Why Are The Lawyers So Unhappy | Martin Seligman

Lawyers Unhappy
When adjusted for socio-demographics, lawyers topped the list, suffering from depression at a rate 3.6 times higher than employed persons generally. Click To Tweet

[This article is by Martin E. P. Seligman, Father of Positive Psychology]

Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy?

Law is a prestigious and remunerative profession, and law school classrooms are full of fresh candidates. In a recent poll, however, 52% of practicing lawyers described themselves as dissatisfied. Certainly, the problem is not financial. As of 1999, associates (junior lawyers vying to become partners) at top firms can earn up to $200,000 per year just starting out, and lawyers long ago surpassed doctors as the highest-paid professionals.

In addition, lawyers are in remarkably poor mental health. They are at much greater risk than the general population for depression. Researchers at John Hopkins University found statistically significant elevations of major depressive disorder in only 3 of 104 occupations surveyed. When adjusted for socio-demographics, lawyers topped the list, suffering from depression at a rate 3.6 times higher than employed persons generally.

Lawyers also suffer from alcoholism and illegal drug use at rates far higher than non-lawyers.

The divorce rate among lawyers, especially women, also appears to be higher than the divorce rate among other professionals. Thus, by any measure, lawyers embody the paradox of money losing its hold: they are the best-paid profession, and yet they are disproportionately unhappy and unhealthy. And lawyers know it; many are retiring early or leaving the profession altogether.

Positive Psychology sees 3 principal causes of the demoralization among lawyers. The first is pessimism, defined not in the colloquial sense (seeing the glass as half-empty) but rather as the pessimistic explanatory style. These pessimists tend to attribute the causes of negative events to stable and global factors (“It’s going to last forever, and it’s going to undermine everything”). The pessimist views bad events as pervasive, permanent, and uncontrollable, while the optimist sees them as local, temporary, and changeable. Pessimists are losers on many fronts.

But there is one glaring exception; pessimists do better at law.

We tested the entire entering class of the Virginia Law School in 1990 with a variant of the optimism-pessimism test. These students were then followed throughout the three years of law school. In sharp contrast to results of prior studies in other realms of life, the pessimistic law students on average fared better than their optimistic peers. Specifically, the pessimists outperformed more optimistic students on the traditional measures of achievement, such as grade point averages and law journal success.

Positive Psychology sees three principal causes of the demoralization among lawyers: 1. Pessimistic training and outlook 2. Few choices to decide from 3. Zero-sum (win-loss) game. Click To Tweet

Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers, because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudence. A prudent perspective enables a good lawyer to see every conceivable snare and catastrophe that might occur in any transaction. The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that non-lawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities. And if you don’t have this prudence to begin with, law school will seek to teach it to you. Unfortunately, though, a trait that makes you good at your profession does not always make you a happy human being.

Lawyers … cannot easily turn off their character trait of prudence (or pessimism) when they leave the office. Lawyers who can see clearly how badly things might turn out for their clients can also see clearly how badly things might turn out for themselves. Pessimistic lawyers are more likely to believe they will not make partner, that their profession is a racket, that their spouse is unfaithful, or that the economy is headed for disaster much more readily than will optimistic persons. In this manner, pessimism that is adaptive in the profession brings in its wake a very high risk of depression in personal life. The challenge, often unmet, is to remain prudent and yet contain this tendency outside the practice of law.

A second psychological factor that demoralizes lawyers, particularly junior ones, is low decision latitude in high-stress situations.

Decision latitude refers to the number of choices one has or, as it turns out, the choices one believes one has on the job. An important study of the relationship of job conditions with depression and coronary disease measures both job demands and decision latitude. There is one combination particularly inimical to health and morale: high job demands coupled with low decision latitude. Individuals with these jobs have much more coronary disease and depression than individuals in the other three quadrants. The young lawyers often fall into this cusp of high pressure accompanied by low choice.

Along with the sheer load of law practice (“This firm is founded on broken marriages”), associates often have little voice about their work, only limited contact with their superiors, and virtually no client contact. Instead, for at least the first few years of practice, many remain isolated in a library, researching and drafting memos on topics of the partners’ choosing.

The deepest of all the psychological factors making lawyers unhappy is that American law has become increasingly a win-loss game. Barry Schwartz distinguishes practices that have their own internal “goods” as a goal from free-market enterprises focused on profits. American law has migrated from being a practice in which good counsel about justice and fairness was the primary good to being a big business in which billable hours, take-no-prisoners victories, and the bottom line are now the principal ends.

Practices and their internal goods are almost always win-win games: both teacher and student grow together, and successful healing benefits everyone. Bottom-line businesses are often, but not always, closer to win-loss games: managed care cuts mental health benefits to save dollars; star academics get giant raises from a fixed pool, keeping junior teachers at below-cost-of-living raises; and multibillion-dollar lawsuits for silicone implants put Dow-Corning out of business. There is an emotional cost to being part of a win-loss endeavor.

