Escaping the Trap of Job Dissatisfaction
April 01, 2014
In the late 1970s, Edward Honnold fulfilled a long-time dream when he went to clerk for Judge Malcolm R. Wilkey of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. However, during his clerkship, he would feel exhausted whenever he approached the courthouse, and he often found himself walking across the National Mall to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum where he would repeatedly watch the film To Fly!, about a hot air balloon ride across the continental United States.
“[The clerkship] certainly had been an aspiration of mine in law school,” Honnold says. “For the most part I found [it] very exciting and stimulating, but at the same time there was this distress that I didn’t fully understand.”
Honnold ignored the signs and went on to have a 13-year legal career. He practiced at a law firm for almost five years, worked as a legislative director for an incoming member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and then worked on legislation and policy in the general counsel’s office at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
It was at USAID that Honnold began to make some changes. He obtained his master’s degree in social work and decided that what he wanted was a job that would allow him to work with people individually.
Looking back at his clerkship, Honnold says he now understands on a metaphoric level why To Fly! captured his interest. “I think I was already imagining, at least unconsciously, that there would be something that I would like to do that would satisfy me on a deeper level than the law did. But I didn’t understand the meaning at that time so I continued down that path,” he says.
Twenty-two years after leaving the legal profession, Honnold is founder of Lawyer Career Consulting DC where he counts a few lawyers among his clients. While some of Honnold’s clients have decided to leave the legal profession, others just needed help dealing with the demanding nature of their job or finding clarity about why they feel dissatisfied.
Work and Well-Being
Job dissatisfaction certainly is not unique to the legal profession, but there is a popular belief that it’s widespread among lawyers. So much has been made of lawyer dissatisfaction that in 2011 Jerome Organ, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, published a meta-analysis of research on lawyer satisfaction and well-being.
“In the last two to three decades, there has been a great deal of scholarly and media attention placed on lawyer dissatisfaction, generating a certain ‘conventional wisdom’ . . . about the endemic dissatisfaction of lawyers,” Organ wrote.
With his paper Organ sought to reconcile this perception with the fact that during the same period the empirical literature “has fairly consistently suggested that lawyers generally experience a great deal of job and career satisfaction.” Organ looked at 28 surveys on lawyer satisfaction conducted between 1984 and 2007 and ascertained that four out of five lawyers were satisfied with their work.
But while Organ’s study may refute the idea of widespread job dissatisfaction among lawyers, that doesn’t mean the problem is nonexistent. Also, Organ says one has to be careful about making generalizations about the profession. Younger lawyers, for example, tend to be more dissatisfied than older attorneys. Or it could be that the lawyers surveyed were the ones who have stuck it out with the profession, while those who were dissatisfied have dropped out.
Some studies also show that lawyers are more at risk of depression, alcoholism, and drug addiction. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lawyers rank fourth in suicide rates among other occupations.
Organ says that while there has been some data regarding the correlation between the legal profession, depression, and addiction, the issue has not been well studied. He thinks that his research on lawyer satisfaction doesn’t necessarily disprove reports of dissatisfaction in the legal profession, as people who are not sufficiently self-aware may want to tell themselves that they’re satisfied even though an objective view would show otherwise.
Perhaps it’s the competitive, adversarial, and stress-filled nature of the legal profession that leads to such problems. The long hours of sometime tedious work may not be what someone had in mind when he or she first decided to pursue a legal career. Some experts believe that the root of the problem can be found in law schools and their efforts to get students to “think like a lawyer.”
“If lawyers are having problems, it’s because we’re kind of missing the point about what human beings need, we’re ignoring the realities,” says Lawrence “Larry” Krieger, clinical professor and director of clinical externship programs at Florida State University College of Law.
According to Krieger, to achieve well-being people need more than monetary rewards and status, both of which the legal profession offers. Individuals experience greater well-being when their values are more intrinsic, such as self-understanding or growth, and their motivation more internal, such as undertaking an action for the joy of doing the action.
But even lawyers who find their jobs satisfying can feel burned out or overwhelmed. The recession may have exacerbated the problem as firms have pared down staff, leaving more work for those remaining. At the same time, some lawyers who graduated from law school starting in 2008 have had difficulty finding a job outside of contract work and feel like they have little opportunity for advancement.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if right now the research indicated much higher levels of distress and lower levels of satisfaction because . . . there is so much uncertainty and ambiguity in the profession and it’s become so much more competitive,” says Ellen Ostrow, founder of Lawyers Life Coach LLC.
Training Ground for Competition
The competitiveness often starts in law school where class rankings are held with great importance.
According to David Jaffe, associate dean of students at American University Washington College of Law, higher tier law schools are likely to be more competitive as they tend to produce students seeking to work at higher-paying firms. He notes that dissatisfaction is often linked to associates at larger firms who either find that the competitive nature isn’t what they were looking for or who end up having to deal with the “driving nature of billable hours.”
In addition to its competitive nature, law school also teaches students to disassociate their feelings and to undergo a change in their values and motivation.
“Most law professors discount emotion, and law school is a culture that doesn’t respect the values that students bring with them. Rather than build on whatever moral compass the students have, law schools rather wipe the slate clean and start fresh,” Organ says.
