Be yourself. Show up for work (virtually or otherwise) as the excellent lawyer you are — not the lawyer you imagine someone else says you have to be.
Remember: you are in charge of your experience as a lawyer. You are the only one who has the responsibility and the power to bring your life, career, and values into alignment.
Well-Being Week in Law: Tips for Personal and Professional Alignment in Law
• Don’t lawyer in a way that’s different from your personality. If you aren’t naturally hostile or aggressive, don’t feel that you have to be that way in negotiation. There’s more than one way to successfully resolve a matter. Civility is the proverbial honey to the vinegar of belligerence.
• Be selective in accepting representation of new clients. Look for red flags and avoid agreeing to represent someone who is likely to be difficult, disagreeable, or combative.
• Structure your workday in a way that feels liberating and flexible as opposed to oppressive and rigid.
• Manage your expectations. (Happiness = Reality – Expectations!)
• Remind yourself why you’re in the profession. Lean into the things you like and are good at.
• Redefine the concept of success.
• Make up your mind that, each time you are tempted to set aside or ignore your personal life, you will explore ways to incorporate those interests and passions into your daily life instead.
• Begin each day by praying, meditating, or reflecting. If you’re a person of faith, ask yourself how your beliefs about “the big picture” align with your profession.
• Consider journaling and/or seeing a counselor to help you think through your dilemmas and arrive at concrete strategies for working through them.
• Read this resource from Massachusetts’ Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers assistance group, part of last year’s Well-Being Week in Law: Spiritual Well-Being Resources for Lawyers
• If you are struggling with addiction, depression, suicidal ideation, or mental or behavioral health issues, seek confidential help from Florida Lawyers Assistance.
• In all things, try to de-center yourself from the narrative and remember that you’re not responsible for the universe — only for your actions and reactions. As humans, we have both more control and less control over our lives than we realize. The sooner we embrace that reality, the better!
‘Who’ Meets ‘Do’: Alignment in Law
Growing up, my family was fond of a radio preacher who would often teach about the difference between “your ‘who’ and your ‘do.’” The idea is that we are each much more than our occupation, so it’s important not to invest our identities entirely in our day jobs.
That familiar phrase — “your ‘who’ and your ‘do’” — came back to me again and again as I went through law school and entered the legal profession, witnessing first-hand the work-life and personal/professional identity struggles that so many of my colleagues faced.
Maybe it’s the Millennial in me talking, but it seems to me that, while a healthy sense of separation between the two is important, we shouldn’t have to live lives where our ‘who’ and our ‘do’ are diametrically opposed. Going to work shouldn’t feel like a battle between your ‘who’ and your ‘do’… nor does it need to.
If you’re one of the many lawyers struggling with happiness or alignment, I hope you’ll take Well-Being Week in Law as an opportunity to turn your practice into a passion that provides personal fulfillment. There’s a version of your law career waiting for you that resonates with the core values that led you to this life in the first place. Doesn’t it feel good to know that the broader profession is now encouraging you to make it happen? Well-being in law begins now!
About Florida Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company
As the only professional liability insurance company created by The Florida Bar, Florida Lawyers Mutual is a company that exists for just one purpose: protecting Florida lawyers. We offer high-quality Policy Features that give our members confidence and peace of mind, coupled with Member Benefits that offer real value beyond the cost of a policy — including a cyber liability endorsement and an extensive library of free CLE. We are committed to lawyer well-being and to building long-term relationships with our members, built on service and trust. Apply for a policy today.