Practicing Law With Joy

A recent article in Forbes magazine reported that a survey conducted by found that the unhappiest workers in America were associate attorneys. Legal assistants ranked seventh. Law partners weren’t mentioned.

This same survey stated that the happiest workers in the United States were real estate agents! Given the state of the American real estate market recently this doesn’t lend much credibility to the previous claim.

Regardless of the accuracy of the survey findings, anyone who has ever been an associate lawyer in private practice knows the stresses of learning the law, building a practice, grappling with more senior aggressive counsel, meeting the demands of partners and of course, the long hours and billing targets.

Partners are usually more satisfied with their work lives than associates not because they earn more money or have more status, but because they have more control over their work, greater confidence due to greater experience and can command greater respect from their peers.

Studies show that the top five criteria for happiness at work (not just for lawyers but for workers generally) are autonomy, respect, the belief that your work is important, opportunities for growth and appreciation. Money does not appear in the top criteria. For most people, you can’t pay them enough to work in a place where they are bullied or the work is repetitive or micro-managed, where there is nothing new to learn or they are never thanked.

Many lawyers believe that the key to being happy at work is better practice management skills. They feel that if they simply manage their time and clients better, they will be more productive and in control and this will lead to a more satisfying life. This does not lead to happiness because it only tinkers with the outside of our lives.

In order to love what we do and get joy from the practice of law, we must do work that is aligned with our core values. What are core values?

Core values may include justice, social or environmental issues; family, faith or community involvement; health or fitness issues; professionalism, honesty or respect; or financial stability or creating wealth. The list is long however most people have never considered what their five core values are.

If autonomy is a core value then working as a sole practitioner or a partner likely satisfies that need. If family or community is a core value then work that allows sufficient time for a personal life will be necessary. If professional recognition is a core value then practicing in a firm that allows work on major cases in your practice area may support that value.

Determining your core values and seeing if your practice is in alignment with those values is the single most important step to practicing law with joy.

Where our work is not in alignment with our core values this can create so much internal stress and unhappiness that no amount of good practice habits or money or prestige will make up for it. In Michael Melcher’s excellent book “The Creative Lawyer” he sets out “A practical guide to authentic professional satisfaction”. The book includes values exercises and other helpful ways to create a legal practice that will bring joy.

It is also important to realize that just because we are good at something doesn’t mean that we enjoy it.

Many young associates find themselves working in a practice area where the firm had an opening but it was not an area of law that really interested them. After some years, the associate develops some expertise and confidence in their area of law but may never really enjoy the work. It can be difficult to change practice areas because it may mean a dip in compensation and the need to convince a law firm that your skills are transferable to a new area of law. But it is far better to start over than to spend a lifetime working at something you are good at but don’t enjoy.

There are also gender differences in how men and women approach work. Many people think that the number one reason that women leave a job is because of work life balance pressures. This is not the first reason. More women (40%) will leave a job where they do not feel valued. Women often feel valued in different ways than men. For example, workplace surveys show that men value public praise of a job well done while women value private praise more. Men will sometimes put up with a bullying senior lawyer longer than a woman as it’s part of the male code to tough it out and not show they are intimidated. Most women will not tolerate such disrespectful behavior.

No one should ever be satisfied with a good-enough life or feel stuck in a stress-filled, unhappy one. No amount of money can make up for unhappiness or feeling disengaged from our work. Too many lawyers look forward to weekends or vacations, as the only time they feel truly free and can be truly themselves. We should expect to be joyful every day. Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

Joy is the energy that fuels our highest productivity and creativity and leads to our greatest success in whatever we do.

My own definition of practicing law with joy means working with clients we love, with colleagues we respect and doing work that matters. What could be better?


  1. Denese Espeut-Post

    I typically do not leave comments after I have read a blog, but your blog was just what I needed to read at this moment in time. There are times when I forget what drove me to practice law and more recently in my career, do so as a sole practitioner. Your column reminded me to assess my own core values which confirm why I am doing what I am doing in my practice and why, despite those slightly grey moments which I believe all lawyers feel from time to time, my practice is a perfect joyful fit for me.