What makes for unhappy lawyers?
Hey, lawyers! Is everybody happy? If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands. Many of our colleagues are not exactly thrilled while practicing law. As Nanki-Poo in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado might say, the best way they could express their joys of law practice would be “modified rapture.”
I Googled “unhappy lawyers,” and my search showed over 20 million results. There are results such as, “Why lawyers are unhappy;” “7 reasons why lawyers are unhappy;” and “I hate being a lawyer.” I’m glad I did not conduct this research during my 40-plus years in the trenches.
Our work back then seemed less rushed. We would get a nasty letter in the mail from some colleague who, in his previous life, was no doubt a cross between a pit bull and Captain Bligh (the ship’s captain from Mutiny on the Bounty fame). We would mull over the letter and leisurely dictate a reply, after taking his name in vain, of course. We would then cool down, read the draft letter and mail out a more civil and effective response, leaving out what we thought of the opponent or his client, or where they can go.
Just maybe, being on call with emails or texts to hound you 24-7 can affect work-life balance. As lawyers, we are expected to respond instantly; thus, we find ourselves working more. This problem is especially prevalent—and widely reported—for those working in BigLaw firms, where associates push themselves hoping to become partners. But once they achieve this status, are they happy? Pepperdine Caruso School of Law Dean Paul Caron noted, “Being a partner means I have a bigger share of the pie. And where does this leave me? With more pie.”
Another issue for lawyer dissatisfaction are common stigmas, namely that lawyers are hucksters, long-winded and greedy ambulance chasers. Even when the public says something positive about our profession, the inference can sound negative. For example, when I Googled something like “honest lawyer,” I came across several variations of Honest Lawyer Hotel and Honest Lawyer Restaurant. I never read the menu. I wouldn’t trust it.
On a recent trip to the U.S., the customs officer asked me to remove my mask so he could look at my face. I joked with him saying, “Would it help to tell you I am lawyer?” He replied, “Actually, this might make it worse.”
And what do many lawyers do about the problem? They leave the profession, of course, and go into other callings.
The renowned real estate and news mogul Mortimer Zuckerman once said in reference to abandoning the legal profession that law is the opposite of sex: “Even when it’s good, it’s lousy.”
I had a lawyer friend who became a baker. He owned his own shop. I was curious how he was doing, hour wise, and I remarked that surely, he must rise early to bake those goodies.
He told me he proudly considered his products his friends. His customers regularly showered him with praise. He reminded me that, to our knowledge, there was never anything disparaging said in literature about bakers. Shakespeare never said, “First, let’s kill all the bakers.”
Not surprisingly, he said that he often gives his customers a “baker’s dozen”—throwing in an extra bagel. I’m actually surprised Shakespeare’s works never praised bakers.
Lawyers never get that credit. To be fair, it’s not like we can replicate a similar gesture of magnanimity. What can we do? Add a 13th juror?
I think about why I went into the legal profession. I always had the urge to let “right” prevail. This urge was also nurtured by one of my fictional heroes: Perry Mason. As a kid, I would watch the dozens of episodes where not only did Mason get his client off from a murder charge, but he would generally expose the real killer, who was usually stupid enough to be sitting in the courtroom.
I was a bit disillusioned once I started practicing, as most of my practice consisted of civil litigation and family law cases. I did some criminal work, but the majority of these cases could be classified as misdemeanors. I never once cross-examined a prosecution witness, only to have him blurt out, “OK. OK. You got me. Your client is innocent. I shoplifted that toothbrush.”
Any lawyers considering a career switch? Here’s an option:
Oscar Mayer, the meat giant, often has the call out for applications for drivers of its Wienermobiles—those 27-foot-long hot dogs on wheels that travel all over touting the Oscar Mayer Wiener brand. It is apparently a coveted position for which there are oodles of applicants, and only 12 or so are chosen. They are called “Hotdoggers.” (You cannot say Oscar Mayer is not imaginative.)
The lucky candidates get trained at a facility called “Hot Dog High.” A company spokesperson noted in a 2020 Fox News article that given the competition, one has a better chance of getting admitted into an Ivy League university. And you don’t even have to write those LSATs.
In a 2022 Taste of Home article, author Laurie Dixon described this position as “the best job ever.”
I’ve run across many colleagues who were disillusioned with the practice of law. Given that much of the glamour of lawyers is questionable, I can see this position as being of interest to many attorneys.
Apparently, these Hotdoggers are mini celebrities. They pull into some town with their Wienermobile, where they participate in media and social events, and they get greeted by crowds of screaming fans.
In all my time as a working lawyer, I, for one, was never greeted by anyone when I used to pull up in my Camry at the local courthouse. (Actually, I would occasionally get greeted by someone screaming over a much-coveted parking spot.)
Even Shakespeare might have had good things to say about the OMW position. I can’t imagine the bard saying, “First, let’s kill all the Hotdoggers.”
So how do I feel about having spent my decades as a practicing lawyer?
Charles Dickens comes to mind with his quote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, … things were great, things were lousy.” OK, Dickens didn’t quite say that latter couplet.
But isn’t that the way it is for most of us? It helped greatly that I worked in a small firm; I was a sole practitioner. I always strove to do the right thing. I promptly returned messages. I always treated people with respect. And I never lost my cool. OK, as Captain Corcoran of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore fame might say, as he qualifies a statement, “hardly ever.”
All in all, our profession is a noble one. I was happy and proud to make a few positive ripples on the earth and to put some smiles on clients’ faces.
Although tempting, I doubt I would have considered applying to be a Hotdogger.
Marcel Strigberger, after 40-plus years of practicing civil litigation in the Toronto area, closed his law office and decided to continue to pursue his humor writing and speaking passions. His just-launched book is Boomers, Zoomers, and Other Oomers: A Boomer-biased Irreverent Perspective on Aging. For more information, visit MarcelsHumour.com and follow him at @MarcelsHumour on Twitter.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.