It was 1997 when I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. That was almost 20 years ago now. Just saying that makes me realise that was a really long time ago!
In 1997 I was living in sunny Brisbane, in a share house in Annerley and studying to be an Interior Designer. Not a lawyer. I was about a year into that degree and doing really well, but I didn’t like it. I loved colour, design, painting and beautiful things but the idea that those things that I loved were going to one day be my ‘job’ was terrifying. And tedious.
I remember being up all night putting together a University assignment where I had to design a ‘Country kitchen’. I spent hours working on it and decided to go with a pale blue colour for the cupboards. Turns out that was the wrong choice. I remember the Lecturers feedback so well- ‘Good design but terrible choice of colour’. It was that moment I realised that working as a designer was not going to be for me. Why was it terrible? I thought it was great? Why couldn’t the kitchen be blue? In that moment I realised that really, it just didn’t matter. Design, art, colour beauty are all things I love but that was just it- I wanted to be able to love them, not be criticised for them. And in that moment I stopped going to Uni.
That was about March 1997. My next challenge was to tell my parents that I had ‘dropped out’ as they say from University. As their only child likely to follow in my father’s university footsteps I knew this was not going to be an easy conversation and I decided I might make sure I had my next move planned before I had that conversation.
So I got a job- a full time one in an office. I got another job too for the evenings in a restaurant. And then I started reading a lot of books. And then there was a book about a criminal lawyer, saving a man in dire need. And then I decided I wanted to be a lawyer.
Well that is about all that I remember of that decision anyway!
There were many more days and nights of thought behind that decision but I think there were two things that drove me to fill in that Law School Application- the first was that I wanted to study something far removed from interior design and secondly I wanted to study something that I could see myself doing for a career- not just a job- something I would be proud to be doing every day of my life.
I was 19.
I look back now and wonder if I had the chance to sit and talk to that 19 year old girl whether I would still encourage her to pursue law. The answer tends to change on a daily basis and is directly related to how I feel in my role as a lawyer now.
I have never regretted the decision to study law. But I have often regretted the impact that I have allowed the practice of law to have on my life. And it is this regret that I have come to accept and manage.
It is almost 20 years since I stepped into Law School and over the past few years I have watched and listened to so many of my friends, colleagues and even those I don’t know well struggle with the stress of a profession they once loved. I have come to conclude this is not a ‘stage of life’ thing as I am seeing law students struggling as much as I am seeing successful Partners in large organisations questioning whether this is the career that is still for them.
This sense of ‘unhappiness’ is what led me to start writing in 2014 as ‘The Happy Family Lawyer’. I decided to grab that unhappy bull by the horns and tell the world (and myself!) that I could and would, from then on, find a way to ensure I could be happy doing the work that I do.
This weekend I am toying with an idea of writing a book about just what it takes for us to be ‘Happy Lawyers’. It is a question I am regularly asked and while I know what it takes for me, I have wondered if that is what it will take for others. It is sad to think that so many talented students and lawyers are unhappy in a profession that has so much to give. And so I am thinking it might be time to look at just what it will take to have ‘happy’ lawyers everywhere!
I have been doing some research and I can find hundreds of articles on why lawyers are ‘unhappy’. But I can find so few that tell me how the ‘unhappy’ lawyer can become ‘happy’ again. Of those that I have found, most seem to suggest that ‘happiness’ is found when lawyers leave the usual practice of the law- follow their passion, their dreams outside of the law. But what about the ‘unhappy’ lawyer whose passion is the law? What if they don’t want to leave but instead want to find happiness by practicing what they have worked many years to achieve and enjoy their life all at the same time? Why is that so impossible to achieve?
It seems that the unhappiness of lawyers is often bundled into 3 categories-
1. Lawyers are (generally) natural pessimists– It seems that many of us were born with the innate ability to find all that is wrong with any situation. This skill is honed at law school and in the traditional practice of law is exploited. Sadly, our pessimism tends to extend beyond the analysis of a client contract to the interpretation of our own lives. We often don’t just see the bad in a situation- we only see the bad as there is never really anything good. Pessimism and Unhappiness are unsurprisingly related and so is the beginning of the ‘unhappy lawyer’.