Ostrow agrees that law school particularly discourages students from paying attention to their emotional side, which may result in an increased vulnerability to depression and substance abuse.
“Mental health requires an integration of emotional experience and acceptance of it and using that to make good decisions whether they are professional or personal,” Ostrow says.
In his writings on “humanizing” legal education, Krieger noted that emerging scientific understanding of factors in well-being has led to the realization that some typical law school practices and policies can run into conflict with and obstruct a person’s natural development.
In a 2008 article, Krieger cited a study conducted by legal anthropologist Elizabeth Mertz that recorded and analyzed the language in a full semester of contracts classes at eight law schools. Her findings showed that students were losing their intrinsic values and internal motivation.
“The recurring, overarching theme of the findings is that, in learning to ‘think like lawyers,’ students are abruptly forced to set aside their sense of morality, fairness, and sensitivity to human suffering,” Krieger wrote in “Human Nature as a New Guiding Philosophy for Legal Education and the Profession,” published by the Washburn Law Journal.
Krieger says part of the problem is that the values of most law schools are extrinsic, focused on rank and hierarchy and whether they can get students high-paying jobs with big firms or prestigious clerkships with judges.
However, Jaffe says some schools do look beyond just teaching students the black letter law, showing them a holistic approach to the practice of law.
“I certainly think there’s engagement in the classroom, I think there are professors who will go beyond the doctrinal component and remind students that there are human elements to almost any case that’s being assessed and utilized,” Jaffe says.
“We, for example, try to make efforts to find different ways to remind students that there was life before law school and there’s going to be life afterwards. The things that were meaningful to them prior to law school need to be something that continues to be not only during school, but that can stand them in good stead during the course of their careers,” he adds.
To this end, American University Washington College of Law holds a series of sessions called “The Happy Lawyer” for first-year students as well as the twice-a-year “Puppies in the Lobby Day,” in which therapy dogs are brought on campus to help students relax before finals.
“You don’t need to be holding a puppy all the time, but you need to be thinking about the fact that you allowed yourself to let go of other things that were on your mind and let yourself just be happy in the moment. Whatever the pleasures are, depriving yourself of them just leads to all the issues and concerns that we have that keep the lawyer assistance programs in business. Students in law school forget that they have to take time for themselves,” Jaffe says.
Such engagement activities, however, may not help a student who simply doesn’t have a genuine passion for the law. It’s not uncommon to find people who attended law school as a default career choice, whether due to family pressure, the promise of money and reputation, or not knowing what else to do. For such an individual, the difficulties of the legal profession can be especially hard to handle.
Pressure to Get to the Top
There’s also the question of whether dissatisfaction stems from the legal profession itself or from the type of person drawn to it.
“We at the [D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Committee] would sit and postulate about which came first, whether the profession made us all sort of stressed out and unhappy or whether high-stress, Type A personalities are driven to law. I really don’t know. I do think that you have some . . . professions that sort of attract and foster those personality traits—competitiveness and isolation to a certain extent,” says Ellen Pyle, discovery counsel at McDermott Will & Emery LLP who also volunteers with the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program.
Pyle says the legal profession encourages and rewards people who fight to the top, but that doesn’t necessarily give them a sense of well-being. “You get to the top of the heap and you think, ‘Wow, I made it.’ But once you make it there’s this hollow feeling and you wonder when you’re going to be happy,” she adds.
But Pyle believes individuals can make small changes to decrease feelings of dissatisfaction. In her case, it’s trying to come to terms with her difficulty drawing boundaries between work and her personal life. Even though she is currently on a non-career track, Pyle says she still finds herself bringing the computer home with her, but at least now she’s cognizant of what she’s doing.
She’s not alone, according to Niki Irish, senior counselor with the Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program. “A lot of people who go to law school are high achievers so they want to do well, they expect to do well, and anything less is going to leave them unhappy, and this can drive them to work very hard, too. So they’re not going to set a boundary and say, ‘I’m not going to work after eight o’clock tonight.’”
Pyle says she knows some people on a similar non-career track who are unhappy at work but reluctant to talk to their manager about increased wages or more flexible work hours, a situation that causes even more unhappiness.
The demands of billable hours can make it difficult for an individual to start a family or spend time with them, or to develop and nurture outside interests. A person’s whole identity then gets wrapped up in his or her job. And while external rewards such as money or prestige may bring about modest satisfaction, they ultimately won’t make one happy or make up for not acting in accordance with one’s beliefs.
“Let’s say you’re working six-and-a-half days a week, and while you say you care about your family you don’t make it home most of those nights. You’re not being authentic and true to your own values so you’re going to feel a split and your relationship with others will suffer. It’s not what you believe but what you do that matters,” says Krieger, who is currently working on a study about well-being involving several thousand lawyers.
Law firm associates and partners face their own particular challenges. Partners who have spent a decade or more at a firm have built expectations for themselves at work and in their personal lives.
"There’s that saying about law firm partnership: ‘Partnership is like a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie.’ If you work very hard, the work doesn’t let up; you’re the rainmaker and you’re still expected to go out there and get those clients, and that’s what their value is to the firm,” says Denise Perme, manager of the Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program.
