Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book Review: The Upward Spiral— Getting Lawyers from Daily Misery to Lifetime Wellbeing

My brother quit the law this week. Just hung it up. The sad thing is that he was one of the greatest trial lawyers I ever met. His clients loved him. They knew he would fight for them. The juries loved him. He really knew how to captivate a courtroom. Of course, it was—and still is—impossible to win an argument with him, a trait that often affected the quality of his relationships.

He was one of the few lawyers who knew the intricacy of every rule of evidence and could effectively use them like a Samurai wields a sword. My brother really knew how to get that “not guilty” verdict. He could really sell it to them.

Yes, he was passionate about the law and believed in it. When we were growing up, he watched shows like Perry Mason and Matlock. He took it personally when someone’s rights were being violated. He was something of a crusader. He fought his battles (mostly) in the courtroom and he usually won. But his victories came at a great personal cost. He was stressed out, miserable and tired of fighting. And he’s not alone. Lawyers leave the profession at almost the same rate they enter it.

A large percentage of lawyers are unhappy with one-third indicating they would leave the profession if they could. Their contrary, pessimistic and bombastic style (and that of other lawyers), long hours, and lack of control over their lives are physically and mentally damaging to them and their families. Always having to be right. Always having to win. Always having to do a battle of words and case law with your opponents will wear you down. Is it any wonder that the rate of alcoholism and depression among lawyers is 3.6 times that of the general population? Or that the rate of suicide and divorce among lawyers is higher than in almost any other profession?

And yet law schools continue to churn out lawyers. In fact, in less than one month, I myself am going to teach my first class of pre-law students at Florida Institute of Technology as Professor of Introduction to Law. I’m supposed to teach them what law is, what lawyers do, and how they interact with the rest of our society. I’m supposed to get them excited about the law. And, though there is plenty to get excited about, won’t I also have to tell them about the challenges lawyers face? What can I tell them that won’t send them screaming for the classroom door or have them contemplate pre-med instead?  What can I tell them so that when they DO become lawyers, they won’t suffer the same fate as my brother and thousands of burned-out lawyers like him?

I think I might have found an answer in a book by Harvey Hyman, J.D., a lawyer who—after practicing plaintiff’s personal injury law for 25 years--was hospitalized for major depression with suicidal thoughts twice in 2007, but came back from the brink and into a more satisfying law practice. His book, The Upward Spiral: Getting Lawyers from Daily Misery to Lifetime Wellbeing (Lawyers’ Wellbeing, Inc., 2010) is a must read for any lawyer or would-be lawyer. Because if we are going to preserve the integrity of the legal profession, we need to start teaching lawyers to take better care of themselves. We also have to make inroads into civilizing the current adversarial and dehumanizing legal culture.

In his book, and on his website dedicated to the wellbeing of lawyers (see www.lawyerswellbeing.com), Mr. Hyman addresses head on the causes of misery for lawyers, such as the paucity of civility in the profession, the wide-spread use of destructive anger as a weapon, materialism, isolation, loneliness, negativity, formalism and the chronic stress that permeates the typical legal practice.  Mr. Hyman not only identifies problems with lawyers and the legal profession; he is also forthcoming with solutions such as having lawyers reevaluate the effectiveness of anger and the compulsion to constantly be in control. In Part II of his book, Mr. Hyman describes in detail how lawyers can create a lifetime of well-being in both their personal and professional lives, through such means as the use and practice of communication without violence, meditation, positive thinking, improving personal and professional relationships, and eating and exercising for optimal mental health.

I love the way Mr. Hyman writes. As I read his book, I found myself underlining and circling almost every other line in his book and making notes such as “so true” and “brilliant” in the margins. Even more often I made stars next to nuggets of wisdom such as “It’s crucial to recognize our responsibility for what we say” and “Try being empathic. It won’t make you less of a lawyer, and it will make you more of a human being.” I even found myself quoting him in my status updates on Facebook.  It is fascinating to me how a man can go to hell and back and talk about it in such an illuminating, honest and engaging way.

His arguments on the importance of well-being are most persuasive. It makes sense to me when he says that “Wellbeing is more important than the things our society most prizes, such as material wealth, fame and longevity of years,” which includes “genuine career satisfaction from the ethical pursuit of personally meaningful work; rich societal connectedness…that give one’s life a larger meaning than the pleasure of consumption.”  He points out the distorted thinking and oversized egos of many lawyers and their confusion of what “zealous representation” is actually supposed to mean.

He has done extensive research and presents the material in an understandable way. Mr. Hyman intends for his book to help lawyers see and treat other people—and that includes clients and other lawyers—as human beings.  What he wants is for lawyers to thrive in every area of their lives. If more lawyers are willing to listen and to implement Mr. Hyman’s strategies, I believe they would be on the road to doing just that.

As for my brother, although I hadn’t given him a copy of Mr. Hyman’s book, the last time I checked he was off spending quality time with his wife and kids and trying to find happiness as a non-lawyer. I wish him well as a recovering attorney.

Now if only we can help more lawyers find happiness inside the legal profession. After all, there are rights out there that need to be protected.

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