happiness

Bruce Stachenfeld

I am famous for a saying. Actually I am not really famous, but I have a saying that I have been, well, saying for years, as follows:

“Lawyers are only happy when they’re miserable.”

What I mean is this: You are working round-the-clock so much you haven’t even been home for a full day and hardly at all for a month on a doozie of a deal. You are completely sick of it. All you can think of is when the deal will be “over.” You are clearly “miserable.” If only you could have your personal life back! Then, finally, the deal closes — at last. Your client is wiring out the funds. As the transfer of funds is happening, a (terrible) thought races through your mind. You hate yourself for the thought — you try not to have the thought — but you simply can’t help it… and the thought is that you are kind of worried because you have nothing to do now and that is disquieting… gee, what if work has really slowed… at some point this will be a real problem. You’ve had your personal life back for maybe a second — you haven’t even taken a shower — and you are worrying where your next deal will come from.

Or the other way around. Work has been slow — very slow — for a couple of months. You have enjoyed some rounds of golf and gone out to a bunch of dinners and lunches, but you really would like a nice tricky and challenging deal to sink your teeth into. And of course you are mindful of the fact that like it or not lawyers just have to bill hours. That is how we make a living, and you just aren’t billing hours. Not a good thing. You are edgy — if only you could have a big deal to work on….

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Not since its pursuit was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence has “happiness” had a bigger cultural moment than now, and not just because of that “room without a roof” earworm. There is a new and rapidly growing science of happiness, a mash-up of economics and psychology sometimes called “hedonics,” which tells us that money can buy happiness, but only to a point. Meanwhile, in corporate America, we witness the emergence of a new C-suite character, the Chief Happiness Officer, who is responsible for employee contentment. Sort of like an HR director, but smiling and magical.

Recently, the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research released a paper, “Unhappy Cities,” reporting the findings of a major survey asking respondents about their satisfaction with life. The authors, academics from Harvard and the University of British Columbia, found that there are persistent differences in self-reported subjective well-being across U.S. cities and, unsurprisingly, residents of declining cities are less happy than other Americans. (Interestingly, the authors suggest that these unhappy, declining cities were also unhappy during their more prosperous pasts.)

So there are unhappy cities; there are also unhappy (and relatively happier) law schools. When ATL’s own Staci Zaretsky learned that Springfield, Massachusetts — home of her alma mater, the Western New England University School of Law — made the list of unhappiest cities, it came as no surprise: “It’s hard to tell where the local misery ends and that of the law school begins.” Prompted by Staci’s observation, we wondered whether unhappy cities make for unhappy local law students. Or is the law school experience so intense and self-contained that one’s surroundings have little impact? What are law students in the happiest (and unhappiest) cities in the country telling us about their own personal satisfaction?

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Which firm does this happy lawyer work for?

Despite what you might have heard, Biglaw isn’t all about the Benjamins, and it’s not all about the prestige either. While stories abound about long days and even longer nights spent at the office, some people actually enjoy working those hours — because their firms make it somewhat pleasurable to do so.

Some firms provide the means for their associates to have a decent quality of life (see, e.g., Cleary associates who “have a baby” to go to a Katy Perry concert and Quinn associates who get paid to go away for a while), while others do not.

Do you want to work at a firm where your quality of life as an associate is rated as among the best? Vault’s annual Best Law Firms to Work For ranking will tell you where to look if you want to be truly happy…

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Well lookie here. After years of being labeled as the “unhappiest job” and “worse than a nail technician,” “lawyer” has finally been named in a survey as the best job out there. Didn’t see that one coming, did you?

Cue the trumpets.

There’s just one snag….

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Ed. note: Please welcome Elizabeth Adams, who will be covering health and wellness in the legal profession. You can read her full bio at the end of this post.

Ever wonder what the secret to happiness is? Landing a Biglaw job? Making partner? Saving your innocent cousin from wrongful conviction for a convenience store robbery in the small town south? Whether you’re a currently-miserable attorney who’s pinning her hopes for happiness on eventual career success, or a veteran attorney who could stand to be a bit more happy, I have both bad and good news for you.  The bad news: you may have to look beyond the bounds of your career for the additional keys to lasting happiness.  The good news: doing so is easy! But how could this be, you ask?

I found some clues to the answer in a book I just finished reading called A Life Worth Breathing (affiliate link), written by Julian Assange doppelganger (see cover photo), yoga teacher, and self-proclaimed “innovator,” Max Strom.  To be honest, I was initially pretty skeptical of the book. From the title alone, I could tell how much heavy eye-rolling was likely in store for me.  And — just to be clear — the book did prove chock-full of more than its fair share of what my father would call “illogically formulated and poorly communicated hippie hooey.”

