Book Review: Levit & Linder’s The Happy Lawyer

Nancy Levit & Douglas O. Linder, The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law. Oxford University Press, 2010.   304 pp.

So here’s a book we can all rejoice over: Nancy Levit and Doug Linder’s The Happy Lawyer:  Making a Good Life in the Law. Although it offers the reader lots of research, it’s not really a legal academic book, and may not even mention the Constitution or a court case; although it offers the reader a happiness toolbox, it’s definitely not a self-help book.  Instead, it’s a book that anyone who is – or was – or wants to be –a lawyer (or anyone who knows a lawyer) should read to find out how career choices can maximize our chances of achieving happiness.  It even discusses the meanings of happiness, and why happiness might be an appropriate life goal!  To be sure, the authors also discuss the role of melancholy in our lives.

I’m recommending it to all of my students, and to my friends practicing law, and even to my husband, who prides himself on NOT being a lawyer.  Note that there is very little advice for law professors on how to achieve happiness in our own lives, perhaps in recognition that we’ve achieved happiness already — or that being happy is not our focus.  There is one very long chapter on how students can use their law school years to prepare themselves for job satisfaction.

The book makes it case by using the developing literature on the science of happiness and through interviews of hundreds of lawyers.  Although this may cause many of us to think about those books sold in airports with titles like, “You Too Can Be Happy if Only . . .,” an increasing number of studies focus on the psychology and sociology of happiness, as well as the neuroscience of happy minds.  Levit and Linder walk through the impact of dopamine, oxytocin, and Ecstasy on the brain, suggesting that wading through thousands of depositions may not cause the release of happiness-inducing chemicals.  Instead, the authors point out that six experiences are essential to making a person satisfied with her life, including “security, autonomy, authenticity, relatedness, competence, and self-esteem” (p. 44).

My one criticism is that there may be too much emphasis on getting out of the large law firm — great advice for associates who’ve been there a few years, perhaps, but not necessarily for people just starting in practice or even entering law school.  Lawyers at large firms are far less happy (44%) than public interest lawyers (68%), we learn (p. 9).  But, law students have large amounts of debt, and will typically receive very good training at law firms, so perhaps they can stay happy enough by remaining focused on their long-term goals; on a fulfilling life outside of the law; and by the intellectual excitement of working on issues that they may not care a lot about, but that are meaningful to clients, to courts, and to their intellectual growth.

In no way, I should add, do I endorse large firms. I warn students that they’re seductive, and that jobs there are easier to find (well, at least until recently, with the changes in the economics of law firms, that has been true for our graduates because of the extensive recruiting program with schools  — Sarah Waldeck has an interesting post on this issue, so finding another kind of job is much harder. And law schools seem to provide lots of support for going to large firms.  Being told that they’re virtually destined for unhappiness if they work at one, however, law students and lawyers might get even more depressed.  Levit and Linder do note “that not all lawyers at giant firms are unhappy” (p. 193). The authors even have a chapter that suggests how law firms can make their lawyers happier, ranging from, “Taking Off the Billable Hours Straitjacket” (did I mention the authors’ marvelous senses of humor?) to helping with the work-life balance.

Indeed, in a wonderful list of “What Happiness Research Predicts About Your Career” (p. 231), the authors note that those who work for government, in a small firm, or in solo practice, as well as those attorneys whose work aligns with their values, are more likely to be satisfied with their careers.    By following the advice throughout the book, even more lawyers throughout the profession can consider themselves happy.


Naomi Cahn is a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School and author of Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture (Oxford Univ. Press 2010) (with June Carbone).

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2 Responses

  1. Christa says:

    On that same note of promoting happiness in the workplace, Charles Halpern discusses how meditation can facilitate empathy and mindfulness in the practice of law.

    If interested, please check out this worthwhile piece entitled “Quiet Justice”:

  2. I am in Munich right now and asked some friends who are new associates at large firms here about their satisfaction and happiness working at a large firm. Just having that little bit of government-mandated vacation time and slightly better hours seems to dramatically improve happiness.
    I wonder, while all those other factors help, is it really just better hours that would do most of the trick?
    With high law school debt, would graduating students be the biggest opposition to reduced hours for reduced pay?