Aiming for BigLaw? You May Want a Different Target, Happiness Researcher Says

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Positive psychology expert and lawyer Dan Bowling has a hypothesis: Happiness among law students can’t be explained by who will graduate with a high-paying job or who will earn a degree without a mountain of debt.

Indeed, Bowling says, a lot of evidence suggests that the least happy lawyers are associates in big law firms making a lot of money, although there’s no “gold standard” study of the issue.

Bowling believes that the law students with the best sense of well-being understand their own personalities and character strengths and pursue careers that will tap those strengths.

He’ll get a chance to test his hypothesis in a study beginning this fall of incoming law students at a top 20 law school. He can’t disclose the name, but it’s not Duke, where he is a senior lecturing fellow teaching courses in labor law and seminars on law and psychology. Nor is it the University of Pennsylvania, where Bowling is an instructor assisting well-known professor Martin Seligman, known as the father of positive psychology.

Bowling’s three-year study will investigate what the students’ strengths predict about their performance in law school and about their own sense of well-being. The primary purpose of the study, though, isn’t scientific—it’s to help the students as they make career choices. Bowling hopes the results can also be used by other law schools to help their students.

A study by Seligman has already established that pessimism correlates with success in law school. Some have pointed to the study as the explanation for lawyer unhappiness, but Bowling thinks it’s simplistic to pin the problem solely on pessimism. He’ll study traits like persistence, zest, humor and creativity to learn how they correlate with well-being.

He acknowledges that law school itself can be a difficult experience. “It would be hard to design a model of an educational institution that would do a better job of inducing depression and anxiety in a population than a law school,” Bowling tells the ABA Journal. Among the problems, he says, are the rankings, the sorting of winners and losers, the dearth of cooperative projects and “the whole thinking like a lawyer.”

“If having meaning and a sense of purpose and a calling in one’s life is a key to well-being, much of the first few days and weeks of law school is designed to strip young people of their idealism,” he says. He thinks law schools could teach ways to “ameliorate the damaging effects,” such as techniques to switch off the “thinking like a lawyer” thing.

Bowling also plans to work with alumni at the unnamed law school to learn whether lawyers with certain character strengths are more likely to end up in certain areas of law practice. Unhappy lawyers, he believes, are mismatched with their careers. He gives this example: An outgoing student thinks his traits of extroversion, optimism, social intelligence and eloquence would make litigation an ideal career choice. Then the student goes to work for a large law firm and finds to his dismay that none of those skills is needed in the first few years of practice.

But Bowling doesn’t have specifics on which job choices are the best match for differing character strengths—that’s the “million dollar question,” he says. And the “holy grail,” he says, is to find out which legal professionals are happiest.

“The research is too thin right now to make any kind of proclamations on that,” he says. Common sense, though, would suggest that the happiest lawyers are those who feel they are really good at law practice, who deal with clients and can see the results of their work, or who have a sense that they are involved in a greater cause.

Another question about his research, he says, “and I think it’s a fair question is this one. It’s the so-what question. It is: Whoever said law is supposed to be easy? Law is a career of sacrifice, we sacrifice for clients. … Who said we’re supposed to be happy?” Bowling has an answer. “I think the law can be a jealous mistress, but I also think she can be kind, too,” he says.

Meanwhile, Bowling has this advice for law students: “Don’t fall into a lot of the traps that … your fellow law students will set for you since day one. By traps I mean some of the misinformation like, ‘You’re wasting your time if you’re not top 10 percent, you’re wasting your time if you’re not on law review.’ Realize that law is a wonderful profession; it’s a vibrant stew of opportunity.”

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