Teaching Lawyers About Happiness

For the past six years I have been teaching law students about happiness. Not trying to make them happier—that is the province of student health types—but what happiness is (psychological and emotional well-being) and whether it should be encouraged and pursued in the practice of law. What I have learned is that today’s students have a keen awareness of the role of happiness in their own relationships and performance, and a deep hope it can be maintained in the demanding years ahead.

What does this mean for practicing lawyers, firms and legal departments? I believe that firms and organizations that recognize and harness this desire among their younger lawyers will be the ones to thrive.


What’s up with lawyers? It is generally believed that lawyers, as a whole, are a mess. Anxious, depressed, alcoholic, even suicidal, any number of studies and reports claim that lawyers are the unhappiest of all professions. This misery is thought to begin even before law school, when pessimists with a high risk of depression enter the pressure cooker of law school and get worse as they progress. While I think many of these claims are overstated, it cannot be denied that something is not right in the lives of modern lawyers. Surprisingly, this subject is given little formal attention by law schools and legal institutions outside of a mental illness approach, focused mainly on recognition and treatment.

But is this enough? Isn’t well-being for lawyers more than just the prevention or treatment of illness? Isn’t it core to our professional and personal being, something to be encouraged and developed in lawyers as it is in other high-stress, high-performance occupations, such as athletes and CEOs?

We examine these questions at Duke in my course, “Well-being and the Practice of Law.”

The Course and What I Have Learned

The genesis of the course was a chance hallway discussion I had in 2009 with a senior member of the faculty about the psychological issues facing the profession. He suggested I propose a course on the topic. To somewhat of my surprise, it was approved.

The course is a mixture of: a) theory exploring definitions of well-being and its relationship to legal ethics and professionalism; b) analysis of the empirical research on well-being and happiness and how it relates to lawyers; and c) application of various exercises designed to improve students’ emotional awareness and well-being. It is philosophically rigorous and scientifically precise—no therapy dogs or group hugs in my class!—with serious writing and reading demands placed upon students. It is taught for full credit, and graded on a strict curve. It is in the mainstream of the law school curriculum, and if you walked in, it would look more like a contracts class than an upper-level elective. Except for the cookies my wife bakes for the class every now and then.

The course is popular and fills up the first minutes of registration every year. The students are a cross-section of Duke students, not fitting any particular mode, and I believe are a representative sample of law students at a selective school. I have read hundreds of their papers during this time and they have provided me a privileged look into the inner life of those on the cusp of entering the practice of law.

What have I learned? That they are serious, hard-working, and responsible—not the spoiled “trophy generation” portrayed in the media—yet motivated by more than a paycheck or a promotion.


Relevance to Law Firms

Based upon my experience teaching the course and working with numerous law firms and legal departments, I am absolutely convinced that well-being is a critical component of a lawyers’ professional life. Yes, a happy lawyer is a better one. Why does this seem so hard for so many lawyers and firms to understand?

A recent survey reported in Law Practice Today showed that turnover is caused as much by cultural issues as work-life ones. Most associates responding to the survey “reported they would have stayed… had (there) been a different attitude” at their firms, citing desires to feel “valued” and “respected.” “Taking the Toxic out of Toxic Firm Culture” was the article’s suggestion to improve associate morale and retention.

What is a firm to do? First, realize that many “toxic” cultures are created by a handful of individuals—usually high performers in key positions—whose obnoxious behavior is ignored by partners as long as the billable hours keep coming. Some claim this behavior is exacerbated because of a negative “lawyer personality” that makes a mastery of relationship skills impossible, but I think it is more of a lack of awareness and training (and lack of personal well-being). Until thrust into supervisory roles, many lawyers have succeeded entirely on individual wits and determination, not interpersonal skills, and don’t have a clue how to manage people—or themselves.

The good news is that a wealth of tools is available, such as leadership, resilience, and emotional intelligence training, which can help. Greg Riggs, former general counsel at Delta, suggests an individualized approach: “personal coaches (Greg is one) can help supervisory attorneys develop ‘softer’ skills directly impacting associate engagement, productivity, and retention,” says Riggs, “in a tailored and confidential way.”

Regardless of what steps organizations take to improve their culture—individual or firm wide—all need to be grounded with an awareness of the internal motivators of its younger lawyers.


What I have learned in teaching lawyers of all ages about happiness is that we are driven by the same basic human needs and desires as the rest of the humanity. Nothing about the practice of law exempts it from the rule that people perform better when they are thriving, not stressed and miserable. When more lawyers, firms, and legal institutions start acting upon this fact, we will have a happier, healthier, and better profession.

About the Author

Daniel S. Bowling, III, is senior lecturing fellow at Duke Law School and a consultant to lawyers and firms. Formerly, he was partner in a large law firm and senior VP of human resources for Coca-Cola Enterprises, Inc. He can be reached at dabowling@law.duke.edu.

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