Are Lawyers Less Likely to be Happy?

“Are all lawyers so cynical?”

“No, there are a lot of really happy lawyers,” I explained to my wife.

“It just seems that so many of the practicing lawyers you interact with online aren’t especially happy.”

We joke about this all the time, but is there truth to it?  This past week I had the chance to speak to a group of attorneys and legal professionals in Washington D.C. at “The Case for Social Media” and because I was the second to last speaker of the day I tried to lighten things up by playing this video:

There were a lot of laughs at the conference when I showed the video, and I’ll admit that when Niki Black first showed me this video, I was also LOL (“laughing out loud” for those of you that have never been to the interweb before).  This is funny stuff.  But it also paints a pretty negative view of lawyers and the legal profession.  Is it really funny because it is dead on?

I shared this video on Twitter during the conference as well, and Carolina Avellaneda, an employment lawyer in Boston has this to say:

I would hope that most of us love the law, so why does there seem to be a tendency towards unhappiness in the legal profession?  Alcoholism is one problem with an estimated one in five lawyers addicted to alcohol, but not the root of the problem.  Mental health is also an issue with lawyers suffering depression at 3.6 times the rate of those employed across all industries.

The root of these issues?  Pessimism.  According to Dr. Martin Seligman, PhD and Professor of Psychology at University of Pennsylvannia.  He observes that in general optimists are far more successful the pessimists.  Pro athletes with positive attitudes beat the spread more often, recover more quickly from set backs and tend to see problems as temporary rather than permanent.  Undergrad students with positive attitudes out perform the pessimistic students with similar SAT’s.

In the legal profession however, this is switched according to Dr. Seligman:

Pessimists do better at law. We tested the entire entering class of the Virginia Law School in 1990 with a variant of the optimism-pessimism test. These students were then followed throughout the three years of law school. In sharp contrast with the results of prior studies in other realms of life, the pessimistic law students on average faired better than their optimistic peers. Specifically, the pessimist outperformed more optimistic students on the traditional measures of achievement, such as grade point averages and law journal success.

Or in other words, Law School weeds out the optimistic lawyers in favor of the pessimistic ones.  This pessimistic perspective makes lawyers more prudent, better attuned to the risks and better at recognizing pitfalls of any potential deal.  “Unfortunately,” says Dr. Selligman, “a trait that makes you good at your profession, does not always make you a happy human being.”

So the next time my wife ask me, “Are all lawyers so cynical?”

My response will be, “Only the really good ones.”

What do you see as the biggest reason lawyers have a tendency towards unhappiness?

How can lawyers (if they are indeed more pessimistic) still find joy in the practice of law?


8 Responses to “Are Lawyers Less Likely to be Happy?”

  1. Adam A. Kay says:

    Great article! Your discussion about pessimism in lawyers reminds me of a passage from Daniel H. Pink’s book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, in which he too specifically explores some reasons why lawyers are so unhappy (see pp.98-99 of the book). In the book, Daniel Pink also hints towards a number of other reasons why lawyers may not be satisfied with their work. For a summary of the book written from a legal point of view (plus a few extra ideas), see

  2. Mike Mintz says:


    First off, thank you for making me laugh on a busy Wed (the video is LMFAO worthy … um, I don’t really want to translate that web speak for anyone who doesn’t know what it means, because then you might think I have potty fingers). To the point, your post is dead on. I find that in many discussions with fellow lawyers we all take cynical pokes at the expensive education we endured to enter a profession that is challenging, competitive, and sometimes downright soul sucking. I am, however, a cynical optimist who thinks that happiness can be found by lawyers (we aren’t allergic to it) and it comes from finding a direction that works for you on many levels. For me it meant taking a job outside of practicing law – life presented opportunities that I want to seize and I have been able to live out a dream because of them (living in Israel, working in social media for lawyers, and using my creativity). And yet I have friends who are partners at huge law firms or GCs of companies that work hours I didn’t know were possible, and they love it (not always, but most of the time). Again, it comes down to finding the right fit for yourself. In my opinion, the unhappiness comes from trying to fit yourself into a mold that isn’t right for you. Lastly, one of my favorite people to follow regarding finding happiness as a lawyer is Ron Fox (his website is full of great materials addressing this subject: Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks Mike. I think most lawyers probably blow these types of articles off and just think “i’m doing fine.” But the real question is, compared to what? There are a lot of lawyers that are passionate about the law and love what they do, others like you and myself have found happiness doing something else. I think the key is being honest with yourself. I really appreciate the comment, and I will check out Ron Fox’s stuff.

  3. Adrian,

    I am a 3L in law school about to come out of school into a job market that is bleak to say the least. I would definitely classify myself an optimist. I don’t believe law school has weeded me out as you say and I think that you can be optimistic yet realistic at the same time. It is the optimistic outlook on life that motivates me to succeed. However, I am realistic as well, I know it will be hard to pay off my law school loans, and I know it will be difficult to find a job but that compels to work that much harder to make sure that I don’t fall into those traps that lead the life of cynicism that so many lawyers fall into.

    I am curious though, if the best lawyers are pessimistic and cynical in nature, then what is their motivation, where does it come from?. Doesn’t the cynic say “that will never work” ? Doesn’t the pessimist say “It’ll never get better” ? If so and that is their honest belief, then why try, it’s pointless under that logic. I don’t get what drives these people to be successful – how can you be motivated when you know that no matter what you do its never going to be enough? Perhaps this vicious cycle is what leads to addiction, depression, and attrition of lawyers?

    • Jack,

      Great questions, and good luck in the tough job market. Remember, there will still always be jobs for those who are ambitious, hard working and creative- so don’t stress about it.

      I’m no pscyh so I can’t give you a good answer, but one thing is for sure, many attorneys settle for unhappiness because they don’t know any different. If they are unhappy it is their job to do something about it. As for the best attorneys being cynical- I don’t think that is really true. Overly cynical attorneys are not fun to be around and don’t tend to make friends very easily. Its the lawyers that can laugh about the stress and the challenges that most likely come out on top.

      I’m sure you have heard the expression “golden hand-cuffs” used in talking about lawyers. Many of them are slaves to the income they are making and the expectations of their family and friends. This may help bring about all of the bad side effects you mentioned.

      Thanks for the comment, and good luck in the job search.

  4. TDot says:

    Any thoughts on how/if the findings of this study mesh with the different study the ABA mentioned back in mid-May about lawyers being too optimistic about their cases? Seems odd to have a bunch of optimistic pessimists…


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