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updated: 4/17/2019 2:38 PM

Can a lawyer be happy?

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  • Tom Kivlahan

    Tom Kivlahan


In 1850, Abraham Lincoln wrote, "There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest ... Let no young man (or woman) choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular belief."

Today there is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily unhappy. A recent study by the American Bar Association and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation surveyed 12,825 licensed, employed attorneys and found high levels of depression (28 percent), stress (23 percent) and anxiety (19 percent); 20.6 percent screened positive for problem drinking and 11.5 percent reported suicidal thoughts at some point in their career.

Here are a few strategies to increase happiness and restore balance.

Ignore problems

When things go sideways, step away from the meeting, call or keyboard. Do whatever it takes to buy yourself a few minutes and then do anything else; Vent to a colleague, watch a YouTube video, play a game, walk around the office, hydrate, pray, meditate. Anything except respond impulsively.

Granted, this advice can be hard to follow in the middle of a trial, deposition, or negotiation, but like we tell our clients, you can always ask for a break. Use it to separate yourself from the situation, gain some perspective, and consider how to best respond.

Redefine the workday

I knew a lawyer who worked every Saturday morning and then took Monday mornings off. He said he'd never been more productive, and never dreaded Mondays. Some of my colleagues answer emails during TV commercials at home. Personally, I love checking emails on vacation and delegating whatever I can, so I don't come back to a pile of stale messages. This doesn't work for everyone. If sticking to normal business hours and disconnecting from the office in between makes you happy, do that. No matter which method you choose, be sure to set (and honor) reasonable boundaries.

Don't put the client first, or second

Attorney well-being is not just a good idea. It is an ethical responsibility and a sound business strategy if you include each member of your team. Whatever you do, don't forget about your support staff. Clients come and go, but colleagues stick around and are the key to your success. Think about the happiest and most productive attorneys you know; now ask them about their relationships with their paralegals and assistants. Do they treat each other with respect, support, and good humor? When's the last time you asked someone who works for you about their family, hobbies, or personal goals? Take a co-worker out to lunch and agree not to discuss work.

Change lanes

If you've tried small steps and you're still not satisfied, it might be time to make a bigger change. Think about switching practice areas. There is a lot you can do with a law degree and a legal education. I was a stressed litigator for the first four years of my career, a nervous general practitioner for the next four, and a (mostly) happy estate planning and probate attorney for the last 25. Don't get stuck on the path you chose straight out of law school. Find the one that's going to give you the best quality of life.

Let them see you sweat

And worry, and laugh, and cry. Take off your game face and be genuine in the office. If you're feeling nervous, overwhelmed, angry, insecure, joyous, or grateful, tell somebody you trust.There may be others that feel the same way and are just waiting for someone to make the first move. If there is no one in your office you trust, consider what that says about your workplace. Most of the attorneys and support staff that have left our firm (voluntarily or involuntarily) did not have a close personal connection with their colleagues.

No one knows how you operate better than you do. If your current work habits are not producing the results you want (emotionally, personally, and professionally) try something else. Then ask a loved one if they notice any difference.

• Tom Kivlahan is an attorney and chief well-being officer for Drost Kivlahan McMahon & O'Connor LLC in Arlington Heights, and a licensed alcohol and drug counselor.