Law schools try to address the happiness issue

The second- and third-year students who signed up for "Well-Being and the Practice of Law" at Duke University School of Law this fall may be getting more than they bargained for. Four weeks in, they've already tackled Aristotle (as part of a consideration of the philosophical roots of happiness) and renowned psychologist Albert Maslow, the founder of "humanistic" psychology (in a review of pre-World War II scientific research on happiness).

Also on the syllabus: G.W. Allport's "Personality: A Psychological Interpretation," first published in 1937, plus several studies that examine lawyers and job satisfaction. By the end of the semester, the class will have plowed through several works by University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman, the guru of positive psychology, as well as sections devoted to law as a profession, the different career paths available within the field and how law firms are run as businesses.

"We don't come in here and do jumping jacks and yoga for three hours," says Daniel Bowling, a senior lecturing fellow at the law school who developed and teaches the course. "This is a serious class. We're trying to describe more than prescribe." He says the approach and substance of the course is rooted in science -- primarily the growing body of research on positive psychology. While it may not be contracts law, Bowling insists that a comprehensive consideration of the role that well-being plays in the legal profession is a legitimate subject of academic inquiry. "This is not a form of self-help ... or an experiment," he says. At the same time, Bowling adds, as they learn more about these matters and about themselves, those who take his class may improve their law school and career experiences because they're better equipped to make smart choices. And what's wrong with that?

As a society, it seems, we're more obsessed than ever with the idea of happiness: What is it? How do we achieve it? Is it really the key to a longer, healthier life? There are hundreds of books on the subject, from "The Happiness Project" to "Being Happy." Newspapers and magazines regularly offer tip-driven as well as big-question articles ("10 Secrets to Finding Happiness During the Recession"in U.S. News & World Report; "But Will It Make You Happy?" in The New York Times).

The pursuit of happiness is also a popular Hollywood story line. Witness the big-screen success of "Eat Pray Love," the movie adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling memoir about her quest, in the wake of a failed marriage, to find the meaning of life and, ultimately, happiness (all it took was a year of pasta, meditation and navel-gazing in Italy, India and Indonesia). These works tend to promote one message above all others: Everyone should be happier -- and can be. All it takes is some work.

It's hardly that simple, especially when it comes to professional satisfaction. The subject gets particularly muddled for those in, or on a track to enter, the legal profession. While some studies have shown that most lawyers are satisfied with their jobs, other data -- produced over the years by the American Bar Association, local bar groups, law schools, medical schools, even the National Institutes of Health -- suggests that lawyers are more prone to depression, substance abuse and suicide.

A 1991 Johns Hopkins University study, for example, interviewed 12,000 workers about depression. Lawyers topped the list of the most depressed professionals, with a rate of depression 3.6 times higher than workers generally. A 1995 study of alcohol-related and other disorders among lawyers found that 70 percent of practicing attorneys were likely to develop alcohol-related problems over the course of their lifetime.

Studies have also shown that, as a group, lawyers are a pessimistic lot. Exactly what that means is unclear. Though pessimism generally has been found to hold people back in both professional and personal pursuits, a study by Seligman of the University of Virginia Law School class of 1990 suggested that pessimistic students fared better in school than optimists did.

So the research on lawyers and happiness, beyond being dated, offers a mixed message. It's fair to say, though, that there is anxiety within the profession -- and the recent state of the economy hasn't helped. The recession has forced law firms (especially big ones) to cut jobs, slow hiring, reduce salaries and take other steps to cut costs. Nonprofits and public interest legal organizations, too, have fewer openings, as a result of individuals and foundations donating less. It's a set of circumstances that has spurred the bar and other professional associations, as well as law schools, to take a close look at how lawyers and law students feel about their careers.

(Published by – October, 18, 2010)

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