Honnold says it’s the partners who sometimes present the toughest cases because they have the most at stake in their professional lives. “For them it’s a question of [holding] things together as best they can under the demands of their successful careers or [contemplating] whether they need to jump ship or not. For them it’s not a multistep process, it may be in or out,” he says.
Young associates may want to jump ship much earlier in their careers. Among the Lawyer Assistance Program’s clients are a few young associates who dream of putting in a certain number of years at a big firm and paying off their school loans before going in-house, but one of the problems with this scenario is that there aren’t many of those kinds of jobs available nowadays. In addition, while some may say they’re willing to work a few grueling years at a big firm, they don’t really know what the “grueling” part will be like because they’ve never experienced it.
Both associates and partners have to deal with competitive billing pressure in what’s become an increasingly client-driven industry.
“It takes a huge amount of persistence and long hours and determination in order to be successful in what’s an increasingly competitive environment,” Ostrow says.
In his practice Honnold often sees the effects of such pressure on lawyers. “That combination of tedium and stress is what I think tears people apart. They’re pushed hard to do as many hours as they can, as efficiently as they can, often in a litigation context where time is of the essence and the billable hours have to be kept high,” he says. “This anxiety about how many billable hours you’re working, how many you can write off, and how yours compares to another lawyer’s is pervasive at firms.”
Solo practitioners aren’t immune from pressure and work dissatisfaction, either. Running a law office can be difficult, and one can easily run into trouble with the rules. Having to worry about bar counsel is just another stressor.
So what’s a lawyer to do when feeling overwhelmed or dissatisfied? The first step may be acknowledging that there’s a problem.
“I think lawyers need to be able to recognize, label, acknowledge, and deal with their internal experiences,” says Ostrow. “I think that’s one of the reasons that mindfulness programs for lawyers have begun to be popular. I think that those kinds of skills are tremendously important for helping to deal with the stress of practice. Knowing how to manage stress and how to deal with your own internal distress is crucial for being happier and not being as vulnerable to depression and substance abuse.”
Ostrow says there are times when lawyers should seek outside help for their problems, something they’re often reticent to do because they’re afraid to acknowledge what they see as a weakness.
“The biggest thing with lawyers is . . . not admitting they need help with something and that they are not able to handle everything that they thought they could. It’s threatening to think that maybe you can’t do everything,” Perme says.
When It’s Time to Seek Help
The D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program is one place that lawyers can turn to when they need help.
As a program volunteer, Pyle attends ethics courses where she talks about issues such as career burnout and substance abuse. She also sometimes serves as an active mentor to a program client experiencing problems similar to what she faced.
Pyle says it’s unfortunate that some people connect the program solely with substance abuse issues because it also offers help to those dealing with stress, work dissatisfaction, and work–life balance issues.
“I think it would be used a lot more if more people knew that they can go to the [Lawyer Assistance Program] without a substance abuse problem and they can get the counseling, direction, and help they need,” Pyle says.
Irish agrees that lawyers often think that the program targets people with either more severe issues or substance abuse problems. “We try to spread the word that it’s any and all forms of wellness. If a lawyer is struggling in some way, whether it’s being dissatisfied, being depressed or anxious, a drinking issue, or whatever it is,” she says.
There can be a stigma attached to lawyers seeking help, especially when everything looks good externally, but a delay in doing so can turn minor problems into bigger ones.
“The dissatisfaction with the career, if not addressed, people will start doing things to make themselves feel better. That’s where the alcohol comes in and things that are sort of easy ways to temporarily feel better, sort of self-medicate,” Perme says.
“I think that’s what people do too much, especially lawyers . . . [they] think they can handle it and they wait way too long before talking to somebody. If you’ve been struggling with any sort of dissatisfaction or stress, anxiety, depression for more than a month, I would say why not go talk to somebody? You should definitely not wait until everything is falling apart and you’re at your wit’s end before reaching out for help,” she adds.
Perme says there’s a lot of help available for lawyers as well as resources, from career counseling to books. “If they call us and come in, we can connect them to lots of different types of resources that might be helpful,” she says.
To speak to a D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program counselor, call the confidential line at 202-347-3131. For more information on the program, contact Perme at the above number or at [email protected].
Reach D.C. Bar staff writer Kathryn Alfisi at [email protected].
Where to get help
D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program
Lawyer Assistance Program
Honnold Counseling and Lawyer Career Counseling D.C.
Lawyers Life Coach LLC
Directory of State and Local Lawyer Assistance Programs
National Helpline for Judges Helping Judges
DON’T MISS … “Substance Abuse and Depression in the Legal Profession: Ethics Issues”
5 to 7:45 p.m. on Thursday, May 1.
Lawyer Assistance Program counselors will discuss substance abuse and mental health problems in the lawyer population and ways to assist attorneys experiencing these problems. Representatives from Bar Counsel and other practitioners will explain the way these disorders can contribute to ethics violations.
In addition, Lawyer Assistance Committee volunteer mentors will share their stories of how these disorders affected them personally and how they started their process of recovery.
Find out more and register today at www.dcbar.org.