Of Law and Happiness

“Are we happy being lawyers?” That’s the question Nancy Levit and Douglas O. Linder tackle in The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law (Oxford University Press, 2010). Lawyers themselves, they have anticipated your next question:

What do you mean by “happy”? On a scale that runs from having root canals to a night of fine wines and sex on a tropical island, where does “unhappiness” turn into “happiness”? Do you mean “happy” right now as I write footnote 17 on this brief for Acme Investments or “happy” during the course of my ten-year legal career? … Also, is anyone else going to know the answer I give you? – because if they do I’m going to inflate my happiness quotient.

Levit and Linder look at happiness in the legal profession from a broad range of perspectives. Their work is informed by a series of surveys undertaken by the American Bar Association. While the book has a strong American focus there is overlap with issues raised by the Canadian Bar Association’s Legal Futures Initiative and how the practice of law may need to evolve to better meet the needs of both clients and practitioners.

Levit and Linder’s book is a serious look at the composition of the legal profession and all its stages from law school to practising law through to leaving the profession by retirement or otherwise. They begin by reviewing the demographics of the American legal profession and the impact that age, race, sex, firm size and type of practice (eg. private v government) can have on happiness. No big surprises here. If you’re over 55 and working in a small firm or government you’re more likely to be happy than 30 year old associate working in a firm of 100+ lawyers. The authors also review literature that suggests that lawyers are disproportionately more likely to be introverted, doubt-ridden, logical and competitive – personality traits that may complicate the search for happiness. Indeed, as Richard Delgado ponders in his review of The Happy Lawyer, do lawyers even deserve to be happy. As Delgado notes:

Any profession that is an unpopular as the law may find that a little soul-searching is in order. No one asks a concert violinist if he is struggling to find work-life balance.

Levit and Linder stress the variety of work and roles that lawyers can have. Unlike the magical realm of Harry Potter, the profession doesn’t offer a “Sorting Hat” to tell you what type of lawyer you should be or whether being a lawyer is a good choice for you. The authors present a range of questions intended to help individual lawyers think about their strengths and matching those strengths to finding meaningful work. Sometimes the obviousness of the questions strays towards self-help vacuity. However, if you’re unhappy these are the type of questions that you’re less likely to think about.

The book has a strong chapter that targets law students and those still contemplating law school. This chapter should be mandatory reading before anyone signs up to write the LSAT. However, at times this chapter is an ill fit with the balance of the book that focuses on working lawyers.

The Happy Lawyer is available in hard cover and as an e-book for Kindle and Kobo.


  1. Not Disclosing This Time

    I used to work at a big firm where I perceived that 3% of the lawyers were happy. I moved to a big firm where I now perceive that 80% of the lawyers are happy.

    It is easier to be happy at work if you
    a. decide to be happy
    b. work with others who have decided to be happy
    c. work toward a ‘let’s treat each other and our clients fairly and ethically” culture, and just like being married, you work at it every day