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Happiness Basics for Lawyers + Law Students: Positive Psychology, Values, and “Work-Life Balance”

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be used in place of professional advice, treatment, or care in any way. Lawyers, law students, judges, and other legal professionals in Massachusetts can find more on scheduling a Free & Confidential appointment with a licensed clinician here.

While the legal profession can be uniquely challenging to personal well-being, happiness is possible with lessons from positive psychology.

“Don’t be a lawyer … if you want to be happy,” cautioned an August 2019 CNBC headline. Hopefully no one accepts such definitive career advice from a news headline, but beyond that — it’s a frustrating framework for an important discussion. Framing highly generalized statistics fatalistically for the population at large it isn’t helping to improve the well-being of any individual, the delivery of justice, access to justice, or anything at all.

Lawyer well-being has been in the national spotlight since the 2016 studies cited in CNBC’s report were published, and practical help is growing. The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being formed in 2016 and issued a report in 2017 titled, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change — which outlines action steps for all stakeholders in a healthy and thriving legal profession.

Task Force Member Anne Brafford has studied under founders of positive psychology and has created simple, free tools for those in the legal profession to take control of their happiness. Citing Dr. Martin Seligman’s work, she points to 5 elements of well-being: Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Purpose, and Accomplishment. Resources at her blog expand on those elements, offering guidance to get started:

A 2015 study had already answered the question, “What Makes Lawyers Happy?” It concludes that “lawyers are not different from other people with regard to their happiness and satisfaction,” despite being taught to “think differently” (i.e. negatively?) in law school. The top well-being factor identified was autonomy (one’s sense of control), followed by other top-tier factors: relatedness (one’s sense of belonging and of their work’s relevance), competence, and internal work motivation. Its second tier of factors include supervisor autonomy support and intrinsic values (find the rest of the factors in tiers 3-5 listed in a chart on p 620).

Still, a headline published by the ABA in November 2019 claims “There is No Work-Life Balance.” Its subtitle points out, “The metaphor fails — big time — according to the authors,” (emphasis added) who are a judge and law professor from Michigan. They aren’t the first to make such a headline claim and note they aren’t experts in psychology. A corporate psychologist and executive coach elaborates on a similar statement that “Work-Life Balance is a Myth,” telling us to “aim for alignment” instead:

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. That’s why merely aiming for work-life balance may not be enough to deal with feelings of being overwhelmed, disengaged, or stressed.

LCLMA RESOURCE: We published a (Free!) Career Development for Lawyers Workbook Series on our Mass LOMAP Blog, which outlines work individuals can follow to find the right work in the legal profession, and Workbook 2 is dedicated to Aligning Values.

Experts agree that work-life harmony is possible, and the legal profession is no exception. Working on challenges that align with your values is an individual responsibility, which is to some degree limited by job availability, and to some degree may require material sacrifices — considerations worth further exploration and discussion. The problem with the discussion as framed by the authors of the ABA piece is that it doesn’t follow suit with the expert agreement that it’s worthwhile to pursue work-life harmony (via TIME). Forbes published related “surprising” factors that contribute to happiness among lawyers here. Instead, the ABA piece authors start with a similar problem with the distinction of a “work bucket” from a “life bucket”, and then jump the shark (the shark being TS Eliot, honestly), from whence the 11th paragraph under heading “Why We Dislike the Term” sounds to me like a premise that work and life cannot align, “This formula pushes us toward a disconnected, fragmented, splintered existence where ‘the center cannot hold’ because no shared center exists.” Your values are a potential “shared center” — and it’s your responsibility to align personal and professional values to create an actual “shared center,” or alignment.

Finding happiness and work-life alignment are individual responsibilities, of which the legal profession is surprisingly supportive. Unfortunately, the ABA work-life balance article doesn’t provide the context of the work of the National Task Force, Lawyer Assistance Programs (LAPs), or Law Office Management Assistance Programs (LOMAPs). Here in Massachusetts, LCL MA provides both LAP and LOMAP services. In his October 2019 State of the Judiciary Address, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts announced the evolution of a Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being with which our organization will work closely to expand the reach and value of the support we provide.

Our expectations can affect our happiness in multiple ways. One commonly cited formula is: Happiness = Reality – Expectations. Often, desires unintentionally grow into expectations without our awareness. We need to consciously reset them in terms of what is realistic to expect of ourselves in any given situation or environment, of others — understanding our ability to see their perspective is often difficult to achieve, of society, and of the universe. And still, consistently having low expectations can be associated with pessimism, not a pleasant outlook to experience. Among other lessons from positive psychology, we know optimism can be learned by practicing techniques to recognize and challenge negative cognitive patterns.


If any lawyer, law student, judge, or other legal professional in Massachusetts feels work-life alignment is unreachable, they can schedule a Free & Confidential consultation  with a licensed clinician, practice advisor, or both — and find a variety of other Free & Confidential resources related to well-being, mental health, practice management, and career development. We offer a range of Free & Confidential Groups for various supports, including Addiction Recovery, SuperMom, ADHD, Immigration, and more. And here’s a directory of LAPs in other states. We’ve published a range of free resources to help lawyers focus on building happiness:

The limits of individual action are still worth discussing. Whether we use the term Work-Life Alignment or Work-Life Balance, individuals can only find happiness through the principles of positive psychology with Maslow’s foundations for safety and basic needs in place. Even with basic needs met, positive psychology is easier to implement with a level of material comfort that isn’t evenly distributed across our society — and law school is expensive. One of our clinicians commented in a 2014 post about the limits of finding meaningful work given the realities of capitalism with a reminder about the power of persisting to seek work that aligns with our values. Still, it’s a privilege to find meaningful work, and we need to be aware of our privileges and work to share them.


Related Resources:

How to Be Happier at Work (SHRM 2021)

World Happiness Report (2019)Discusses a range of factors associated with happiness, including prosocial behavior.

World Happiness Report (2020)


   Free & Confidential Consultations:

Lawyers, law students, and judges in Massachusetts can discuss concerns with a licensed therapist, law practice advisor, or both. Find more on scheduling here:

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This post was written by Rachel Casper.

CATEGORIES: Flourishing | Law Students | Resilience | Work-Life Balance
TAGS: happiness | positive psychology

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