That said, A Life Worth Breathing did deliver a few precious nuggets of information valuable enough to make the whole undertaking worthwhile…

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The idea of “happiness” is the basis of an ever-growing body of research. In fact, while economists traditionally measure a nation’s prosperity by looking at GDP, there is a growing movement for them to consider a different measure, something akin to “Gross National Happiness.” One of the best-known efforts to move away from a reliance on GDP as a measure of national welfare is the UN’s Human Development Index, which amalgamates three metrics: lifespan, educational attainment, and adjusted real income. Then there are dozens of much more subjective surveys of national happiness, many of which find Costa Rica to be the happiest country in the world. Others say it’s Norway. (Then there is this preposterous “Happy Planet Index,” which ranks the U.S. at number 113, between Madagascar and Nigeria.)

Of course happiness research is performed in more narrowly targeted ways, such as examining specific professions. Earlier this year, Forbes reported on a “Career Bliss” survey of 65,000 employees that ranked “law firm associate” as the unhappiest job in America. (See Joe’s take on that survey here.)

This week, over at In the Belly of the Beast, Steven Harper is asking “Are Lawyers Becoming Happier?” Harper takes a look at two recent studies that suggest the answer is “yes.”

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The results of the annual American Lawyer midlevel associate survey are out, and it looks like people have been taking happy pills. We thought things were going well last year, but this time around, it’s all lollipops and double rainbows for third-, fourth-, and fifth-year associates. According to Am Law, these happy campers gave their firms the highest composite scores the publication had seen in almost 10 years.

These associates have good reason to be happy. They’ve secured and maintained jobs at elite firms while entry-level hiring has been swirling down the drain. Spring bonuses have come and gone, but they’ve managed to stick it out. They’ve seen the rise and fall of Biglaw empires. They’ve seen the worst of the profession’s worst, and still, they’ve survived it all. They have the right to be happy.

Of course, not everyone is as thrilled. For the first time, American Lawyer measured gender differences in question responses, and women are markedly less satisfied with their jobs than their male colleagues. Considering how difficult is is to gain entry to the Biglaw boys’ club, who could blame them?

Enough idle chatter, let’s delve into the details of the survey and discuss the results…

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You mean this groundbreaking Newtonian equation might be wrong?

One of the things I’ve learned in my time here at Above the Law is that most people are desperate to justify the decisions they’ve made, even if you can logically show them that they made the wrong call. People who go to terrible law schools argue endlessly that either their law school isn’t so terrible, or that they personally made a good call to go to a terrible school. People who are willing to take a massive pay cut to get the hell out of a soul-destroying Biglaw firm will still tell you that they “really valued” their time there. Obama voters look the other way while the “progressive” president allows robots to indiscriminately rain down death from the sky. Republicans act like they’re just supporting the “conservative fiscal policies” of the nutjob racists and homophobes they vote for.

Everybody wants to feel like every decision they made was the “right” one in some way. People like me who are willing to publicly admit that they’ve made some freaking awful decisions that haunt them to this day (like defaulting on my debts) are rare.

I don’t think we needed a whole study to make that point. I certainly don’t think we learn a lot by asking lawyers — generally employed lawyers — if they are “happy” with their decision to go to law school. What are they going to say? “Dear God, no. I hate my life. Please help me.”

But some law professors did ask that question, and SURPRISE, it turns out that going to an “elite” law school doesn’t automatically make you happier with your career decisions than going to a slightly less elite law school. Wow. In other super shocking news, marrying the hottest stripper in the club doesn’t make your marriage significantly more stable than marrying the second hottest stripper in the club….

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* If you thought Stephen Kaplitt’s epic cease-and-desist response was awesome, then you’ll love this work of parody in response to the response, courtesy of New York Law School. [Legal As She Is Spoke]

* Eric Holder comes clean on his involvement with the James Rosen search warrant, and to the chagrin of many, he isn’t plotting the death of journalism. That, or he’s a big liar. You pick. [Volokh Conspiracy]

* George Zimmerman is going to be staring down an all-female jury for the next few weeks in his murder trial. And let me tell you, that’s going to be so much fun when everyone’s cycles start to sync up. [CNN]

* It’s amazing that the Framers’ intentions can be applied to true love. Best wishes to Ilya Shapiro on his new marriage. Professor Josh Blackman is one hell of a wedding speaker. [CATO @ Liberty]

* Is there an appropriate way to deal with cosmetic surgery — like a breast enlargement, breast reduction, or a nose job — in the office? Just be ready for people to talk about you. [Corporette]

* Former Above the Law columnist Jay Shepherd offers up the secret to lawyer happiness in just six minutes, while taking shots at the world’s largest law firm and the world’s shortest movie star. [jayshep]

Workplace satisfaction isn’t quite the hot topic it used to be. In the 90s, everyone got all touchy-feely because an unhappy employee could pick up stakes and move at a moment’s notice. Today, the primary axis of worker satisfaction is, “Am I working?”

But satisfaction surveys still fascinate, and Jacquelyn Smith of Forbes recently posted a new survey from a firm known as CareerBliss that used a multi-factor survey to determine the happiest and unhappiest jobs in America.

Wonder what came in the top spot? Well, OK obviously it was an associate. I’m not going to hide the ball here. If it was anyone else, we wouldn’t be writing about it. But what’s more interesting is who came in the rest of the top 10, because that really puts in terrifying perspective how terrible a job in Biglaw really is….

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