Life, Liberty and Happiness in Law
by David J Bilinsky
Yeah, city folk drivin’ in a black limousine
A lotta sad people thinkin’ that’s mighty keen
Well, folks let me tell you now exactly what I mean...
Words and Music by John Martin Sommers
Recorded by John Denver
You walk into the office and are hit with a barrage of telephone call messages, cell phone voice mails, e-mails, letters and faxes from clients and lawyers who can be demanding, and at times, even insolent or rude. Then there is the daily mix of appointments, billable time quotas, unending office meetings, business lunches, community meetings – all of which are in the nouveau context of balancing home and office life. You think to yourself, “Are we having fun yet?”
Is happiness a legitimate management objective? Certainly the drafters of the US Declaration of Independence thought so “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” was one of their unalienable rights. In France they seem to agree “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” is their motto – assuming that people fraternise for the purposes of positive social experiences. yet in the Canadian approach, “Life, Liberty and Security of the Person”, neither fraternity nor happiness makes an appearance.
Certainly graduating from a top law school is no guarantee of happiness. Esquire magazine’s August 2000 issue published the article “Who’s Killing the Great Lawyers of Harvard?” by Robert Kurson. The article states that approximately a quarter of the Harvard Law Class of 1990 – those that haven’t fantasized about being a clerk at Barnes & Noble and the like – have forsaken their degrees and found other work. Kurson also cites an article from the Vanderbilt Law Review by Patrick Schiltz on the overwork, depression, suicide, mental illness and general misery found in the law.
So the question is, how do we achieve happiness in law? Aristotle said “Happiness is an expression of the soul in considered actions”. Here is a selection of suggested considered actions to achieve happiness in the practice of law:
M. Diane Vogt and Lori-Ann Rickard have just written Keeping Good Lawyers – Best Practices to Create Career Satisfaction (available at www.abanet.org/lpm). This book contains many suggestions for attaining satisfaction within the practice of law. Central tenet: Responsibility for designing a successful legal career is the lawyer’s alone. Career design and career building are the best strategies for avoiding burnout and boredom.
Never stop dreaming – dreams are your inner voice. Listen to that voice and give it space. Decide if your dreams will lead you to a happier existence – and if so, follow them – even if it is just a little bit each day.
Vogt and Rickard advise you to develop expertise in an area that will provide you with an exciting, stimulating career. They further say that you need time to reach out to your goals – recognize that Rome wasn’t built in a day.
I was once told by an award-winning photographer that you couldn’t take a truly outstanding photograph unless you had a passion for the subject in question. How many of us have a passion for our practice? Is there an area of law that drives you? Can you graft doing some of that interesting work onto your current practice? Is it realistic to plan to move your practice entirely to this area? If not, can you achieve satisfaction by mixing your current work with your personal interest area?
Every journey begins with a single step. What can you do today to bring you closer to your goals and interests in the law? Do it now!
Choose to Be Happy
Rick Foster and Greg Hicks have written How We Choose to be Happy: The Nine Choices of Extremely Happy People. They put forward nine life choices they have found are shared by those ranked to be happy. Let us explore their implications in the practice of law:
- Intention: This is not simply the desire to be happy but the intent to be happy. How many of us actively intend to be happy in the practice of law?
- Accountability: Here we assume full personal responsibility for our actions, thoughts and feelings and refuse to blame others for our own unhappiness. Due to our training in seeking fault, this one may give us some difficulty.
- Identification: This is the ongoing process of identifying what makes us truly, deeply happy. This may be difficult – as lawyers we identify with our clients and their cases and tend to submerge our own lives as a result.
- Centrality: This is defined as the non-negotiable insistence on making happiness a central activity in life. Contrast this with making billable hours a central activity in life for economic or other reasons.
- Recasting: The choice to turn problems into opportunities and challenges. Lawyers should be adept at this.
- Creation of Options and Possibilities: This is a decision to approach life by being open to any new possibilities and of taking a flexible approach to life’s journey. Unfortunately, law is a conservative profession and one that has been heavily steeped in precedent. From a pure cultural standpoint this may present a bit of a challenge to us.
- Appreciation and Aliveness: A characteristic of happy people is that they actively appreciate their lives and express gratitude and thanks to the people around them.
- Giving: This is the act of sharing yourself without the expectation of a “return on investment”. Notwithstanding comments made elsewhere, lawyers, in my experience, are very considerate with giving their time and talents.
- Truthfulness: Happy people speak their truth in an accountable manner, enforce personal boundaries and will not conform to the demands of society if it violates their personal belief system.
Considered action is the hallmark of lawyers – I trust we can take steps to achieve a greater degree of happiness that doesn’t lead to taking a clerkship at Barnes & Noble, as honourable a career as that may be.
David Bilinsky’s “Amicus Attorney® in One Hour for Lawyers Version IV” is now available at www.abanet.org/lpm/catalog. Described as “clear, concise information...this guide, divided into five easy lessons, is the fastest way to get up and running with this popular time management software. Includes more than 100 screen shots that support the book’s easy explanations, as well as a variety of real-world examples”. For more information, or to order this publication, please visit www.abanet.org/lpm/catalog.
The views expressed herein are strictly those of the author and may not be shared by the author’s employer, the Law Society of BC. David J Bilinsky is the Practice Management Advisor at the Law Society of BC. Email: email@example.com
This article originally appeared in the August 2000 issue of BarTalk and is reproduced here with permission of both the author and the Canadian Bar Association, British Columbia Branch.