How Lawyers Can Find Happiness at Work

It’s a bit of a loaded title we know. The thing about happiness is that it doesn’t really lend itself to prescriptive formulas. There is no 7 step process or framework to the promised land of career satisfaction and happiness. But while we may not be able to offer a silver bullet, we can share our thoughts and experience on an issue that, when viewed on the macro level, may be the most important of your professional life.

A career working for a big, traditional law firm often means rare vacations, late nights, missed family events, stifling hierarchy and unhealthy levels of stress - so much so that the troubles of unhappy attorneys have sprouted an entire industry dedicated to helping them quit.

There are a few signs that the established law firms have started trying to address some of these problems. Part-time schedules have been introduced, some billing requirements have been loosened and a few other human-friendly policies have started to crop up.

These aren’t the type of substantive changes the industry needs, however. Many lawyers feel the call for something more, something that puts them back in control of their lives.

Recent guest on Beyond Billables podcast, Janelle Kerrisk, felt just that. She’d worked her way up to partner in a construction law firm and was to all intents and purposes doing brilliantly. But she wanted more autonomy, she wanted to feel excited about what she was doing, she wanted more time to spend with her family - in other words, she wanted to be happy.

Janelle’s answer to this particular problem was to band together with other like-minded lawyers and form her own firm, Helix Legal. In doing so, she remained a working lawyer but managed to do it on her own terms. Instead of being shaped by the law, she decided to shape it. Janelle’s story is inspiring, but not everyone is cut out to start their own firm. If you’re sat there thinking that's all well and good, but not for me then don’t worry. Below we’ve compiled a list of tips and ideas for how lawyers can be happier people in the context of their work.

Do Something Selfless

Working under a standard billable hour policy tends to pit a lawyer against their clients. It’s not an uncommon gripe to hear a lawyer say that they work long hours and don’t actually feel like they are doing any good. What can be done about that? If you’re an associate, there may be no option out of the long hours, but how about volunteering? Volunteering makes a firm look good and most will allow employees to do some pro bono work on the clock. Doing something for others with no intent but to help them can feel tremendously good. Give it a try.

Take Control of Your Schedule

One shortcut to feeling better at work is to do less of it. You can discuss a part-time arrangement with your manager or consider trying out a freelancer platform to set your own hours. Of course, this approach may have financial consequences (it's hard to maintain the same income while doing half the work). But if you can afford to minimise your overheads, consider a more flexible schedule. You’re still building experience, practising - but now you have more time to exercise, sleep, eat right, read a book or go parasailing. Whatever works for you.

Work on Your Mindset

The power of positive psychology can be tremendously impactful - adjusting your attitude or thinking about your career may be a critical stepping stone toward happiness. The thing about mindset is that it is at the very root of most things you do. It's hard to change it overnight. You can read positive psychology or self-help books, you can practise yoga or meditation, you can work with a mantra, you can practise reframing or you can undergo the ‘no complaint challenge’. All of these things are great and can affect your overall happiness, try any and all of them. But while you work on the internal, try to make the external as optimum as possible to create some positive momentum. Identify what you like doing and try to do more of it at work. If you don’t like the people you work with, change teams or firms.

Take Care of Yourself

Finally - and most importantly - let’s talk about the tough issue of mental health. Lawyers usually like to take the firm upper lip stance, and there is little room for feelings of anxiety or depression in a law firm. If you are feeling depressed, talk to someone; there is no shame in asking for help. Lawyers tend to feel like they need to have the answer to every problem - including why they aren’t happy. This isn’t the case. A family member or trained professional can help you suss things out and make the changes needed to course correct in a more positive way. Many attorney associations are increasingly recognising depression as a real issue facing the legal profession. If you need help, get it. Remember, you’re not alone.

These are just a few ideas of how you can tip the happiness scales more in your favour at work. Big firms are slowly realising that their lawyers may want to also be successful parents, good partners or well-adjusted humans. For many, this shift is not happening quickly enough though. Whether you quit, strike out on your own or tweak your setup is clearly up to you. But just remember you don’t have to accept the status quo because everyone else is.

There are many things you can do in life, so make sure you don’t feel trapped. And if you want to continue being a lawyer, know that it's possible to do it in a balanced manner that brings you a great deal of happiness. For evidence of this, one need look no further than Janelle.