7 Reasons Lawyers Are Unhappy & How To Improve Their Happiness

— Reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy.

The public generally perceives lawyers as greedy, dishonest, and unscrupulous people. There may be some truth to it that many lawyers intentionally drag cases for years to extract their fees.

Those are good reasons for lawyers to be unhappy. Even worse, when people see happy lawyers, they often think they are not very good at lawyering, and even more devious.

Surveys by psychologists show lawyers may be the least happy of all professions.

  • Law school enrollment has been linked to higher levels of emotional distress, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse (Daicoff, 2004; Mertz, 2007; Krieger, 2008; Peterson, 2009).
  • Nearly 60% of the surveyed law students and legal practitioners reported moderate to very high levels of psychological distress (Kelk et al., 2009).
  • A 2013 national survey of Australian lawyers found that 26–32% of respondents reported moderate to extreme symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety (Chan et al., 2014).

But why are the lawyers of our world so unhappy?

Why Are Lawyers Unhappy?

  • Surveys show lawyers are generally dissatisfied and unhappy in their professional and personal lives.
  • Psychologists think lawyers are unhappy because they have been professionally trained to be pessimistic.
  • Optimistic and happy lawyers are often considered incompetent, so lawyers may deliberately try to look glum or somber.

7 Reasons Why Lawyers Are Unhappy

Woman-lawyer-unhappy at office

Here are the seven reasons that make lawyers unhappy:

1. Lawyers Work In Toxic Environments

Lawyers mostly work out of a boiler room of conflicts, pressures, and failures. It is a situation they would rather not be in, and yet where they have to be.

First, they work in a dog-eat-dog environment, giving each other distress, despair, and threats.

Second, their clients trust them with their most private secrets, including the illegal acts they committed, while expecting their counsel to draw favorable judgments. This can get quite stressful for the lawyers.

Third, the public routinely subjects them to snide remarks, unfair prejudices, and even online trolling. Beyond a point, lawyers are susceptible to insults and criticism, just like everyone else.

Such toxic workplaces offer little psychological safety. It can lead to depression and other mental ill-health issues like alcohol use disorder, substance abuse, and even self-harm.

Lawyers are also more likely to experience insomnia, eating problems, weight loss or gain, migraines, chronic pain, and various other symptoms. Their work settings may trigger panic attacks, feelings of shame and remorse, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in some of them.

Working in such stressful environments can also affect their personal relationships. A typical “lawyer personality” has trouble finding a partner or lover from outside their profession.

The worst part is that negative effects on mental health can last years after a lawyer leaves the firm and the courthouse.

2. Lawyers Don’t Have A Work-Life Balance

The legal profession is a vulnerable profession when it comes to balancing work and personal life.

Work-life balance means achieving a healthy balance between work-related priorities and personal life demands. It requires spending quality time with oneself and one’s close people, outside work.

But this balance breaks down when one spends more time at work, doesn’t take leaves or holidays, or takes work back home.

Given how the legal profession has evolved, it is nearly unimaginable for a lawyer to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Lawyers today, especially private practice attorneys and attorneys in legal firms, spend more time than they would like, neck-deep in work.

They have to work and rework their cases, while keeping up with the latest, always with an eye on how to outdo the opposite lawyer. It can often make them carry their work with them home.

Most lawyers work long hours, with roughly half of them working more than 40 hours per week. When a case is being tried, they often cut back on sleep to allow for extensive preparation, research, client meetings, and paperwork labor.

Other factors that might be causing their work-life imbalance are stress in the family and lack of exercise.

Special divisions, like tax lawyers, experience surges of extra work at certain seasons of the year.

For lawyers who are salaried and typically have a relatively set schedule, it may be a little easier.

3. Most Clients Do Not Value Their Lawyers

People view lawyers as narcissistic manipulators, and actually, they are right to assume so.

Manipulation is defined as influencing or attempting to influence the behaviors or emotions of others for one’s own gain.

Lawyers, by that definition, are manipulators, if not outright liars. They always argue their cases in ways that their clients benefit while their opponents are disfavored.

It is no secret that most clients do not value their lawyers. In a recent survey, only 18% of respondents said they felt their lawyer was a valuable asset to them.

This is because there are many misconceptions about the role of a lawyer in the legal process, and many people wrongly assume that lawyers are only responsible for litigation.

The truth is, lawyers have an important role to play at every stage of the legal process and can help you achieve your goals in ways you may never have considered before. For this, many hold them in high regard.

Of course, it cannot be swept under the carpet that most lawyers are well versed in “making truths out of lies,” though we can be certain that they do not practice dishonesty at all times.

“Do you think lawyers are manipulative?”
“Tell me how much you’re willing to pay, and I’ll write an answer that fits your budget.”

Andrew Weill, Tax Attorney (in a joking tone)

4. Many Lawyers Feel They Are Not Paid Well Enough

Most lawyers work privately, or at firms. While they get to charge clients by the hour, most consider the pay doesn’t match the efforts they put into research, meticulous paperwork, keeping their clients happy and well-advised, and appearing in trials.

