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Why Are Lawyers So Miserable?

It seems to be common knowledge these days that being a lawyer isn't always the best job. I remember Tom Hanks giving an interview once on Inside the Actor's Studio, when he was asked what the job is he would least want to do. His answer? A lawyer, because "it's like doing homework for a living."

How oddly true.

But now, it's official.

According to a recent Forbes article, the number one unhappiest job in America is. (drum roll, please).

Associate Attorney

I can't say I'm entirely surprised. But what is shocking is that not only are we an unhappy bunch, but we are also the most depressed. According to The Dave Nee Foundation . lawyers are the most frequently depressed occupational group in the U.S. lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers, and lawyers rank 5th in incidence of suicide by occupation.

What gives?

I don't really know.

Whether the law profession attracts people who are unhappy and have a proclivity for depression (or really like homework), or whether it makes people unhappy or depressed, I cannot answer. But I do have a few observations:

1) A lot of people go to law school because they don't know what else to do. (I was certainly one of those people.) They are smart. They are ambitious. They want to achieve success. But they aren't vocally talented and they faint at the sight of blood and they don't want to get an MBA. So they go to law school, without really thinking about what it means to be a lawyer and whether they will even like it.

2) A lot of people go to law school because they want to make a lot of money. Because all lawyers are rich, right? Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I've been around long enough now to know that this career is not easy. A lot of lawyers are struggling for work. A lot of lawyers don't find jobs upon graduation. And after incurring six figures of debt and working your ass off in law school to do your very best, that can be depressing. And make one unhappy.

3) A natural product of being a lawyer is that there is always someone waiting to tear you down. That's just the nature of being an advocate - if you are are advocating for something, there is some other lawyer out there advocating for something else. So if you spend hours, days, weeks, working on a brief, and you put your ALL into it, there will be some attorney out there waiting in the wings to tell you just how crappy your argument is. Just how sloppy your research is. Just how preposterous your position is. There is always someone waiting to pounce on a mistake, and exploit it for all to see - which can make for long days, and nights, of anxiety waiting to be "found out" for what you really are: inadequate.

4) Being a lawyer, particularly if you are at a firm, is a time based practice. It's not about efficiency, or about balance - it's about billing, billing, billing. And if you aren't willing to bill, then someone else certainly will. So there are no time outs for illness, for hobbies, for sick children, for episodes of depression. An hour not billed is an hour wasted, which allows stress and anxiety to breed, spread, and flourish, and leaves little time for that weird thing called "life."

5) Miserable people breed miserable people. As discussed, supra. the law profession is home to many miserable people. If you are unlucky enough to work for such a miserable person, you too will most likely be miserable, as said miserable person will do all they can to make your life miserable, because how is it fair that they be miserable and you be happy? Not fair at all. You, eventually, will be miserable like them.

So this is all the bad news.

But I think there's some good news too.


know a lot of lawyers. (A lot). And a good portion of them don't fit into the unhappy, depressed category. Most of them are. happy. Why are they happy?

1) They like what they do. Maybe they didn't really know what they would do when they went into law school, but for some odd reason, they get really excited about negotiating credit agreements (yes, honey, that's you) or spending hours on Westlaw. They like it so much that they don't get phased by the potential tear downers mentioned above in #2. They know someone somewhere may rip their argument to shreds, but they don't care because they are confident, secure, and in some ways, above it all. They are oddly unphased.

2) They have forged their own path. Maybe they didn't find a job upon graduation. Or maybe they left a firm after a few years. Maybe they are taking a few years off to be at home with their kids (ahem). But being 8 years out from my own law school graduation, I can say that I am amazed at the variety of careers one can have with a law degree. I have fellow graduates that are in-house counsel, professors, comedians, writers, freelancers and of course, firm lawyers. The fact is, if a particular field of law is not a great fit, there is plenty of opportunity to change it up.

3) They work with awesome, happy people. In some ways, I can't say I am surprised that "associate attorney" was the most unhappy job. In my six years at law firms, I saw some pretty miserable, bitter people. Really miserable. Really bitter. But, it's not always the case. Some lawyers are happy (see #1). And if you happen to find yourself working with a group of those people who really care about each other - who appreciate the importance of the billable hour, but who also recognize the supremacy of family, of mental health, of the bigger picture - then it makes ALL the difference.

4) They don't take themselves too seriously. When one is a practicing lawyer, it is easy to think that the world will end or continue turning based upon your performance. And once you get into that frame of thinking, it's hard to turn it off - If I mess up this motion, the entire case will fall apart! If I miss an important document, I will cause my client to go into bankruptcy! The fact is, no one is that important. We aren't saving lives in this business. All we can do is our best. And from what I've seen, happy lawyers are the ones that do their very best, and are then at peace with that.

There is hope for us.

But it's certainly not an easy profession.

I remember when I was in law school I would absolutely HATE it when future attorneys would warn me about joining the legal field. "Get out while you can," I remember a family friend joking to me during my first year in law school. I even got such comments from attorneys during on campus interviews. "Are you sure you want to do this?" they would tease.

Those kind of comments would always annoy me. Just because you're miserable, doesn't mean I'm going to be miserable! I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to argue for what is right and do what is right and use my analytical brain and my semi-polished writing skills. I would do what I wanted and not be deterred by older, bitter lawyers who just couldn't hack it themselves.

Now I am the one that urges young, ambitious attorneys to take caution. Really think about if you want to do this. I warn. Think about it hard.

We all want to be the happy lawyer. But we aren't all that lucky.


If you are in the legal field and are experiencing depression, or know of someone who is, please check out this great resource:

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