Lawyers, Happiness and Blue Hawaii

Recently, I wrote about the challenges of dealing with corporate legal departments. Several of you wrote in response to tell me horror stories dealing with various members of the profession I call my own. That is OK, I love hearing from you and I understand that we lawyers, sometimes, are “difficult” (and the pope is, in fact, of a specific religion). It might come as a surprise to you, though, and help you in your interactions with the folks in legal, if I told you lawyers want the same things out of their lives and work as you do.

Happiness. Meaning. Engagement.

Yes, the same person who just shot down your latest initiative because it was “illegal,” or some stupid thing like that, at heart wants to be part of your team, celebrate business triumphs with you, hang out and laugh with you, and participate in all the fun team building things you get to do in HR.

Lawyers just don’t express it very well.

Last week I attended the Law and Society International Conference, a global gathering of legal scholars and social scientists, in Honolulu. Honolulu may be a travel cliche, but as cliches go, it is a pretty darn good one. Sure, Waikiki reminds me a bit of Las Vegas, but it is mellower, without slot machines and the greedy, cynical nihilism. More Don Ho than Rat Pack. You may have heard it has a pretty good ocean to boot. Once you drive north from Honolulu, it is a wondrous combination of mountain cliffs, micro-climates and world-class surfing. And if you look hard enough, cheap happy hour Mai Tais.

The speaking panel I was a part of was called “Happiness, Engagement and Meaning in the Law,” and it was one of the more well-attended of the conference, no mean feat given the temptations of pool and surf. I was privileged to be on it with some wonderful humans: Peter Huang, Todd Peterson, Rhonda Magee, Marjorie Silver and Lorenn Walker. All of these people are doing great things in the law, the academy and society, but none of us had illusions that the full room was because of us. It was our topic.

A lawyer’s job can be a lonely one. According to most research, including some we are conducting at the University of Pennsylvania, lawyers are lower in emotional intelligence than most groups and more introverted. Making friends – at home or work – does not come easily to lawyers. As the legendary jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes once noted, sometimes the loneliness of practicing law “gnaws from within . . . like a rat.” No wonder  people showed up and listened intently for two hours.

Did we share the secret of happiness? Of course not; none of us has the answer to a question that has challenged mankind throughout its history. Quieting the rat is no easy task. However, one common theme emerged from our collective remarks, if indirectly – the importance in life of doing something that matters to you for its own sake, not for what it represents. Psychologists refer to this as intrinsic motivation, and it strongly correlates with good outcomes at work and home. (We have discussed this in past columns).

Unfortunately, many people go to law school and enter the profession solely for extrinsic reasons: a big paycheck, to please their parents, to have something impressive to chat about at sorority mixers (ahem). It is not surprising once the glow of accomplishment wears off, and the praise and admiration of others dim, that these individuals find themselves alone. And according to most research, lawyers are more prone to depression and other psycho-social ills than those in other occupations.

The lessons? For would-be lawyers, don’t go to law school unless you WANT TO BE A LAWYER. That can mean different things, but it is a wonderful, rewarding and helping profession in its many variations if you choose your career path carefully. For the rest of you, stop what you are doing right now! Examine. Reflect. Are you living a life of meaning? It need not be profound in a “save the world” sense, just of importance to you and someone else. Is it a reflection of who you are? Are you doing it because you are intrinsically motivated? Or just to pay the bills?

The answer will tell you a lot. If you hate your job, don’t whine. Quit. Take charge of your life. As poet James Dickey said, “If your life bores you, risk it.” Follow Melville’s advice and go to sea. Work at a snack bar in the islands. Or the mountains. Volunteer at a shelter. Start a hedge fund, go back to school, look for a transfer. Leave the country. Move back in with  your parents (Bowling children, stop reading right now). Change direction. Just don’t get stuck doing something you hate if you are looking for happiness in work and life.

Maybe I will see you in Hawaii. Aloha.