The Martindale-Avvo Attorney Compensation Report, 2020, found:

  • 63% of attorneys believe they are fairly compensated for their work, while 37% believe they are financially underpaid.
  • Overall, 69% of attorneys said they would choose the same path to become an attorney if given the chance again. 31% of lawyers responded that if given another chance, they would not have become lawyers.
  • Attorneys representing corporations earned an average of $238,000, while attorneys who mainly represented consumers earned an average of $181,000 in an year.

Given the quantum of professional stress, lawyers’ feeling that they are underpaid may be justified.

The feeling of dissatisfaction among the lawyers can be traced in part to the high cost of living and the hefty law school loan burden.

Woman lawyer unhappy-Pin

5. A Law Career Is Difficult

The legal profession has many tough challenges:

a. Long Training.

Becoming a lawyer is lengthy and difficult. One must go through 7 years of additional schooling after high school to become a lawyer.

  • First, a competitive score on the law school admission test (LSAT) is required for admission to a law school.
  • They must then complete three years of study to obtain their Juris Doctor degree.
  • Then, to practice in a state, they must pass that state’s bar examination. Some go on to get advanced law degrees in specialized fields.
  • Finally, they need attendance at Continuing Legal Education (CLE).

Of course, there is the issue of prohibitive costs of law education, resulting in high student loan debts.

b. Fierce Competition.

After becoming a lawyer, working as a lawyer has quite a few challenges. Simply explained, there are more lawyers than legal jobs available.

Though the demand for legal practitioners is increasing, competition is driving down the cost of legal services.

In addition, a significant amount of legal work is moving to paralegal accounting firms, dispute mediation and resolution bodies, and social organizations.

Many law school graduates are now working in administrative and managerial fields. Many lawyers leave their companies after two or three years to work for corporations, non-profits, law schools, or the government.

Some move to legal consultancy, legal education, legal recruiting, and lobbying.

c. High Expectations.

Lawyers are always subjected to high expectations, both from clients and from their partners in the firm. They are expected to perform smoothly under pressure while meeting those high expectations.

Clients expect them to have the top-notch expertise and capability to act as their counsel, and to always get the verdict in their favor. This pressure to win their cases often puts them in a zero-sum game.

Their firms expect them to be excellent communicators, thought influencers, and even spin-doctors. They are expected to take on additional client responsibilities as required.

People expect them to be intelligent, capable of innovating and adapting, and active thinkers. Lawyers are expected to be patient in the face of long work hours.

Furthermore, people expect them to remain organized and composed at all times, which keeps them from “letting their hair down” even at fun social events.

6. Lawyers Are Pessimistic

Lawyers are more pessimistic than the general public.

Actually, aspiring lawyers are trained in “defensive pessimism,” and the best students in a law school are the worst pessimists.

Now, the thing is, while professional pessimism improves their performance, it also spills over into their personal lives. It makes them see every argument as a zero-sum game where they must win by any trick in the book. It often creates a toxic climate in their families and personal relationships.

Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology and author of Authentic Happiness, tells us:

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 with the results of prior studies in other realms of life, the pessimistic law students on average faired better than their optimistic peers. Specifically, the pessimist outperformed more optimistic students on the traditional measures of achievement, such as grade point averages and law journal success.

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. 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.

He further says,

These pessimists tend to attribute the causes of negative events as 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.

7. High Stress, Depression, Compassion Fatigue

Current research suggests that work stress results from the interaction between an individual and the work environment.

work stress model

Lawyers have a high burnout rate.

A 2021 survey by the American Bar Association revealed:

  • 67% of women lawyers reported higher levels of stress,
  • 38% said they often work long hours,
  • 9% said they “never stop working,”
  • 40% reported an increase in their total work-related stress since the Covid-19 pandemic.

Most law firms are like gladiator rings, with the trophy going to the attorneys who can handle the most pressure.

Lawyers are constantly stressed, even though many believe that lawyers cause stress for others while thriving in it.

The most stressed are often those who argue their cases in court under the watchful eyes of the client, the jury, the judge, and occasionally the media and the public.

Lawyers Unhappy
Lawyers – Unhappy Profession

The constant high stress can cause them to have months-long burnout and mental fatigue.

Paula Davis, a former lawyer and author of the research-driven book Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being and Resilience, identifies the core 6 job demands that can lead to burnout:

  1. Lack of autonomy
  2. Values disconnect
  3. Lack of recognition
  4. Lack of support from leaders and colleagues
  5. High workload and work pressure, inadequate staffing
  6. Unfairness (lack of transparency; arbitrary decision-making; favoritism)

Lawyers are also more depressed than the average population.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that out of 104 occupations, lawyers were the most depressed, suffering from depression 3.6 times more than the average worker (The Lawyers’ Epidemic: Depression, Suicide and Substance Abuse, 1990).

