Beyond Balance: How Women Lawyers Can Find Happiness at Work

Susan sat down in a chair in our office, put her head in her hands and said, “I need you to help me get out. I am so miserable I don’t know what to do. I’m not doing the work I thought I would be and I’m not being the best parent I want to be either. I am taking client calls at 8 p.m. when I should be reading my kids a book before bed. I want a totally new career… I’ve been thinking about becoming a nurse or opening up a bakery.”

Susan is a top-performing partner at a prestigious New York law firm and is thoroughly unhappy. Many women lawyers come to us with similar stories, but the truth of the matter is that working at a large firm is hard, for men and women. With the demands of billing hours, committee meetings, servicing clients who want access 24/7, and bringing in new business, they often feel unhappy because they are surviving but not thriving at work. We find this to be the case even if a firm has progressive family friendly policies such as flex time and paid parental leave. In fact, women lawyers are particularly unhappy, and have told us that when they do take advantage of something like flex time, they feel they are marginalized onto a “mommy track” and penalized at compensation time. So although attempts to achieve work life balance may be helpful, we have seen firsthand, as well as from statistics, that women attorneys continue to be unhappy in law firms, and frequently leave before they make partner. By shifting the focus to what is meaningful about the work women lawyers do and what aspects of it make them happy, women can thrive in a law firm setting.

Research from Positive Psychology reveals that what matters most in job satisfaction is the nature of the actual work you are doing and who you are doing it with. These things matter much more than the numbers of hours you spend and where you spend them. We find that when women lawyers align the work they are doing with their greatest skills and strengths, as well as their values, they thrive regardless of the challenges.

Positive Psychology, according to its founder, University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman, is “the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.” When positive psychology strategies are applied to our careers, not only can we become happier in our work life, but we can be more productive as well.

Susan had what many lawyers considered better work-life balance than most partners. She came into the office four days a week. She used her fifth day to occasionally participate in her children’s school, serve on the board of a domestic violence shelter, and fit in a manicure or haircut. From the outside looking in, it looked like she had achieved a very good work-life balance. But this wasn’t actually the case. On the fifth day, Susan was still revising contracts, participating in conference calls, and responding to emails from clients and her colleagues. And her days in the office grew longer and longer. In addition, she confessed that she wasn’t that happy with most of the work itself. She had developed an expertise in an area of the law that she found tedious, and that isolated her from partners she enjoyed interacting with. But because she had developed this expertise, and became known in the firm for it, she was attracting more and more of this work that didn’t interest her. So when Susan came to see us looking for a career change, we asked her to take a step back. We wanted Susan to be able to revisit her reasons for becoming an attorney in the first place, to uncover the skills and strengths she enjoyed using in her work, and to envision the kind of environment that would allow her to thrive.

Positive Psychology offers strategies to help women see the work they are doing and the opportunities available to them in new ways. We help them uncover the skills that make them feel most alive when they use them, the strengths that reflect who they truly are, and experiences where they have felt energized or fully engaged. We help them to see whether their values align with the work they are doing work. Together, we shift from a mindset of discouragement and negativity to one that is open to creating meaningful, rewarding work that relies on their strengths, within the law firm setting.

Shifting your mindset is not a matter of willpower, or creating a positive mantra. It is a process that takes several steps and deliberate action.

We began by asking Susan to think back to when she graduated from college and was applying to law school. What drew her to the profession? Did she have a vision of what she would be doing when she was an attorney? What did she hope to achieve? What did she imagine her colleagues would be like and how they would work together? Susan remembered that she became a lawyer so that she could help people. She didn’t know exactly what that would look like, but felt that the law was a powerful way to do that. She did not come from a wealthy family, had put herself through college and law school, and wanted to achieve financial security.

Then we began to uncover the skills, strengths and experiences that she loved to use and where she felt most engaged. We asked her some questions: When you look back over the course of your entire life, not just your paid work life, what experiences did you most enjoy? And what skills and strengths were you using? What type of activities are you doing when you feel you are “in the flow”? These kind of questions remind of us of situations where we genuinely thrive, and open the door to possibilities for creating that again, whether in a new situation or our current work life.

Susan remembered that she loved public speaking and teaching. When she was in law school, she taught an undergraduate course in criminal justice and loved it. It tied into her value of helping people. Her current job didn’t require any public speaking- she was primarily drafting contracts. But she realized that those opportunities did exist for partners in her firm. She just needed to seek them out. This was a turning point for her. Not only did she seek out this opportunity and eventually speak at a large national conference, but it was so well-received that her work began to evolve. She went from being isolated, primarily drafting contracts in a very niche area, to collaborating with new partners she enjoyed more and working on more diverse projects. She continued to get opportunities to present and speak. Susan’s work became much more meaningful and satisfying to her, despite the long hours. She no longer considered opening up a bakery.

Lawyers have a natural tendency to focus on the negative and are trained to identify problems. This kind of thinking keeps people stuck. But positive psychology offers strategies for shifting a negative mindset to a place where possibilities open up. Sometimes, taking one step in a new direction can ripple out into a series of positive changes. This can allow lawyers to create a work life that makes them feel happier day to day.

Women lawyers often think that they will be happier if they achieve greater work-life balance, and frequently consider leaving their law firm jobs to in order to attain that. But you don’t have to leave your law firm to be happier in your job. Regardless of the number of hours spent at work, what matters most to happiness is aligning the work you do with the skills and strengths you love to use the most, and the values that matter to you.

About the Authors


Sharon O’ConnorKaren Hoffman, and Dale Sokoloff are the founders and principals of DKS Consulting Group, which provides executive coaching to attorneys on career development, and advises law firms on people management strategies.

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