Lawyers, the Good Life and Work: What Really Matters in 2013

Last week a young attorney I coach asked why I left the practice of law to pursue a career in psychology and professional development. The answers to such questions are never simple.  A lawyer friend died suddenly. I realized that life is short and offers no guarantees. I started thinking about what made me happy. When I put it all together, I was not a happy lawyer and it seemed unlikely this would change.  

I had what many would consider a great practice as a partner with an AmLaw 200 firm. I worked with good smart people. I had plenty of clients with good work. But ultimately, to be a happy lawyer and a strong lawyer, I believe you must love practicing law. Although many of my partners did, I did not.  

Where does happiness and well being come from?  A few years ago, I had the good fortune to participate in Dr. Martin Seligman's Authentic Happiness coach training program. In his latest book, Flourishing, Seligman, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and former President of theAmerican Psychological Association, proposes that the good life, one in which individuals and the planet flourish, is one in which "well being" is maximized.  Well being is comprised of five elements (known by the acronym PERMA):

  1. Positive Emotions:  Simply put, good feelings.  For example,feeling joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, awe or love. In the moment as you work, how often do you feel these feelings? As a lawyer, I did not feel these enough. My former law partner Emily Parker often talks about the fun she has practicing law and how important it is to keep that in a firm's culture. 
  2. Engagement:  Becoming so immersed in an activity that you lose time and are in "flow." When I started reading books on psychology and human behavior, I lost time.  I found myself reading dense texts for fun in a way that I  had never experienced with law books.  To this day when I coach my clients or lead a retreat, the time seems to fly by. By contrast, one of my lawyer friends became totally immersed arguing about the law when on vacation with her lawyer boyfriend. That told me I was in the wrong space. What parts of your practice put you in flow?  How can you get more of that in 2013? 
  3. Meaning:  Contributing your gifts and strengths to something bigger than you.  As a young lawyer I took a pro bono case.  I found that I was much more interested in helping my client at an emotional and motivational level than I was in her legal issues. Being her lawyer, did not bring me satisfaction even though I thought it should. I contrast that with the great pleasure some of my lawyer colleagues find in righting a wrong for pro bono clients. For example Jones Day partnerSally Crawford takes joy and pride in being known as the "queen of pro bono." Over her career, Sally has devoted countless hours to serving pro bono clients and derived great satisfaction from this work. 
  4. Relationships: Satisfying relationships with others. Positive relationships with colleagues and clients kept me in law for ten years. To this day, my best friends are the lawyers and clients I met in those early years. If you are working with great people, you know the importance of what I'm talking about. If not, how can you change that? How do you make time for positive relationships with colleagues, clients, friends and family?
  5. Accomplishment: Humans have a drive to accomplish.  Of course accomplishment comes in many forms. For me, accomplishment is about helping others succeed and mastering new skills.  It just makes me feel great. Lawyers who love their work take joy in accomplishment on behalf of their firms and clients and love meeting new challenges.

A final word about well being and happiness. A strong body of research demonstrates that people who maximize PERMA in their lives, are healthier, happier and more successful. As you set your work goals for 2013, how will you create a life of happiness and well being?