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Finding a Difficult Balance in a Challenging Profession

In the past 35 years or so, all professions have been caught up in a tidal wave.  The ideals that drew people to their fields – education, healing, rescue, and in the case of lawyers, justice – have been overwhelmed by the Darwinian quest for profit (or, in the case of the small firm attorney, financial survival).

It is as futile to fight or deny this trend as it would be to deny climate change (though, as with the latter, there will always be debate as to the causes).  Today’s professional has no choice but to deal with the forces of commercialism, supply and demand, etc.  Thus, we see increasing numbers of lawyers learning to become adept at marketing, social media, search engine optimization, virtual offices – all necessary (and thank goodness for resources such as our own Law Office Management Assistance Program).

But we also see so much depression among lawyers.  Yes, many are dejected because they cannot earn enough money to make ends meet.  But perhaps an even more difficult task, given the current economic climate (and surplus of lawyers, like others such as mental health professionals, churned out by schools focused on their own need to stay afloat and create profit), is finding a way to maintain some connection with their professional ideals – that which gives one’s work a sense of meaning.  As emphasized in the writings of the late psychiatrist/philosopher Viktor Frankl, people can endure even extreme hardship if they find meaning and experience a sense of impact.  Psychologist Martin Seligman originated the notion of “learned helplessness” as a source of depression – the sense (which may represent a skewed perspective) that “whatever I do or don’t do, it doesn’t change anything.”  We need to believe that what we do has a purpose and an effect.

The world recently mourned the loss of Nelson Mandela who, among his other accomplishments, was a lawyer.  Justin Hansford’s recent column in Critical Legal Thinking holds him up as an iconic real-world model for today’s socially responsible and impactful legal practitioner.

So, as we face a new year, all of us professionals can seek a way to survive on both dimensions – make enough money (or cut enough costs) to support ourselves and our families and have some kind of balance, but also continually reconnect with our vocational ideals, the ways we are having at least a small positive inlfuence on our world, the quest not only to compete or “win” but to contribute.

 Jeff Fortgang, PhD

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