In Chapter 3, I argued that positive emotions are the fuel of win-win (positive-sum) games, while negative emotions like anger, anxiety, and sadness have evolved to switch in during win-loss games. To the extent that the job of lawyering now consists of more win-loss games, there is more negative emotion in the daily life of lawyers.

Win-loss games cannot simply be wished away in the legal profession, however, for the sake of more pleasant emotional lives among its practitioners. The adversarial process lies at the heart of the American system of law because it is thought to be the royal road to truth, but it does embody a classic win-loss game: one side’s win equals exactly the other side’s loss.

Competition is at its zenith. Lawyers are trained to be aggressive, judgmental, intellectual, analytical and emotionally detached. This produces predictable emotional consequences for the legal practitioner: he or she will be depressed, anxious, and angry a lot of the time.

Lawyer Simmoneau

Countering Lawyer Unhappiness

As Positive Psychology diagnoses the problem of demoralization among lawyers, three factors emerge: pessimism, low decision latitude, and being part of a giant win-loss enterprise. The first two each have an antidote. I discussed part of the antidote for pessimism in Chapter 6, and my book Learned Optimism details a program for lastingly and effectively countering catastrophic thoughts. More important for lawyers is the pervasiveness dimension—generalizing pessimism beyond the law—and there are exercises in Chapter 12 of Learned Optimism that can help lawyers who see the worst in every setting to be more discriminating in the other corners of their lives.

The key move is credible disputation: treating the catastrophic thoughts (“I’ll never make partner,” “My husband is probably unfaithful”) as if they were uttered by an external person whose mission is to make your life miserable, and then marshaling evidence against the thoughts. These techniques can teach lawyers to use optimism in their personal lives, yet maintain the adaptive pessimism in their professional lives. It is well documented that flexible optimism can be taught in a group setting, such as a law firm or class. If firms and schools are willing to experiment, I believe the positive effects on the performance and morale of young lawyers will be significant.

As to the high pressure–low decision latitude problem, there is a remedy as well. I recognize that grueling pressure is an inescapable aspect of law practice. Working under expanded decision latitude, however, will make young lawyers both more satisfied and more productive. One way to do this is to tailor the lawyer’s day so there is considerably more personal control over work. Volvo solved a similar problem on its assembly lines in the 1960s by giving its workers the choice of building a whole car in a group, rather than repeatedly building the same part. Similarly, a junior associate can be given a better sense of the whole picture, introduced to clients, mentored by partners, and involved in transactional discussions. Many law firms have begun this process as they confront the unprecedented resignations of young associates.

The zero-sum nature of law has no easy antidote. For better or for worse, the adversarial process, confrontation, maximizing billable hours, and the “ethic” of getting as much as you possibly can for your clients are much too deeply entrenched. More pro bono activity, more mediation, more out-of-court settlements, and “therapeutic jurisprudence” are all in the spirit of countering the zero-sum mentality, but I expect these recommendations are not cures, but Band-Aids. I believe the idea of signature strengths, however, may allow the law to have its cake and eat it too—both to retain the virtues of the adversarial system and to create happier lawyers.

When a young lawyer enters a firm, he or she comes equipped not only with the trait of prudence and lawyerly talents like high verbal intelligence, but with an additional set of unused signature strengths (for example, leadership, originality, fairness, enthusiasm, perseverance, or social intelligence). As lawyers’ jobs are crafted now, these strengths do not get much play. Even when situations do call for them, since the strengths are unmeasured, handling these situations does not necessarily fall to those who have the applicable strengths.

Every law firm should discover what the particular signature strengths of their associates are. Exploiting these strengths will make the difference between a demoralized colleague and an energized, productive one. Reserve five hours of the work week for “signature strength time,” a nonroutine assignment that uses individual strengths in the service of the firm’s goals.

Two basic points to keep in mind to apply to your work setting: 1. The exercise of signature strengths is almost always a win-win game. 2. There is a clear relation between positive emotion at work, high productivity, low turnover, and high… Click To Tweet

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This article is an excerpt from Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, considered the Father of Modern Positive Psychology. He is the director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center and Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology in the Penn Department of Psychology. He is also Director of the Penn Master of Applied Positive Psychology program (MAPP). He was President of the American Psychological Association in 1998.


Authentic happiness derives from raising the bar for yourself, not rating yourself against others.

— Seligman, Authentic Happiness
Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman (Book cover)

Professor Martin Seligman in his bestseller that launched the new science of Positive Psychology, tells us our happiness is not the result of good genes or luck. Real happiness that lasts comes from focusing on our personal strengths rather than weaknesses—and working with them to improve all aspects of our lives.


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