Happiness can be described as a feeling, or a sense of contentment and joy. And to be truly happy there are a few simple things we need, according to Clarissa Rayward, Founder of Happy Lawyer Happy Life.
Health is key, but for most of us, happiness is deeply connected to moments of passion, purpose, creativity, learning, fun, play and laughter. “All of which can feel very scarce in the daily grind that can be the modern practice of law,” says Clarissa.
So how do we take what we know about the challenges, stigma and signs of poor wellbeing and take steps to become happier lawyers? Read on to find out more.
Wellbeing in the law
Being a lawyer is inherently stressful. Long work hours, heavy workloads, client pressures, and dealing with traumatic content are all part of the job.
According to the Black Dog Institute, while one in five Australians will experience a mental illness, one in three lawyers report suffering disability and distress due to depression; they do not seek help and self-medicate with alcohol.
The stigma around mental health conditions means lawyers often don’t speak up about their experiences until they reach a crisis point. This isn’t a lawyer-specific problem. Clarissa cites the lack of psychological safety in the industry, and the fear of how disclosing their symptoms will affect their ability to practice often contribute to the stigma.
For lawyers, poor mental health can manifest in many ways, including:
- Sleep issues
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Physical symptoms
- Mental ill health
In a global IBA study, nearly half of the lawyers surveyed said they opted not to discuss their mental health issues at work for fear of it negatively impacting their career.
Organisations, including law firms, are increasingly prioritising their employees’ mental health and wellbeing. Smokeball’s 2022 Australian State of Small Law and Legal Technology Report shows that 42% of small law firms surveyed said the health and wellbeing of staff was a priority for the next 12 months.
Why are lawyers so unhappy?
Lawyers aren’t known for their lax work ethic and ability to switch off, jokes Clarissa. While traits like perfectionism, attention to detail, and a strong work ethic are what make a lawyer successful, they can also contribute to feelings of increased stress, anxiety, and burnout.
Lawyers are a pessimistic bunch
According to Clarissa, many lawyers are born with the innate ability to find all that is wrong in any situation. This outlook is further honed at law school and “exploited” in the traditional practice of law.
“Sadly, our pessimism tends to extend beyond the analysis of a client contract to the interpretation of our own lives,” says Clarissa. “We often don’t just see the bad in a situation; we only ever see the bad.”
“Pessimism and unhappiness are unsurprisingly related, and so this is the beginning of the ‘unhappy lawyer.’”
It’s the nature of the work
It’s no secret that most lawyers in traditional firms are spending their days getting people out of a situation or conflict that is rarely pleasant. As a society, we turn to lawyers when something unexpected, untoward or terrible has happened with the hope they can get us out of that situation as unscathed as possible.
“As lawyers, we are doing all we can to save, protect and further the needs of our client, while our opponents are actively doing the opposite,” says Clarissa. “It is like a battlefield that keeps the contestants in a heightened state of stress. And for most lawyers, no sooner has one game successfully concluded, another one begins.”
Not surprisingly, operating in such a prolonged, heightened state isn’t conducive to happiness.
The hierarchy and tradition of this old profession
Law is a profession steeped in tradition. During the pandemic, we saw rapid amounts of change in the courts and different modes of working, but now that progress has stalled.
“Many of the traditions of my profession that are still carried on today do at times feel like they could have ended a good 100 years ago or more,” says Clarissa. “Sadly it is this unwillingness to move quickly with the times that is also fuelling much of the unhappiness of those practicing within it.”
Six superpowers of high-performing happy lawyers
How do we take what we know about the challenges, stigma and signs of poor wellbeing and take steps to become happier lawyers? According to Clarissa, there are six areas we can tap into to create a more positive outlook on life.
A recent study by Microsoft showed that the human attention span has dropped to eight seconds – shrinking nearly 25 percent in just a few years. Numerous studies have shown workers take around 25 minutes to get back to a task they were carrying out before being interrupted. In the ‘attention economy,’ it’s more challenging than ever to be fully present when so many constant distractions pull at us.
The answer? Being mindful and present. Clarissa clarifies that mindfulness doesn’t mean doing a yoga class (although that’s fine too); it’s being consciously present and giving your full attention to whatever task you are doing at that time. Not multi-tasking or checking your phone or answering emails while in meetings, or conferences like Spark.
The traditional practice of law isn’t conducive with a healthy lifestyle. Working 16-hour days tied to a desk and computer doesn’t leave much room for healthy eating, regular movement, or the necessary sleep that our brains need to function at their best. And yet, "the law is a profession where a high-performing brain is critical,” says Clarissa.
“When it comes to happy lawyers, they are healthy,” says Clarissa. “They may not be able to run a marathon (although some of them can), but looking after their health is one of their top priorities.”
Without our health, finding happiness will be difficult. “Many of us take our health for granted, but as the years go on, we quickly discover that to do much in life well, we need our bodies to function in the best possible way.”
Many of us know what we need to do to be healthier. Consume fresh, healthy food, practice good sleep hygiene, and build movement into our day, yet these wellbeing basics often get pushed to the bottom of the to-do list when life gets busy. Build healthy, sustainable habits now and your future self will thank you.
“A happy lawyer has a positive, mindful and ‘glass half full’ attitude — most of the time,” says Clarissa. “They have the capacity to see the good in most situations, are grateful for the opportunities their career has given them and are mindful of living in the moment.”
Psychologist Carol Dweck first coined the concept of growth and fixed mindsets in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. If you have a growth mindset, you believe you can gain skills and learn from challenging situations rather than simply thinking hard things can’t be done.
“Even in the difficult times, lawyers with a growth mindset see the good in the bad, practice kindness, empathy and gratitude, all of which neuroscience has shown has a significant and positive impact on our happiness,” says Clarissa.
“Your career in law is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Clarissa. “Despite the pressures in the early phases of your law career, it’s a long game.”
The benefits of continuous learning have been well documented, but what often stops us from engaging in further education is time. It’s much easier to bill another hour than take time out to learn a new language or skill. Clarissa says stretching ourselves, learning new skills, and “doing hard things” is often what separates happier, more successful people from those who tend to drift through life.
Research by Stanford University has shown that people who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. People with healthy relationships also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy, and are more trusting of others.
Brené Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued.” Brown’s research demonstrates that embracing vulnerability is a risk we must take to experience authentic connections.
As lawyers and humans, we all need to feel seen, heard and valued. Clarissa says to find your connections in “law land,” ask more questions, be curious and get comfortable with being vulnerable with other lawyers to foster relationships and help build your tribe.
If you visit Clarissa’s Brisbane office, don’t be surprised to see a bedazzled tissue box adorned with multi-coloured pom poms and sequins. It’s authentically her, and it’s something she believes brings joy into the workplace, even on the toughest days.
“I have come to conclude the happy lawyers around me have found a way to be authentically themselves in their practice of law,” Clarissa says. “Whether it is a love of sequin-covered shoes, music, family, kindness, empathy, mindfulness or deep intellectual challenge - those happy lawyers bring the whole of themselves to all they do in life and law.”
“They are one whole person whether at work, at home, with their family, friends or colleagues- they are just tapping into different parts of themselves in different amounts depending on their day.”
Being a professional doesn’t mean you have to leave your personal life at the door. Clarissa concludes her session with some poignant words, “Never forget you are a person first and a lawyer second. The law is important, but the people around you are more important.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health condition, the first step for a person with mental health disorder symptoms is to see a doctor or other healthcare professional.