What Makes Lawyers Happy? Wellness Program Instructs Students on Well-Being

What makes lawyers — and law students — happy?

“Lawyer happiness is not correlated with extrinsic factors,” said Charity Scott, the Catherine C. Henson Professor of Law. “Income, class rank, whether you made Law Review—those things don’t correlate with happiness for lawyers in practice. Ironically, these factors are probably the very things that are causing you stress while in law school. Excessive focus on these external factors is not going to contribute to your long-term happiness—in fact, it may reduce your short-term happiness.”

Scott and Plamen Russev (J.D. ’03), transactional attorney and chair of the Mental Well-Being Subcommittee of the State Bar of Georgia, led students through an exercise to determine how to maximize their well-being based on their core values in the first session of a new wellness series.

The seven-week program, “From Busy to Balanced: Designing Your Life to Live it Well,” includes weekly interactive and informative lunch sessions as well as challenges that encourage students to engage in healthy lifestyles.

Achieving wellness is not just about finding a work-life balance, Scott said. Rather, it’s a multidimensional approach that includes integrating mental health, professional well-being, intellectual well-being, physical health, social and emotional well-being and financial well-being, all to be addressed through the lens of each student’s own inner values and sense of purpose in life. A person’s sense of balance will be continually changing as they evolve and as circumstances change.

While that balance is different for everyone, there are some commonalities in what creates a sense of well-being and happiness among lawyers. Scott and Russev shared a study, “What Makes Lawyers Happy? A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Personal Success” (Krieger & Sheldon), which found that a personal sense of authenticity and autonomy is the most important contributing factor to lawyers’ happiness (called “subjective well-being” in the study).

Lawyers crave work that is meaningful and challenging, and want to know that they are doing well in their jobs, Scott said. Working with people they like is also important, as well as having a sense of belonging.

“One of the big signals of well-being is your connection with others,” Scott said. “There’s a tendency in law school to lose that connection if it’s not deliberately fostered.”wellness1

Studies have also shown that law students experience a significant increase in anxiety and depression in their first year of law school. And that unhappiness tends to continue throughout law school and into their legal career, according to The Path to Lawyer Well-Being, a recent report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being.

Happiness and well-being are skills that can be developed, said Russev, a certified integral coach. Learning about wellness principles and practicing that knowledge by engaging in specific wellness tasks, creating an accountability mechanism and a support system are some of the ways to cultivate these skills.

“You are the primary person responsible for your health and well-being,” Russev said. “This idea of responsibility may seem heavy and stressful, but I suggest being responsible for your life is profoundly freeing and empowering … it means that you get to decide which aspects of well-being you want or need to focus on at any particular time. You also get to decide what works for you in your life right now and you get to evaluate what changes to make, based on your own experience.”

In the session exercise, started to develop their own wellness plans based on identifying their core values and a self-assessment of what areas of well-being were lacking attention.

“This self-awareness is the lens that helps us understand and assess whether what we want to do and need to do aligns with our inner values. The more it is out of alignment, the more inner stress, anxiety and depression we are likely to feel,” Russev said.

Knowing what your core values are will help you make important decisions such as choosing a law firm, what type of practice you want to work in, how much time you need to spend on developing or sustaining your relationships, and more, Russev said.

He also noted that each individual’s well-being affects society’s well-being.

“By attending to your own health and well-being, you’re beginning to change how the profession is able to serve our society from a place of health, purpose and satisfaction,” Russev said. “The consequences of being happy and productive in a demanding profession are significant, both on an individual and on a societal level. Lawyer wellness has an impact on how conflict is resolved on a societal level … and if each one of us is an ailing self, then the society to which we are contributing is not going to be a very healthy society.”

In the Jan. 31 session, Raymond J. Lindholm (J.D. ’11/ M.S.H.A. ’12), an associate at Polsinelli PC and a certified Wim Hof Method instructor, taught attendees breathing techniques that have helped him successfully cope with the mental pressures of his legal practice. In the Feb. 7 session, attorneys Jeffrey R. Kuester (J.D. ’93) and Kendra F. Mitchell (J.D. ’16) will discuss substance abuse and mental health struggles.

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