How Pessimistic Attorneys Are Like Whining Dogs

Pessimists are better at lawyering than optimists, Dr. Martin Seligman tells us in his 2004 book Authentic Happiness. That doesn’t surprise me, because the essence of lawyering is looking for the downside and trying to protect against it. The better you are at imagining those downsides, the better you are at your job.

Muzzled dog

Don't let pessimism muzzle your life and career dreams.

But there is a high cost of pessimism on life happiness and functionality, as Seligman discusses at length in his earlier work, Learned Optimism. Pessimists are more prone to depression (hello, lawyers have a 3 times higher rate of depression than the general population) and ill health, among many other things.

Also, pessimists don’t persevere at the same rate as optimists, which means pessimists often don’t achieve goals that are achievable. Like, say, finding Continue reading

You’re Miserable? That’s Great News!

If you’re miserable at work and you got past my headline enough to read this far, I want to give you a high five. I’m not sure I would have read on when I was in the midst of grinding career misery. Misery was not my idea of a great time.

present wrapped in black

Misery feels dark, but it can be a gift.

What inspired the headline is some emails and comments I get from the golden handcuffs prisoners. They aren’t happy, for sure, but they aren’t desperately unhappy, either.

And so they continue to lead their outwardly successful, inwardly unrewarding life for lots of good-sounding reasons:

  • The mortgage I just signed on for,
  • My family’s standard of living would take a nose-dive if I left law,
  • My kids’ tuition for private school,
  • My family would think I’ve lost my mind if I left what most people dream of achieving, especially in this economy.

What these prisoners don’t have is the gift of misery. Continue reading

Savoring Your Life Even When It Sucks

When people tried to talk to me about appreciating my life, and I was hating most of it, I wanted to smack them. Hard. And then shriek and carry on a bit about “can’t you see how sucky my life really is???

So I get it if you’re rolling your eyes about now, but I hope you’ll bear with me anyway.

foil wrapped chocolate hearts

Mmmm, chocolate. What do you like savoring? Image courtesy

Savoring is really necessary to a fulfilled life. But it’s a lost art in much of our modern lives. It seems a simplistic solution to a complicated problems: What do you mean, I should just pay attention to good things, and my life will get better? Ha!

But savoring works on a couple levels.

First, of course, is the actual moment–the luscious taste of some really excellent chocolate, the feel of silk against the skin, the sight of mist rising off a lake, the sound of  a cello played well. Or, insert your own favorite sensation. Pay exquisite attention to what you’re experiencing, with every sense you can. Focus. Continue reading

There’s More Wrong Here Than a Personality Mismatch

One of my dear friends is working her way out of law. Now, for most of my friends, this would not be surprising. But for this particular friend, I was completely staggered. She has the perfect personality for law. I don’t mean that as a slam. I mean that she is able to keep her cool in trying circumstances, doesn’t get overly ruffled by emotional or even mean outbursts, is very smart and very capable. But she’s had it.

Why now? Because she’s fed up with getting shit on, to be honest.

The way that law firms, particularly, let dysfunctional assholes ruin the workplace is unconscionable. Continue reading

Educating Lawyers

No, this isn’t a rant about legal education (though I should do about a dozen of those, shouldn’t I?) It’s about how our educational system pushes bright, talented kids to pursue crap they don’t honestly have a passion for. Like, say, law. And all too many of you know how that ends up—talented people who are depressed, miserable, and not really making use of their innate talents and abilities. Bleah, all the way around.

I got to thinking about this when I read a debate in Jay Matthews’ column in the WaPo, over the education of really and truly gifted kids—the kind who read The Hobbit in first grade, and get it; the kind who can do calculus in sixth grade. THAT KIND of gifted, not just smarter-than-the-average student type of gifted.

Continue reading

BigLaw Associates Happy? Puh-leez, part 2

So I finally got around to thinking about how Hildebrandt can come out with a survey that suggests nearly 95 % of associates are not unhappy, let alone miserable. Their exact finding is:

In the region of 45% of associates are highly satisfied with their work, another 50% are more or less satisfied, and only 5% express strong dissatisfaction.

These findings are completely at odds with the reality documented just a year or so ago by the AmLaw 2006 Mid-level Associate Survey (and probably the 2007 survey, I just found the 2006 one first). That survey found that mid-level associates in 2006 were almost exactly as dissatisfied as mid-levels were in 1986, and for almost exactly the same reasons (workload, and the black box of partnership decisions). Yet Hildebrandt expects us to believe that in one year, law firms have changed so radically that nearly everyone is happy.


I can’t speak to what Hildebrandt’s motivations were in doing its survey. Maybe after dishing out very expensive advice to law firms for years, they wanted the firms to think that some of those suggestions had made a difference. I can only guess.

But let’s look at the Hildebrandt data a little more closely. Buried down in the executive summary conclusion (I’m not paying for the survey, but if someone has it and wants to give me more details, please do) is this gem:

Associates are not the unhappy collection of unfulfilled employees portrayed in the media. As a group, they are engaged, interested, and happy with their compensation. Very few show any interest in leaving the profession. On the other hand, only a small proportion aspires to partnership. Many are seeking alternatives.

Um, if so many are seeking alternatives, shouldn’t that be alarming to law firms? Human nature being what it is, I doubt that all those seeking alternatives have a Zen-like acceptance about the likelihood they won’t make partner.

And that 50% that are more or less satisfied? My guess is that Hildebrandt didn’t ask quite the right question. Associates are more or less satisfied because — my guess, at any rate — they know they’re not staying at the firm for very much longer. They’re more or less satisfied because making $200K for a few more years seems OK — as long as they don’t have to do what it takes to make that money forever.

And did you note what Hildebrandt said associates were actually happy about? Their compensation. Not their work environment, not their future in a law firm. Not even the people they work with.

The take-away? You are not the only person in your firm who isn’t happy; you still have lots of company. Don’t let Hildebrandt’s silliness make you feel isolated.

Admin Note

My email isn’t working right now. So if you sent anything in the last few days, I probably did not get it. Sorry!

This is the last straw with the hosting company, so I’m transferring to a new host. In the meantime, you can send notes to jennalvey AT gmail DOT com. I should (God willling and the creek don’t rise) have this sorted by Monday at the very latest.

Thanks for bearing with me.