I thought this would be something interesting for my lawyer friends to read. Do you agree with the author?
Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist and proponent of “positive psychology,” observes that lawyers experience depression at rates that are 3.6 times as high as that of other employed people. They also abuse alcohol and illegal drugs at rates above what’s seen in non-lawyers. Why is this? In part, he says, the law selects people with a glass-half-empty attitude. His research has found that people who score low on an optimism test do better in law school. “Pessimism,” he writes,
is seen as a plus among lawyers, because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudence. A prudent perspective enables a good lawyer to see every conceivable snare and catastrophe that might occur in any transaction. The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that non-lawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities. If you don’t have this prudence to begin with, law school will seek to teach it to you. Unfortunately, though, a trait that makes you good at your profession does not always make you a happy human being.
To counter unhappiness in law firms — and more than half of all lawyers say they are dissatisfied with their jobs — Seligman proposes letting people spend five hours a week on tasks that play to personal strengths that are not always appreciated by the profession. The list of such qualities, however, is enough to make you run in the opposite direction from law school. “Take Samantha’s enthusiasm,” he writes, “a strength for which there is usually little use in law …”
Oy. His proposed solution is to have Samantha “work with the firm’s public relation agency on designing and writing promotional materials.”
Of course, it would be substantially cheaper to have communications professionals do the same work, which gets to the heart of the problem. Lawyers are well compensated for the work that makes them miserable. To the extent they move away from the work that is their firms’ bread and butter, the less they warrant the high salaries that offer (some) recompense for their unhappiness. Seligman offers more-plausible examples of ways that tasks in firms could be reshuffled to reduce the drudgery: Give an associate with a great deal of “valor” a break from drafting briefs and have him team up with a star litigator, for example, to prepare for an upcoming trial.
But surely such exciting work is in short supply; everyone would like the task Seligman mentions. I can’t help but be pessimistic about the prospects of reducing lawyerly negativity.