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Summary: Find out why so many attorneys are unhappy and what can be done to bring happiness back into their lives.
Why Your Ego Is Making You Unhappy Practicing Law and with Your Life
Many attorneys are unhappy practicing law.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
An unhealthy ego is most often the cause of this unhappiness.
Find out how you can keep your ego in check as an attorney.
According to Andy Benjamin, a lawyer and psychologist who has written about the effect of law school on people in the legal profession, attorneys are actually healthier, psychologically and physically, than the general population before they start law school.
[L]aw students generally start school with their sense of self and their values intact. But, in his research, he said, he has found that the formal structure of law school starts to change that.
Rather than hew to their internal self, students begin to focus on external values, he said, like status, comparative worth and competition. “We have seven very strong studies that show this twists people’s psyches and they come out of law school significantly impaired, with depression, anxiety and hostility,” he said.
Academics often study law students because students are considered a bellwether for the profession. “They are the canaries in the coal mine,” Dr. Benjamin said.
Wil Miller, [a] lawyer and former methamphetamine addict, said that in his experience, law school encouraged students to take emotion out of their decisions. “When you start reinforcing that with grades and money, you aren’t just suppressing your emotions,” he said. “You’re fundamentally changing who you are.”
Research studying lawyers’ happiness supports this notion. “The psychological factors seen to erode during law school are the very factors most important for the well-being of lawyers,” Lawrence Krieger, a professor at Florida State University College of Law, and Kennon Sheldon, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, wrote in their 2015 paper “What Makes Lawyers Happy?” Conversely, they wrote, “the factors most emphasized in law schools — grades, honors and potential career income — have nil to modest bearing on lawyer well-being.”
After students began law school they experienced “a marked increase in depression, negative mood and physical symptoms, with corresponding decreases in positive affect and life satisfaction,” the professors wrote.
Students also shed some of their idealism. Within the first year of law school, students’ motivation for studying law and becoming lawyers shifted from “helping and community-oriented values to extrinsic, rewards-based values.”[i]
Nothing makes or keeps attorneys unhappier than following their egos. Law school changes the egos of attorneys—and the practice does as well. Rather than a healthy sense of self, attorneys begin to compare how they feel about themselves based on how they compare to others. This creates an endless cycle of unhappiness that haunts and stays with them throughout their careers. The ego will determine the direction that attorneys take with their careers and, ultimately, who they become. Their egos may create substance abuse problems, depression, stress, early death, divorce, and a multitude of problems that could largely be avoided if they did not put their ego in control. The role of the ego among attorneys is prevalent in that the better the attorney, often the more the ego is in control. The law can be a very unpleasant profession for attorneys with the largest egos.
At its most basic level, the ego relates to your self-consciousness, sense of self, and how you view yourself compared to others. All people are ego-based and are always comparing themselves to others—whether it is how they look, feel, where they live, where they work, who their spouse is and so forth. A healthy ego allows you to have perspective and to not allow these feelings to overwhelm and consume you and your actions. A healthy psychology will have insight and realize that these comparisons do not equate to your self-worth and what is necessary for you to be happy. An unhealthy psychology will base its happiness on these comparisons and believe that happiness is related to these sorts of comparisons.
A large number of attorneys who would be judged “successful” in the practice of law have allowed their egos to dominate them. As a consequence, they are often unhappy with their lives, constantly pushing themselves in their jobs, never feeling good enough, and trying to fill a void inside that can never be fulfilled because their egos control the conversations they have with themselves all day, every day.
People who let their egos dominate them choose to feel good or bad about themselves, successful or unsuccessful, fulfilled or unfulfilled, based on their analysis of where they sit in the pecking order. The ego creates your identity through your evaluation of yourself compared to others.
To the extent you base your self-worth and how you feel about yourself based on your comparison of yourself to your peers, you are more ego-based.
To the extent you do not base your feelings about yourself on your comparison to your peers, you are likely to be less ego-based.
People are social animals and we tend to rise or fall in our ego’s analysis of ourselves based on whom we compare ourselves to. If you surround yourself with the most successful people you will tend to judge yourself much harder than if you were comparing yourself to the least successful people.
There is an argument to be made—and it is an argument that I believe is largely true—that the more successful people you surround yourself with the more likely you are to be successful. The most competitive and smartest people will have ways of thinking, acting, and setting goals that will rub off on you and force you to raise your standards as well.[ii]
People compete to attend the best schools not because what they learn is likely to be any different, but because the quality of people they are surrounded with is likely to be much better. Families want to live in the best neighborhoods not only because of issues like safety, but because they and their children are likely to socialize and be around people who have higher expectations for themselves—who are more likely to go to better colleges, less likely to go to prison, and more likely to join the ranks of the most successful in society eventually. People want to be part of the best social groups because being in these social groups will also confer various advantages and influence how others view us. Children realize this very quickly when they are in their early teens when groups separate themselves into the popular and unpopular groups. Those who are excluded feel a sense of lack and inferiority to those who are part of the most popular groups.
