Friday, May 13, 2011

The Upward Spiral Revisited

It may or may not surprise you to learn that lawyers leave the profession at almost the same rate that they enter it. In fact, a recent survey of lawyers determined that a large percentage of them are unhappy, with one-third of lawyers indicating they would leave the profession if they could. Why? Their contrary, pessimistic and bombastic style (and that of their colleagues), 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, I have just finished in this Spring 2011 semester leading my first class of undergraduate students at Florida Institute of Technology as Professor of Introduction to Law and will teach the course again in the Fall. I was charged with enlightening students about what law is, what lawyers and judges do, and how they interact with the rest of our society. My goal was to get them excited about the law. And, though there is plenty to get excited about, I also felt obligated to inform them about the many challenges lawyers face. Before my first day, I was concerned about what I could tell them that wouldn’t send them screaming for the classroom door or have them contemplating pre-med instead of a pre-law concentration.  I asked myself what I could tell them so that if and when they did become lawyers some day, they wouldn’t suffer the same fate as thousands of burned-out and unhappy legal practitioners.

I 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 (, 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.

At the end of the Spring semester, a few of my students indicated to me that they had been inspired to apply to law school. Knowing the quality of their work in my class I am hopeful both for them and for the legal profession. My hope is that more bright and promising young people will find happiness inside the legal profession. After all, there are rights out there that need to be protected.

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