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Three Reasons Why Lawyers Are Miserable

24/12/2014 15:37 GMT | Updated 22/02/2015 10:59 GMT

Were you only going to be a lawyer until you figured out what to 'really' do with your life? This is an adapted excerpt from Leaving Law: How Others Did It & How You Can Too.

"Having to go into work on a Saturday with a raging hangover and a bucket of KFC to spend 12 hours reviewing documents that bored me silly was a definite low point," one ex-lawyer admitted.

"But it was more a growing sense of doom that I had made a terrible mistake with my choice of career and if I didn't do something soon, I could be trapped there forever."

She now works as a television script editor and was one of the many ex-lawyers I interviewed as I tried to understand how more Escape the City members could plan a smart exit strategy from the legal profession.

I also turned to the ideas of Dr. Martin Seligman, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman is widely considered to be the father of the positive psychology movement and is the author of Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment within which an entire chapter is dedicated to exploring why so many lawyers are unhappy.

"(Mental) Health is Wealth"

As Garth Brook sings, "You aren't wealthy until you have something money can't buy."

Seligman argues that while lawyers overtake doctors as the highest-paid professionals, they are also at much greater risk than the general population of depression.

A Johns Hopkins University study found that lawyers came out on top for statistically significant elevations of major depressive disorder, suffering from depression at a rate of 3.6 times higher than employed persons generally.

Compared to non-lawyers, they also experience much higher rates of alcoholism and illegal drug use.

Seligman concludes: "Lawyers embody the paradox of money losing its hold. They are the best-paid professionals, and yet they are disproportionately unhappy and unhealthy."

He explains that there are two primary causes for this.

Half-Empty Glasses

Lawyers have a pessimistic explanatory style: the causes of negative events tend to be seen as persistent, uncontrollable and pervasive. An optimist, on the other hand, may see negative events as local, temporary and changeable.

While pessimistic thinking can be unhelpful in most areas of life, pessimists do better at law. Pessimism is seen as a positive trait among lawyers, since perceiving troubles as pervasive and permanent is part of what constitutes prudence.

Prudence helps a lawyer to spot every possible problem that might arise in any transaction. This ability helps the practicing lawyer who can help his clients defend against far-fetched possibilities.

Law school will strive to ingrain prudence within you. While this might make you a good lawyer, it does not always make for a happy human.

One study followed students of the Virginia Law School throughout their three years of study. Contrary to the results of previous studies looking at other areas of life, the pessimistic law students on average outperformed more optimistic students on traditional measures of achievement, such as grade point averages.

'Low decision latitude'

Another factor that demoralises lawyers is the limited choices one believes that one has, also known as low decision latitude.

One study showed that 'high-demand job coupled with low decision latitude' was the combination that stood out as harmful to health and morale, and that individuals with this combination have much higher rates of coronary disease and depression.

It is inevitable that lawyers working in big firms (particularly as trainees) have low decision latitude by virtue of the very structure of those firms.

Clear hierarchies that exist from the partner level down to the trainee level mean that it can be hard for junior lawyers to take control of their own workflow and responsibilities, not to mention the hours that they are in the office.

This, combined with often unrealistic client demands, can mean that junior lawyers have very little opportunity to shape their daily lives.

It is also common for junior lawyers to find themselves faced with issues that need immediate resolution, yet without the control over the situation to do just that.

The stress, doubt and uncertainty that a junior lawyer feels is only amplified by the firm's culture, where job demands are high and absolute perfectionism is mandatory.

* * * * *

In my own experience of talking to disillusioned lawyers, I found the greatest challenge was getting them to accept that there might be other professional paths available to them. It was like perfectionism was preventing them from admitting that they might have failed to pick the best career.

"It's difficult to admit to yourself and to other people that you're dissatisfied with your professional choices," said ex-lawyer Sam Hall.

Prudence makes career change even scarier. Yet many lawyers do choose to do something different and we come across many of them at The Escape School.

Hall now runs WeJaunt.com, a platform for finding and booking carefree weekend breaks for young professionals: "I'm working all hours, but nowadays I'm more than happy to do so."

This is an adapted excerpt from Leaving Law: How Others Did It & How You Can Too.