It is the same thing with legal employers and attorneys. There are the powerful and difficult-to-gain-entry-into groups and those that are less difficult to gain entry into. The most difficult to gain entry into tend to have the people from the best schools, with the best grades and best pedigrees. In turn, these firms pay the most money to their attorneys. These firms also have access to the best and most lucrative work with the largest and most prestigious companies.
One of the largest issues with the practice of law is that most attorneys—especially the most successful ones—are caught in an ego-centered profession where they are constantly evaluating themselves against others. The legal game is set up this way and attorneys are constantly being “sliced and diced” into different boxes which determine their status in the hierarchy of attorneys. This comparison is so pronounced and self-evident in the practice of law that it can become consuming and for many attorneys it does.
The slicing and dicing starts with where the future attorney goes to law school—the higher ranked law schools will typically confer more prestige and give the attorney a higher sense of being better (or worse) than others.
This continues with how well the attorney does in law school, where they end up working in the summer and where their first job is. The prestige of the attorney’s first position will be considered more or less prestigious based on the quality of the firm, the size of the firm, and the city the attorney is practicing in.
The attorney will then start comparing themselves to the attorneys in their own firm and how they are doing compared to them in terms of hours and the sort of work they do or do not receive. As a young attorney, the attorney will compare themselves to others based on the number of hours they bill at a firm that is more or less prestigious.
Later, if the attorney sticks with the law firm game and becomes a partner, they will compare themselves to others based on the amount of business they bring to the firm, the number of hours they bill, and the amount they are compensated for this business.
I am constantly working with attorneys who seek to go into the best law firms they possibly can. Attorneys are driven to want to work with the best attorneys that they can. The reason for this is related to ego: The ego game is one where the attorneys want to be in a position where they evaluate themselves highly in comparison to their peers.
Most (not all) attorneys want to work for the best law firms they can because this gives them more status compared to their peers. Feeling good about yourself based on your accomplishments in comparison to peers is a trap that most attorneys fall into and spend their careers absorbed in. If an attorney realizes that he or she cannot successfully compete in this game (they will never make partner, they are not committed enough, they make partner but will never generate enough business to be successful), many attorneys will often “save” their ego by pretending they never wanted to work in a law firm anyway and start trying to go in-house. Much of what goes on in the minds of attorneys and their career decisions is related to their egos.
An attorney’s ego will often push them to go to the largest markets they can and work in the largest and most prestigious firms that will have them.
Attorneys believe the market they are in is very important. The right market conveys a certain amount of prestige. Attorneys in the largest markets tend to believe that those who are in smaller markets are not as competent as they are. Attorneys compete to work in the largest markets because they are often under the belief that attorneys that work in these markets are “better than” attorneys working in smaller markets and more competent.
There are some reasons for this. The most important work does tend to go to the largest and most prestigious law firms in the largest markets. The quality and thoroughness of the work done does tend to be higher in the largest markets: firms in New York work for major, deep-pocketed clients and these clients expect the work to be done perfectly. This means that attorneys who learn to do work this way tend to develop habits and ways of working that make them more competent than their peers in other law firms.
In markets such as New York City, there are so many people competing to work there that every attorney—and I mean just about every attorney—is easily and quickly replaceable. I know this from a recruiting standpoint. The second a major law firm has an opening, tons of recruiters will “salivate” over a new job order and get to work tracking down others to replace the attorney. Within 24 hours, most major law firms will have plenty of highly-qualified attorneys to replace just about any attorney leaving. This is how it works. An attorney either performs at the level they are expected to, or they are quickly pushed out of the law firm—or given lots of clues that they should start looking elsewhere quickly (not given work, told they have no future, given assignments far beneath their abilities, given poor reviews, given “death stares” by superiors—you name it).
Because of the way the legal market in New York works, attorneys are paranoid about making mistakes and losing their jobs. They also tend to work much harder than in other cities. They are around other attorneys working extremely hard who are also paranoid about losing their positions as well. This breeds a certain type of attorney. These attorneys are also in a position where it is extremely difficult—albeit practically impossible in many firms—to ever become a partner. Despite all of this, they are practicing in New York City and in their own minds they may be more successful than others. Access to the most important work and other advantages do have some meaning.
Outside of New York, the same psychology exists. You have major cities all around the country where attorneys have an inflated sense of importance compared to attorneys working in smaller markets. The attorney in Chicago feels superior to the attorney in Detroit, for example. The attorney in Houston feels superior to the attorney in San Antonio. The attorney in Miami feels superior to the attorney in Tallahassee.
Is the attorney in the larger market happier? Generally, I do not think so—if ego is driving their decision of what market to work in. It would be ridiculous to postulate that every attorney in New York is there because of their ego—but in my experience the majority of them are (or their ego keeps them working there for fear of looking like a failure leaving). It is this way for most major cities around the country: Attorneys get a sense of ego and importance from being there.
I am not saying working in a major market is a bad thing. It is not. What is bad is that attorneys will often continue working in these markets long after they have served their purpose for their ego. Their need to be in this market will and can cause them to be part of something that does not give them a corresponding benefit in terms of their happiness. The sort of competition, hours, ego assault, and more that the attorney suffers in the largest markets will put them in a position of never being good enough as many of their peers. In addition, attorneys in markets like New York will live in small apartments, work harder, and will be taxed such that they may actually end up “clearing” less money in their paychecks than they would in many smaller markets. They will often even feel like their ego is under assault in large markets because there are so many different levels of prestigious firms that the attorney will often feel like they are never good enough.
