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What makes lawyers happy? | Jo-Anne Stark

Thursday, September 09, 2021 @ 9:37 AM | By Jo-Anne Stark

Jo-Anne Stark %>
Jo-Anne Stark
Dear Jo: I’m struggling at work almost every day — trying to keep up with client expectations, heavy court schedules and the office politics. When I decided to go into law, I thought things would be much different. I want to help people, but it is becoming more and more difficult to do that, I feel as though I am simply treading water most days. Help!

This is a common sentiment of many of my colleagues over the years. Why is it that we invest so many years going to school and writing stressful exams, only to find ourselves years later struggling to make it through each day? It is no wonder that many lawyers leave the profession after only a few short years.

In 2015, the George Washington Law Review published a study about what makes lawyers happy. In this study, researchers wanted to understand why so many lawyers were feeling disconnected and unhappy — which was leading to high rates of depression, anxiety and excessive use of drugs or alcohol. Although one might think that the extrinsic rewards of a legal profession — a fancy office, high salary, making partner, prestige — would increase happiness for lawyers, what the study revealed was that lawyers generally felt happier if they:

  • had autonomy and were more authentic (working with integrity);
  • felt well-connected to others — a sense of relatedness; and
  • were competent and felt successful at difficult tasks

Those lawyers who experienced fewer of these things, did not rate themselves as happy in this study.

Martin Seligman is a psychologist who has spent his career studying what makes people flourish and how people can be happier in their lives. His research into positive psychology has been empirically proven, and he concludes that there are five key elements to “well-being” which he calls PERMA:

  • Positive emotion — this is the pleasant life — it can be fleeting moments of joy, pleasure and contentment
  • Engagement — being totally in the “flow,” absorbed by a task or activity where time and consciousness seem to cease
  • Relationships — the presence of friends, family and other social connections
  • Meaning — belonging to and serving something bigger than yourself; acts of charity or promoting social causes, and
  • Achievement — having goals and achieving those goals.

Professional coaches often use positive psychology to motivate clients to achieve their goals and to become more empowered. As a legal coach, I am constantly monitoring the degree of happiness with my clients and adjusting our sessions so that they can achieve their goals and manage their legal matters. However, in many respects, positive psychology also gives me tools to practise law in a way that allows me to flourish as a lawyer.

I spent many years in private practice and as in-house counsel, but it wasn’t until I began coaching self-represented litigants that I found a way to enjoy my profession and connect with clients more. In fact, legal coaching checks all the PERMA boxes! By coaching clients through their legal issues, I have learned ways to connect more closely to my clients through regular sessions and by partnering with them as they navigate the legal system (relationships). I feel very engaged during the sessions, where I can finally focus more on the client instead of only the legal problem (engagement). As a legal coach, I believe that I am improving access to justice by providing affordable legal services to self-represented litigants (meaning). Lastly, I share in the joy when clients achieve their personal goals (positive emotion and achievement). 

Legal coaching is a new type of limited legal service that not only leaves clients more satisfied, but which also opens the door for lawyers to find a way to enjoy their profession.

Jo-Anne Stark, B.Comm., J.D., CLC, is the founding president of the non-profit Legal Coaches Association and author of Mastering the Art of Legal Coaching. Find her on LinkedIn.

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