I’m a Happy Lawyer, Why Aren’t You?


Q First of all, I actually read your column but mostly for the occasional humor and to hear about situations that lawyers get themselves into. But I don’t read it for advice because I’m what you call a happy lawyer. I like what I do, love the practice of law (family law mostly), and enjoy working with my colleagues. Plus, I get paid fairly well in my market.

No, I’m not fresh out of school and, yes, I have student loan debt, plenty of it. But I’m happy because I wanted to be a lawyer and am now a lawyer and loving it for three reasons: 1) it’s challenging; 2) I like solving problems; and 3) people respect me. So, my question: why aren’t you happy? Or, maybe put it this way: what makes lawyers so unhappy?

A Who says I’m unhappy? My nom de guerre is Ex-Bitter, emphasis on the Ex. Meaning I was bitter but no longer. While I’m still a lawyer, I’m no longer bitter because 1) the practice of law does not take up 95% of my life; 2) I wear flip flops to my office; and 3) I’m not dealing with Type A nutjob partners and colleagues who go apeshit over typos, office politics, and #winning. In other words, I’m not in a big law firm. Or any law firm, I guess.

But all the power to ya, Happy. In fact, I’ve texted you an emoticon to carry you through the day, as I’m sure you have a few of these on your desk and other successories hanging around your office.

Seriously, though, what makes us so unhappy? My guess is that the practice of law suffers from one overriding principle: it overpromises and underdelivers. And that overpromise starts way back before you go to law school. We throw around words like justice and respect and “the profession”—all of which also, surprisingly and purportedly—provide access to vast sums of money. Few if any of those materialize and most lawyers find themselves dealing later with the gray minutiae of the law, 12-16 hour workdays, and being treated like shit by opposing counsel and some colleagues, who are hard-wired by “the profession” to win. Who wants that, at any price?

But if I were to pick the top three things that make most of us lawyers unhappy (besides lack of clients), it would be:

  1. Lack of Control (or, to use a buzzword of your generation, the lack of a true “work-life balance“)
  2. Cost of Living. Whether you are a highly-paid associate or just a lawyer skimming by, a lot of lawyers are trapped by living the dream. Either they cannot get out of a job because the financial hit will kill them (though I call bullshit on this one, just do it) or they are so indebted that no other real options are available except to work shitlaw jobs for years to pay the debt down. Not that appetizing.
  3. Lack of Civility. While the snarks among us poo-poo the concept of civility, the lack of civility within the legal profession really is one of the primary things that make the practice of law a true suckfest.

If you can conquer one or two of these (and sounds like that you may have done so, at least so far), then the practice of law will be a lot less bitter. If you can’t, my suggestion would be to get out before it destroys you, because it will. Oh, and thanks for the mention of my “occasional humor.” I’ll take what I can get.

Post image from Shutterstock.com

Ex-Bitter is a former big firm lawyer who now doles out advice to anyone who asks. Got a question? Email it to advice@bitterlawyer.com. Or read more Advice from an Ex-Bitter.

6 Comments

  1. Law Chick

    May 25, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Nice article.

    • Frank

      May 26, 2012 at 10:47 pm

      NIce chick?

  2. Evil Lawyer

    May 25, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    What makes a happy lawyer?

    1. Being old enough to sail-for now at least-above the economy.

    2. Being able to do all the formerly inaccessible long-legged paralegals and younger associates who now tremble at potential unemployment (just kidding..or am I?)

    3. Knowing what “civility” means. If the courts wanted real civility, they’d (a) dump the useless non-working judges who never read the papers; (b) extend the time to trial to 18-22 months so we all had time to take vacations (that those of us without state pensions have trouble taking).

    “Civility” is Judge and State Bar Code for “Now that we’ve compressed the time to trial, threatened you with mandatory pro bono, (from which we judges and professors are exempt), added more annoying rules to be followed, hiked bar fees, added more silly CLE courses we don’t have to take, etc. we expect you to be civil about it. Just like shop workers were in the 1930′s.

    “civility” often means to write a lot of letters being “civil” that you can attach to your motions later on.

    4. Knowing the tricky procedural rules well enough to torment the other side from day one .

    5. Knowing that when I went to law school, most of the professors had actually practiced law somewhere, and were not Phd’s , even if they had only written memos for 2 years.

    6. Knowing that “pro bono” is something that for the most part, is affordable only by large firms, that can pay a clueless associate to work on a prisoner’s case for 2 years, at the expense of all the other clients and lawyers, just before he’s laid off with no real civil experience.

  3. Trevor Fulano

    May 30, 2012 at 4:19 am

    Great article and happy to hear that you are a happy lawyer. I can’t agree more with your list of things which make us an unhappy bunch. When speaking about civility, I’d like to add the lack of ethics (which one naively thought to be a high value good when being a young law student) especially in the contract attorney and document review side of the legal profession. May it be an internal cause by frustrated and underappreciated contract attorneys or an more extrenal cause such as lawfirms milking the clients to the end by overrunning and less than well managing reviews. Rant over….

  4. LOOK

    April 1, 2013 at 11:09 am

    A happy lawyer does not confess the harm of their reputation via U.S. Mail Certified. The attorney, Jeanne V. Barron associated with Raftery, Janeczek & Hoelschner (Farmington Hills, MI) and Law Office of Jeanne Vallez Barron (Lathrup Village, MI) apparently is not a happy lawyer.

  5. Marcie H

    April 16, 2013 at 1:15 am

    I am a happy lawyer. At the end of the day, while it is tough, I know how to fix people’s problems. I am a legal aid lawyer – yea money not so much – but I consider my skills set a gift. Lame but true!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>