Lawyer Unhappiness and Money

Lawyers are known for being broken people. Compared to the average person on the street, we’re more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol suffer from mental illness, or commit suicide.

There are a lot of reasons for this. For one thing, the law attracts and rewards pessimists and being pessimistic doesn’t really correlate with happiness. For another, much of law is zero sum; someone loses every case that goes to trial or a contested motion. Lawyers are second guessed often, and we often see people at their worst.

Probably a lawyer.
Probably a lawyer.

All of that is important for why lawyers tend to be miserable. But I think there’s another important problem – lawyers think external rewards bring happiness.

My experience of law school was that it was a lot like a video game: every few months there was another cool reward making it feel like I’d leveled up. There were first semester grades, then moot court, then journal, then summer jobs, competitive clinical programs to get into, internships, positions within journal, clerkships, and jobs after graduation. Whenever I was bored, there was always something new to apply to.

Each new reward felt awesome. It feels cool to be praised or rewarded. I like praise.

And it can continue in practice; you can win cases, land clients, and get bonuses.

But the jollies from each reward wears off quickly. And when it’s gone, you’re left again, alone with your thoughts and what you’re doing with your life. You have to face who you are and what you’re doing with your limited time on earth. You’re playing a game that you’re winning (though there are always other people who are also winning), but that doesn’t answer whether it’s a game you ought to be playing.

Many lawyers are unhappy. Our self-worth is too caught up in whether we’re winning whatever game the profession asks us to play.

There are a lot of ways to deal with unhappiness. You can just try to win more. Or you can do what many of us do – you can eat more, you can drink more, you can buy a newer fancy car, or tailored suit.

By consuming more (either food, booze, drugs, porn, or stuff) you can keep those nagging thoughts about meaning and worth at bay. But there are consequences.

Lawyers who are unhappy are going to suck at saving money. At the same time, lawyers who are unhappy are most likely to think that the cure to their unhappiness is something in the future – partnership, or being wealthy, or marrying a newer hotter spouse (I mean, really, is there anything more depressing than seeing a 55 year old guy married to a 30 year old? Why not wear a placard that says “I’m shallow and miserable.”)

But, ultimately, there’s not a lot of point to making partner or making money if you don’t check yourself. And, if you don’t tend to what happens between your ears, you’re probably not going to save in the way you need to anyway. If you’re a slave to your unhappiness you’ll just buy more shiny shit to distract you from the pain of a life you don’t want to be living.

If you’re reading this blog and you aren’t watching what you’re spending, stop reading this blog. Don’t go to dinner because it’s easy. Don’t buy yourself a new pair of shoes to make yourself feel good.

Stop consuming. Go put together a savings plan, or meditate, or do some of the hard work of dealing with your shit.

Maybe there is a balm in Gilead, to cure what ails your soul. But, whether or not there is one, it sure isn’t a fancy new pair of shoes.

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