When I entered the legal profession in 1989, I was bound to “make a difference” in the world, helping those at the lower rungs of society at what was surely the lowest time in their lives. While my family had cherished the idea that I would take my place among the prestigious ranks of high-paid lawyers, I had chosen to represent impoverished individuals at the crumbling local legal aid office. My choice of vocation—based upon internal values, rather than on external factors of prestige and profit—did not meet with their approval, nor did it appear to be the preferred path of the legal profession.
Thirty years later, the benefits of making a vocational choice based on purpose rather than profit are now demonstrated in research. In their 2015 study “What Makes Lawyers Happy,” law professor Larry Krieger and researcher Ken Sheldon conclude that “…the psychological factors seen to erode during law school are the very factors most important for the well-being of lawyers. Conversely … the factors most emphasized in law schools—grades, honors, and potential career income, have nil to modest bearing on lawyer well-being.” Their research shows that, when it comes to creating happiness, the external factors of power, prestige and six-figure salaries are inferior to meaningful work, service to a greater good, authenticity, integrity, and connection.
Looking at the other side of life satisfaction, Krieger and Sheldon find that many lawyers experience low levels of well-being, a malaise of an unsatisfactory life. Their findings are confirmed by a 2015 landmark study of 13,000 American lawyers, in which researchers found that 21% of lawyers surveyed were engaged in problematic drinking, and 28% were experiencing symptoms of depression. Most recently, a study published by the Harvard Business Review found that lawyers were the loneliest and most socially disconnected of all professions.
When I step back and look at this profession—so bound up in prestige and yet so beset by distress—I clearly see a connection between the two. Given the strong correlation, I believe that helping lawyers discern and live by their own internal values would be an effective strategy for countering the negative state of affairs in the legal profession. Specifically, an intentional focus on meaning and purpose could be a corrective to lawyer burnout and part of an overall approach to staving off more serious disorders. Reversing burnout—a condition characterized by disengagement—could presumably be achieved by helping a lawyer reconnect with internal motivators and then re-engage in the practice.
Occupational theorists have found meaningfulness to be a top motivator and the biggest contributor to engagement. To experience work as meaningful means that “we believe it matters and is valuable and that it contributes to personal growth and the greater good,” as Anne Brafford has said. While meaningfulness at work serves to protect individuals against the deleterious effects of chronic stress, it also serves to promote the interests of the business. Conditions tied to success—such as higher job performance and satisfaction, greater effort, lower stress, and less turnover—are positively impacted by highly engaged employees. Paying attention to meaning has the potential to boost both a lawyer’s life satisfaction and her law firm’s bottom line.
Spiritual Self-Inquiry and the Lawyer
Richard A. Roof, a researcher and author on the nexus of spirituality and engagement, asserts that spirituality in the work world “offers the hope of making a difference, not just a living.” Spirituality in the workplace is described by psychologist Craig E. Johnson as the idea that workers have an inner life that is nourished by meaningful work. In the context of this article, spirituality relates to the discovery and alignment of our true inner selves, our individual passions, and gifts, with the needs of the external world. Undoubtedly, some members of the legal profession will scoff at the idea of bringing the spiritual—regardless of how broadly defined—into the secular sphere of the workplace. This view, I believe, conspires to keep the profession bound to metrics measured in prestige, a valuation that leads more often to dissatisfaction.
When looking at the issue of lawyer malaise through the lens of spirituality, we are immediately drawn into a query that relates directly to the heart of one’s true self. The process of discovering a vocation (a word with origins in the Latin vocare, which means “to call” or “calling”) takes one beyond consideration of occupation. Instead, it pulls us into questions that are classic prompts in vocational self-examination: Who am I? and What is my life’s story? This discernment experience demands courage (to look at unfavorable things about ourselves and the world), patience (because insight cannot be relied upon to come quickly), and perseverance (to continue the discernment process in spite of setbacks and dry spells devoid of inspiration). And yet, despite the demands of discernment, the rewards of deeper and more meaningful connection to one’s purpose and vocation are assuredly worth the work.
Tools for Self-Inquiry
Meditation and mindfulness. The practice of self-inquiry requires space and time for solitude and quiet. Thankfully, in 2018, guides to meditation and mindfulness are replete in popular culture. Courses, articles, seminars, and smartphone apps abound to teach practices that keep the mind tethered to present experience. In short, this practice is an ancient technique for quieting—or at least slowing—the mind so you can engage in contemplation. Individual sessions with a teacher or even group retreats away from the interruptions of daily life, can be settings for learning and practicing a variety of means to live in the moment.
Contemplating vocation. Spiritual self-inquiry should include periodic contemplation of how your gifts align with the current needs of the world. To do this, ask yourself: What is the fit between my abilities and a need in the world right now? In my case, I had a strong intellect and a passion to right the wrongs of an unjust society, qualities that found fulfillment when matched with the needs of my legal aid clients. To paraphrase theologian Frederick Buechner, I had found the place where my “deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” From a secular point of view, positive psychology researcher Martin Seligman advocates focusing on the identification and cultivation of signature strengths utilized in the workplace. His research shows that workers who used their signature strengths daily were significantly happier and less depressed.
Chronicling meaningful acts. One can look for meaning in daily life by chronicling how actions benefit the greater good and fit into a broader framework of meaning. Remember the oft-quoted story of President Kennedy and the NASA janitor? When asked about his job at the space agency, the cleaning man famously replied, “Well, Mr. President. I’m helping put a man on the moon.” In much the same spirit, one could imagine how work makes a difference in the lives of clients, not just today but in years to come. In my own work, I could quickly slip into viewing the repetitious drafting of child visitation orders as numbing unless I considered how the orderly transition between households could spare the children of divorce years of anxiety and chaos.
In the “Power of Purpose,” author Richard J. Leider writes that it “is our deepest dimension … and is a continuous activity, [these]questions we ask over and over again…. It’s a process for listening and shaping our life’s stories.” My professional life’s story has been driven by purpose and meaning. Certainly, focusing on the reduction of suffering of others—either as a legal aid family law attorney or in my current role assisting lawyers who suffer from variable impairments—has brought its own measure of suffering to me. Nevertheless, the satisfaction gained from living out my life’s purpose has served as a balm and a cure. Thirty years after entering the legal profession, my life’s story continues, informed by listening—ever so closely—for where my purpose might next take hold and bloom.
About the Author
Bree Buchanan is the director of the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program and is chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs and co-chair of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-being.