Lawyers also have much higher rates of alcoholism and illegal drug usage than non-lawyers. Divorce tends to be more common among lawyers, particularly women, than among other occupations.

Lawyering is a high-empathy job. One has to get into the shoes of the client to understand their position well.

Compassion fatigue is one dangerous effect of having empathy.

Compassion fatigue means getting exhausted while trying to relieve the pain of another. Also known as secondary trauma and secondary stress, it occurs when a person’s sense of well-being is harmed by constant contact with another person’s tragedy.

“Without proper boundaries, lawyers can be overwhelmed by the trauma and stress of their clients.”

— Gray Robinson, Above The Law

Normally, it is seen in the healthcare and social workers. However, lawyers can also get drained by prolonged exposure to clients struggling with trauma or stress.

Symptoms of compassion fatigue include emotional and physical exhaustion, anger, irritability, addiction to mood-enhancing drugs, career burnout, and impaired judgment.

Compassion fatigue can cause an existential crisis when everything in their career and life seems to look meaningless. Some lawyers, for this reason, the profession much sooner than expected.

How Can Lawyer Happiness Be Improved?

There are four realistic ways that lawyer happiness can be improved:

1. Social Support Networks

The legal profession is largely a game of one-upmanship. So, maybe more than any other professional, they must try to build and maintain strong, supportive social networks outside of work.

Spend time with people who have nothing to do with the legal profession. This could help open new perspectives on your issues, and cultivate new ways of learning, understanding, and handling stress.

Every day, check in with your family, best friends, and other loved ones. Reconnect with people you lost touch, but loved to be, with.

2. Mandatory Paid Holidays

Everyone needs breaks from work to recharge their batteries. However, it is quite alarming that 32% of lawyers report they feel pressure “not” to take vacation time.

Law firms should take measures to improve their lawyers’ work-life balance and increase their happiness levels.

A great way to make sure that a lawyer on the job takes a holiday is to buy them a holiday package.

One must also avoid working vacations. It would also help if holidays were made mandatory and others in the office were barred from calling them during their vacation.

Time away from work allows people to try new things and create new brain pathways, making the brain more adaptable and creative.

"Beating Burnout at Work" Book: Interview with Author Paula Davis
Beating Burnout At Work – Paula Davis, Former Lawyer

3. Healthy Self-Care Routines

Self-care could mean developing interests outside of your career and going after a long-neglected passion. Make it a point to habitually engage in non-work-related hobbies and leisure activities.

Danielle Caminiti, a New York attorney for two decades, reinvented herself during the 2020 pandemic. Her cookbook, From Courtroom to Cucina: 70 Authentic Recipes That Took Me From Litigation to Salivation, inspired by her Italian heritage, received a lot of love from the readers.

Self-care could mean finding experiences that give you healthy joy and practicing them daily, like a daily habit of exercising, taking barefoot walks on the morning grass, or watching your old vacation pictures.

Focus on the big-picture benefits of living a balanced life, and you’ll go a long way toward prospering in your working environment.

Make your mental health a priority. Take care to reduce your mental load through meditative practices like mindfulness meditation, meditative dance, or meditative art.

[Mindfulness Meditation In Easy Steps (You Can Do It In Just 3 Minutes)]

4. Remote Work

Allowing lawyers to work from remote locations can cut the time of commuting, reduce their expenses, decrease their work stress, and increase employee satisfaction.

Employees who work from home have more control over their work environs, such as not having to waste time on water cooler chit-chat and office gossip.

According to Pennsylvania State University research, remote work does not blur the lines between work and family. In fact, it reduces the conflicts that typically occur between work and family life.

It also leads to better relationships between employees and their managers and coworkers, provided they keep regular contact.

Employees who work from home are also far less likely to quit. This white paper from Thomson Reuters discusses effective ways to employ virtual engagement with clients: Six Ways Firms Can Win With Legal Technology In An Uncertain Market.

Of course, remote work is not an option for court appearance days or client meetings that require face-to-face conversations.

One last bit of advice for unhappy lawyers: talk to someone when you’re feeling overwhelmed, whether it’s a colleague, a lawyer mentor, or a mental health professional.

Final Words

Lawyers have higher levels of anxiety, depression, alcoholism, and suicidality than the general populace. Those are heartbreaking facts.

Who can deny that our attitudes toward them cause their mental health conditions, at least in part, rather than only their professional attitude?

Miguel Ángel Campos, University of Alicante, analyzed the practical structure of lawyer jokes to discover that a cultural stereotype exists portraying the profession as dishonest (Campos, 2016. Lawyers, great lawyers, and liars: The metapragmatics of lying in lawyer jokes).

Don’t you think it’s time we gave them a break from all the harsh judgment, or at the very least see them as vulnerable people dealing with negative issues of humankind?

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When it comes to mental well-being, you don't have to do it alone. Going to therapy to feel better is a positive choice. Therapists can help you work through your trauma triggers and emotional patterns.