Something I have noticed in the careers of attorneys is that those who start out in smaller markets—or wind up there after practicing in large markets—are far more likely to be practicing law (and continue) practicing law in law firms throughout their careers than attorneys who go to the largest markets.
Attorneys in the largest markets often work so hard they are chewed up and spit out and never want to work in law firms again.
Attorneys in the largest markets often do not develop books of business—where they would have in smaller markets.
Attorneys in the largest markets often go in house to escape the large law firm, or because they have no future in large law firms.
Attorneys in the largest markets are far less likely to become partners than attorneys in smaller markets.
In my experience, the choice to work in a smaller market is often a better “long term” ego bet than a larger one. You are far more likely to have long-term success and happiness in the smaller market than in the larger one. Attorneys who work in the largest markets may find they are not practicing law in 10 years where the attorneys who go to smaller markets will spend their entire 35-plus-year careers as attorneys and counselors practicing law, being respected for being an attorney, and making a good living in smaller markets.
If your ego drives your choice of what market to work in, you may be less likely to be happy (and perhaps even successful) in the long run than if you choose a smaller market. A healthy ego would realize that your internal self-worth should not come from the market you are in but, instead, should come from how you feel about yourself inside.
Attorneys also believe that the largest law firms are better to be a part of than smaller ones. The largest law firms typically pay the most, have access to the most important work and are the most connected politically, socially, and otherwise in the markets they are in. It is also easier to lateral to other prestigious firms from the largest firms and go in house to large employers from major law firms.
The drive to work in the most prestigious law firms is such that most attorneys—regardless of their experience—are open to working in firms that are much more prestigious than their own when I solicit them. Most attorneys throughout their careers remain interested in working in the most-prestigious law firms compared to the less-prestigious ones.
The interest in the largest and most prestigious firms is understandable—but it is often not all that healthy for the ego. If an attorney is constantly concerned and aware of the differences and “lack” of their own firm compared to others, they are being governed by their ego. The constant feeling of lack and need to be with a different firm is not healthy, nor something that will likely benefit them in the long run.
The largest and more prestigious law firms are often the most dangerous ones to work for. These large law firms typically can much more easily replace the attorneys there than other law firms. The largest law firms require more hours and their senior attorneys are required to generate more business than smaller law firms. The largest law firms also tend to be less collegial and the attorneys tend to be more competitive with one another. This can create an unpleasant atmosphere for the attorneys working there and make people unhappy.
The belief that an attorney should be with the largest law firm is often something that is driven by the attorney’s ego. A constant focus on the ego will often lead nowhere useful. The attorney who is centered on how their ego makes them look to others will often end up in a perpetual state where they believe being happy is about how they are seen compared to others.
The ego desires to be loved and appreciated. The ego wants to feel better and more important than others. The ego wants to feel good about itself.
The ego also often keeps going—even when it is wrong. Far too many attorneys stay in the largest cities and work in the largest law firms even when it is no longer benefitting them and they are wrong. The ego is telling them they need to be something that does not make them happy. They are afraid of leaving the market they are in because they are concerned about how that will make them look to others—and how they believe this will make them look to themselves.
The ego is your identity and how you feel about yourself. It is also something that may be leading you in the wrong direction in your career and life because you may be on a path that is completely wrong for you. People with a good sense of self are able to understand themselves and what makes them tick. They are also able to understand what they need in order to be happy. In contrast, if someone does not have good insight into themselves they may try and deny something that is making them unhappy and often try to convince themselves they need to be something that makes them unhappy.
Deep down you were most likely once a happy person who did not need your ego to feel good about yourself. Your feelings were internal and not based on how you judged yourself compared to others.
It is no coincidence that most of the greatest religious figures in history—Jesus, Buddha, Muhammed, and others all made a point that true happiness lies in the elimination of the ego. The tragedy of the human condition is that we often let the ego control us. The tragedy of the practice of law is that the ego is often more prevalent there than in any other profession. The recipe for happiness in the practice of law is eliminating the ego to the extent you can. This means either making changes to your own psychology—through yoga, therapy, meditation, religion, exercise, study—otherwise, or changing your location.
I have found that the people who are the most enlightened and understand themselves are often much happier practicing law. I have also seen that attorneys in smaller markets and firms—who accept this change of venue—are often much happier than those in the largest markets and firms. When you are around people who are controlled by their egos (and these people are in the largest firms and cities), you are more than likely to be too. Do you want to live your life happy and content, or do you want to live in the opposite way?
Is your ego making you unhappy? What can you do to get it under control? What are some ways you have been able to understand yourself better? Do other attorneys in your firm seem generally happy or unhappy? Why or why not?
[ii] There are even schools of thought that state that most communication is nonverbal. Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 Rule of Personal Communication states that words, tone of voice, and body language respectively account for 7%, 38%, and 55% of personal communication.
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