2. It’s the nature of the ‘Law Beast’- Most lawyers in traditional firms are spending their days getting other people out of some sort of chaos/ conflict or debacle that is rarely pleasant. Let’s be frank- most of us don’t consult with lawyers when life is going great. Usually something unexpected, untoward or down right terrible has occurred and the lawyer is the person we turn to in the hope they can get us out of the mess and fast! I often describe my role in traditional or litigation practice in this way-
Imagine you are on the hospital operating table. Around you are a team of amazing surgeons, doctors and nurses doing all they can to fix you but at the same time there is an equally talented group doing everything they can to undo the good work of the first team to ensure that you don’t survive.
In its coldest, simplest form- this is the life of a lawyer. As we are doing all we can to save, protect and further the needs of our client, our opponents are actively doing the opposite. It is like a battlefield that keeps the contestants in a heightened state of stress all the time the game is going on. And for most lawyers, no sooner has one game successfully concluded than another begins- so that heightened stress never really goes away! Most lawyers spend their days working under immense pressure where the stakes are high. Sadly this style of work doesn’t fuel happiness for most of us.
3. And then there is the hierarchy and tradition of this old profession– Law has been around for so long it is hard to work out when it really began. And many of the traditions of my profession that are still carried on today do at times feel like they could have ended a good 100 years ago or more. Law is a profession steeped in tradition that is very slow to change. And sadly it is this unwillingness to move quickly with the times that is also fuelling much of the unhappiness of those practicing within it.
A simple and good example of this is ‘timesheets’.Despite much discussion for many years about the need to do away with time sheets it is still the case that for most of us our daily ‘worth’ is neatly summarised in 6 minute units on a spreadsheet. The pressure to record each minute of each day in some ‘billable’ way is still something I struggle to let go of and I would be one of the more ‘progressive’ of my kind. I still catch myself in my head saying things like ‘Well you haven’t done much billable work today so you should probably take that file home’.
I don’t know of many other workplaces (ignoring accountants as I sense we are the same on this one!) where ‘billable’ and ‘non-billable’ work tasks are so clearly identified and separated. What happens to your mind when you are set a daily target of say 6.5 ‘billable’ hours is that you spend your day trying to find just that- 6.5 BILLABLE hours. That statement in itself has to be the death of all possible creativity and innovation.
The idea that a lawyer could sit, ponder and dream an impossible dream will never fall into the box of ‘billable’ time (unless perhaps it is a dream to solve a client’s legal problem in a completely new way!) Once you have seen your ‘worth’ mapped out on a spreadsheet for a few years it is very hard to let go of that. And when those numbers don’t add up to much, it is not long before your own sense of personal worth looks about as attractive as your ‘actual billed time’. And unsurprisingly we again have the creation of the ‘unhappy lawyer’.
There are no doubt many more reasons why we lawyers are currently so ‘unhappy’- the competitive job market, the expected long hours, the social stereotypes of just what it means to be a lawyer and the days spent trying to be or become that.
But whatever the reason for the unhappiness, I am more interested in focusing on just what it will take to be a ‘Happy Lawyer’. Because surely the future of this profession that I love to occasionally hate surely has to sit with those of us still in it finding a way to be happy and still be lawyers, otherwise we will soon find all our legal talent heading off to become florists!
What interests me the most is that those lawyers around me who are losing enthusiasm for their profession are talented technicians- it is not that they can’t do the job, quite the opposite they do it so very well. But they seek more. And I sense that is where the key to this lies.
There is plenty of science on Happiness now around the world. Neuroscience particularly is showing us through brain scans the impact of simple things like kindness and gratitude on the functionality of our brains and our own happiness.
I expect the notion of happiness is a little different for all of us. For me, happiness in my work has come when I truly embraced me- when I stopped worrying about what the profession would think and focused instead on my strengths, made time to do the things that I love and stopped working all of the time.
And so I am about to embark upon some research to discover just what it takes to be a Happy Lawyer and if you are up for it, perhaps you might help me out! If you are a lawyer or know someone who is can you answer this question for me? Just what is it that makes you ‘Happy’?
Let’s hope we can all find out! Now off to write another book.
On Wednesday 7 September I will be launching my podcast ‘Happy Lawyer, Happy Life’ where I am sharing the stories of many lawyers who have found happiness both in and out of law. Follow me on Facebook and Instagram to keep up to date with the launch of my new show and if you or someone you know is a ‘Happy Lawyer’ that might want to share their story then please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
I am proud to say that the College of Law have partnered with me on this project, reinforcing their commitment to wellness for lawyers and law students alike. The College of Law is the largest provider of practical legal training in Australasia and seemed the obvious partner for this project given their focus on delivering innovative, practice-focussed legal education for lawyers across Australasia.