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Why Many Lawyers Are Unhealthy, Unhappy, And Unfulfilled

Despite the powerful forces that seemingly collude and conspire against it, each of us is meant to live a healthy, happy, and fulfilling life. If you are a lawyer—and I assume you are reading this article—then I want to be crystal clear from the outset that yes, I am talking about you, too. Not only can your life be full of health, happiness, and fulfillment while practicing law—it is meant to be. Worse, many lawyers experience two or all three “uns”: unhealthy, unhappy, and unfulfilled.

Most studies and surveys that have looked at the health of lawyers have focused on mental, and to a lesser extent, emotional health. For example, in an oft-referenced Johns Hopkins University study of more than 100 occupations, researchers found that lawyers have the highest incidence of depression in America. Lawyers also suffer exceptionally high rates of alcoholism and suicide.

Another reason that many lawyers are unhealthy is simply that they don’t invest enough time and attention to their health; they don’t value it highly enough. So many lawyers, as do other professionals, pay much more attention to their investment and retirement portfolios than they do to their health. The irony, of course, is that retirement funds don’t do you much good if you’re too ill or infirm to really enjoy them—or worse, if you’re dead. As the old adage goes, if you don’t make time for health now, you’ll have to make time for illness later.

To be fair, more so than most professionals, lawyers have less time and more stress to deal with. So, it’s even harder for lawyers to fit in the time for exercise, eating right, and stress management than most other people. But I don’t think any person entered the law practice because it was going to be easy, right? There’s no hiding the fact that lawyering is a tough gig. Work hours can be long, Issues can be complex, and clients can be unreasonable. Deadlines can be short. But as demanding as the practice can be, it can be equally rewarding.

Helping your clients achieve the desired result can be a gratifying process and often produces a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. And there are many other significant aspects to the practice of law as well: intellectual challenges, financial rewards, and the opportunity to make a positive impact in your community or, in some cases, on society as a whole. The list could go on. But if you, as many lawyers do, often put client demands and necessities ahead of your own, then invariably, the result is not pretty over time. Health is compromised. Relationships end. Quality of life decreases. Stress rules the day. If you aren’t healthy enough to enjoy the rewards of practicing law—financial and otherwise—then what’s the point?

When you’re not healthy, you can’t work, and if you work, you might not be as productive. Or, I should say, you shouldn’t work—many lawyers do work through significant health issues even though they should be resting and recuperating. When this happens, everyone loses. The lawyer loses by not allowing him or herself to do what’s necessary to get healthy. The lawyer’s family loses because their loved one is inching closer to permanent disability or death. The client loses because, even though we like to think of ourselves as superheroes, it’s impossible to remain focused and effective in the practice of law if you’re battling physical, mental, or social health issues. The billable hour model masks this to a certain extent since it rewards inefficiency. But that is a short-term, unsustainable view. Sooner or later, clients will realize that the quality and value of your services isn’t good enough, and they will move on to another lawyer for their legal needs.

One final factor contributing to adverse health outcomes among lawyers is that many lawyers aren’t happy in their careers and lives. Many lawyers are unhappy because—— and this quote is from The Happy Lawyer— “Lawyers are merchants of misery.” Lawyering isn’t happy to work. Most of the time, clients come when they have problems to solve. Generally, people who have issues aren’t very happy, so the clients we deal with often aren’t all that happy. And the problems they need help with—the issues that lawyers get paid to take on for them—aren’t happy problems. In many instances, lawyers help clients deal with a loss—of health, family, money, and employment—and these aren’t often jolly issues to be knee-deep in every day.

There is also a constant chase throughout one's legal career to be just the right amount of busy. We are all versions of Goldilocks looking for the level of busyness that is just right: not too busy, but not idle, either. In reality, most lawyers spend most of their careers swaying on the pendulum from being too busy to not being active enough. Each is stressful in its way, and as mentioned above, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to experience much happiness when under chronic stress.

Authenticity, which can be described as living life in accordance with your values, is another driver of happiness. According to The Happy Lawyer, “when your goals are consistent with your deepest values and not the values someone else chooses for you, your life has a clarity and a sense of purpose that makes achieving happiness much more likely.” Most lawyers don’t have any sense of what their deepest values are and thus don’t have any way of knowing whether they’re living in accordance with them—other than the one primary symptom that points in that direction: unhappiness.

There are many other causes of lawyer unhappiness. The emergence of mobile technology means that many lawyers feel they are never off the clock and can never fully disengage from work, no matter the time of day. Growing incivility in practice can erode whatever feelings of happiness lawyers may experience on the job; being the subject of verbal abuse or manipulative techniques by opposing counsel isn’t much fun. And a lack of balance between lawyers’ personal and professional lives is cited as a significant reason for lawyer unhappiness and burn-out.

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