This post is a response to a blog post on by Kate Mangan that is much more balanced than its title, but which still pretty severely misses the point.

She argues that lawyers should examine whether happiness is “worth achieving”.

After listing its upsides, such as health, longevity, creativity, productivty, and feeling better, she says that people overlook the important downsides of happiness.

First, she argues that “if we felt happy all the time, we would be deprived of critical tools for our own development: negative emotions.” So what she is doing here is confusing happiness with mania.  No one is saying that lawyers should feel happy “all the time.” But yes, negative emotions have purposes, as anyone who has watched “Inside Out” probably knows.

Second, she says that pessimism, which is usually maladaptive, is helpful for lawyers.  It makes us better lawyers, which allows us to serve others, which allows us to have meaning in our lives, if not happiness.

This second argument is just irresponsibly wrong.  Let us count the ways.

First, it implies, without any support for the implication, that a person cannot be pessimistic and happy.  The article she cites on pessimism being good for lawyers specifically states that they were not using pessimism in the “glass half empty” sense, but as a reference to the tendency to attribute negative events to permanent causes.  There is nothing about a person with that tendency that would prevent them from being happy.

Second, the study she links to does not say that pessimism makes people better lawyers.  It says that pessimism is correlated with being a better law student, according to things like GPA and law journal success.  What getting a good GPA and getting onto the law review in law school have to do with being a good lawyer completely eludes me.  Utterly.

Third, the explanation offered for the benefit that law students seem to get from pessimism doesn’t make any sense.

Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudence. A prudent perspective enables a good lawyer to see every conceivable snare and catastrophe that might occur in any transaction. The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that non-lawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities. If you don’t have this prudence to begin with, law school will seek to teach it to you. Unfortunately, though, a trait that makes you good at your profession does not always make you a happy human being.

Seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of prudence?

The authors describe pessimism as the tendency to attribute negative events to permanent causes.  So in that sense, if something has ever gone bad, a pessimistic person will be more likely to predict that it will go bad again.  Is that prudence?  No.  Not unless the person is also considering what the factors are that make that thing a likely problem in a given scenario, and are considering whether those factors exist in the current scenario.

If what you need is not only to avoid things that have already gone wrong, but avoid things that could go wrong that haven’t yet, which certainly seems to be a part of prudence and good lawyering, then you also need creative thinking, not only pessimistic thinking.

But even if pessimism and prudence were the same thing, how would prudence, the ability to look out for far-fetched eventualities, have anything to do with your getting onto law review?  I don’t see it.  In law school, I don’t recall any exam in which I was asked to predict all the things that could go wrong. I was asked to find all the things that might apply, and describe how.

Perhaps there is some relationship between the explanatory framework and performance in law school, but the article she cites has no logical explanation for what it would be.  And even if it did, law school is not lawyering.

So the argument is wrong.  But more importantly, it is irresponsible and dangerous.

Why do lawyers talk so much about work-life balance, and seeking happiness?

Well, one source points out that there are only three professions that have statistically significant increases in the incidences of major depressive disorder, and lawyers were at the top of that list.  Lawyers suffer depression at 3.6 times the rate of the general population of employed persons.  We have higher divorce rates.  We have higher rates of alchoholism and illegal drug use. We have higher rates of suicide.

What source could you go to for this information? The exact same article that Kate Mangan quotes for the premise that pessimism is good for us.

Listen. We are concerned about happiness for lawyers not because we think all lawyers need to be happy all the time. We just believe all lawyers need to be happy some of the time, and many aren’t.

That is a real problem that results in people dying. The bad thing that Ms. Mangan’s advice avoids is illusory: that somehow pessimist lawyers, by seeking happiness, would injure their performance at work.

And lawyer suicides are by no means the only negative effect, because lawyer succeptibility to mental health and addiction problems causes huge issues for clients, for families, for partners.

In my jurisdiction, we recently heard the story of a gold medal law student, literally top of his class, who went on to teach, run a prestigious firm, who suffered misfortune, fell into mental illness and addiction, and ended up stealing trust funds, destroying his own life, the life of his employees, partners, clients, and many others.

Let’s assume he was pessimistic.  Did it help him in law school?  Probably.  Top of the class.

Did it help him when he suffered personal misfortune? The death and disability of loved ones? Believing that the causes of such misfortune are permanent cannot possibly be helpful to one’s mental health. Did knowing that mental health and addiction were issues for lawyers cause him to take the prudent steps that would avoid them happening to him?  No, it didn’t.

Would it have been useful to tell him, without reason or evidence, that happiness would make him a worse lawyer? No. When it is so obvious that these things happen to our profession more than others, and when the negative consequences of them are so severe for both the lawyer and everyone around them, pessimistic prudence demands that we promote good mental health, which includes the ability to feel happiness.

All of which is frustrating in and of itself.  But then I noticed who it was coming from:

She is serving as the American Bar Association’s vice chair of the Committee on Behavior and Neuroscience and as the ABA’s vice chair of a new committee on improving professional health.

Ms. Mangan, you have an opportunity, so here is my advice: The idea that what makes lawyers unhappy cannot change, and we should not seek happiness but instead hope to find meaning in our misery, is exactly the sort of pessimistic outlook that we do not need. We do not need to blame the victims for seeking happiness or being inherently pessimistic. What we need is to do something that reduces the factors that cause mental illness and the various sorts of self-medication that come with it, and/or supports the behaviours which create resilience to the avoidable and unavoidable stresses of our profession.

Please do better.


If you are an Alberta lawyer and you are not happy, please call ASSIST at  1.877.498.6898.  Or email me.

Categories: For Lawyers