Tuesday, August 12, 2014

For Clinicians, “Happiness is the Truth”

This has been a Happy year for artist Pharrell Williams, and also for clinical law school teachers.  Lawyer happiness (well-being and career contentment) was a central theme at this year’s AALS Clinical Conference, Becoming a Better Clinician, where several clinicians presented empirical research (see Nancy Levit, et al.’s bibliography on p. 89-90).  Turns out that factors like professional autonomy in a supportive environment, a genuine sense of serving a benevolent purpose, and alignment of work/personal values really matter when assessing job satisfaction, as Larry Krieger and Ken Sheldon’s 6200-subject study on what makes lawyers happy found.  In a summary for the spring 2014 CLEA newsletter (p. 27-8), Krieger puts his study’s “striking” findings in context for clinicians: “they showed that the hierarchical, competitive, and materialistic priorities common to many law schools and law firms can undermine lawyer happiness and satisfaction. . . . For example, when comparing subjects by practice grouping, the group with the highest mean pay and class ranks, lawyers in ‘prestige’ jobs, were less happy, and felt less competent in practice, than the group with the lowest mean grades and pay, lawyers in public service positions.  Thus, both ‘success’ and ‘competence’ as traditionally measured in law school do not appear to translate to real lawyers in actual work settings.”

In the real world, too many lawyers are unhappy, as Leigh McMullan Abramson wrote in last month’s The Atlantic.  Abramson left the law, disenchanted with her large-firm experience, and was surprised to learn there is an industry devoted to helping people leave the profession.  “Law-firm associate consistently ranks at the top of unhappy-professions lists and despite starting salaries of $160,000, law firms experience significant yearly associate attrition.” (hyperlinks in original).  “The problem,” Abramson notes, “can begin with the choice to go to law school, which is often made for reasons having nothing to do with the actual practice of law and without diligence about whether the profession is really a fit.” 

Finding your fit in the profession is precisely how some law schools help students address this lawyer-burnout problem.  At the University of Alabama School of Law, for example, Pamela Pierson has created The Business of Being a Lawyer, a mandatory ethics course that explores topics like the ever-changing legal market and employment trends, basic personal finance planning, emotional intelligence (see also Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman’s Authentic Happiness questionnaires), and how to effectively become a “free agent” given that “the average attorney will change jobs seven times in a career,” and “attorneys need marketing skills to position themselves for multiple employment situations and transitions throughout their careers.” 

Another reason for lawyers’ blues, Abramson highlights, is the “disconnect between the training students receive and the skills required in practice.”  Too many new grads feel ill-equipped for practice.  Enter experiential learning.  If only it was ubiquitous and mandatory.  That should change since the ABA voted yesterday that new “standards for law schools would require students to take a minimum of six hours in a clinic or other ‘experiential’ environment,” the National Law Journal reports.  The data does not however suggest, Krieger explains, that either clinical or externship experience in law school contributes to lawyer wellbeing; instead, “the most important factors relating to well-being are also factors that would tend to develop more in experiential programs – autonomy, competence, relatedness to others, interest in/passion for one’s work, and valuing altruistic service.” 

Speaking of legal education reform, Montré Carodine suggests in her article for Ozy that law profs get back to practice: the “key to innovation in law schools is having policy makers immersed in the real world for substantial periods of time.”  As a clinician, I relish that daily privilege.  Practicing with students keeps me informed about how the law is interpreted and justice meted out in everyday scenarios that usually involve the poor, unpopular, and often disenfranchised segment of local society.  In those opportunities, I learn what is and how to teach best practices, and it is satisfying.  Clients and students alike report similarly positive outcomes, and how they felt treated and able to participate in the process.  We are, according to Jane Aiken, Provocateurs for Justice.  On occasion, a monumental case with issues of law and fact of first impression will arise, and we can contribute to its common lawmaking.  We especially get to interact with those people affected and that makes a big difference in our experience and ability to convey their plight, and the responsibilities and rewards abound.  And I for one am happy to clap along.


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