How to be a Happier Lawyer
Let’s do something about it.
The profession trains for and expects perfection. Digging into minutiae is challenging and involves long hours.
It’s also a common pastime for lawyers to complain about being lawyers.
But there are ways to improve satisfaction and happiness as a lawyer. This article offers five ideas you can get started with today.
Maria Kondo Your (Virtual) Workspace
There’s a mountain of social science research shows that a more organized and bounded digital environment creates more satisfaction at work. And as it turns out, just “searching for everything” is making us miserable.
Become the Trusted Advisor You Were Born To Be
Practicing law is about being valued for your expertise. Even if you’re a junior associate, there are ways to become the trusted advisor, and feel better about yourself and your contributions.
Get Into Flow
Meaningful work happens with deep work. Get into flow, and create magic.
It’s easy to live in the legal weeds of our practices, then go home and sit on the couch with your 15 minutes of free time. If you want to live a happier and more fulfilling life (and not look back with regret at 65), keep learning and keep reading actual books.
Pursue Meaningful Connections
Relationships bring richness to our lives. Nourish the ones you have and open yourself to new ones – the rewards stunning.
1) Maria Kondo Your Virtual Workspace1
Technology has completely taken over your workday.
The nonstop flow of emails.
The inordinate amount of time figuring out where to communicate and find documents – across emails, DMS systems, local folders, Jabber, Zoom, Teams and a plethora of other applications… it’s a mess.
It’s easier to save everything, so that’s what we do. But piling up infinite amounts of information makes us feel like we have lost control over the technology that’s meant to help us.
It’s no wonder we feel overwhelmed by our technology.
There are lots of ways to organize our digital lives. No one solution fits everyone’s needs.
But social science is clear – a more organized digital work environment creates more satisfaction at work.2
Be Deliberate, Be Colorful
As humans, our short-term memory isn’t very good. But our spatial memory is awesome.
Think about a core memory you have. Something that’s stuck over the years. You may not remember exactly what was said. Or exactly who was there. But I’m betting you remember details about what the space looked like.
Translated to our workday – we’re simply not wired to view and understand information the way inboxes are designed. So try something else.
When it comes to your digital life, your main goal is to find a way to gain more control over technology, and create ways to be more visual and precise.
“But I can just search for everything, which is fine”
No, it’s actually not.
The human brain is designed to recall and organize information, like language and email, through visual cues.
Empirical evidence shows that our brains are designed to view clusters and patterns, not lists of emails within folders.3 Results from experiments on visualizations and recall show that grouping materials and dynamic displays increase precision and accuracy.4
Search technology has improved so dramatically that it makes organizing documents and emails much easier. The research shows, however, that people are more satisfied finding their files by navigating through workspaces rather than searching for them.5
This is what project management solutions provide – and why our peers in virtually every other profession use products like Asana, Monday, ClickUp, and a slew of other project management products.
Because it makes the work more visual, organized, and pleasant.
Knowing that something has its place, and where to find it, reduces the perpetual micro-stresses of searching for information. And those micro-stresses add up quickly.
So if you’re committed to being less stressed at work, try a digital workspace solution. Spend an hour to set it up, make it colorful, and commit to using it daily.
I’m not sure if this “Sparks Joy” as Maria Kondo has coined – but I am sure it will help you feel more in control of your materials. Which is the goal.
This is what my company Dashboard Legal provides. We’re not the perfect solution. But we’re providing tools specifically for lawyers to create their own dynamic digital workspaces that match the way they work.
2) Be the Trusted Advisor
Believe in yourself. Yes, you may be junior, and your partner needs to review that two-sentence email before sending it to a client.
But you went to law school. You’re smart. So follow this simple motto from the NYC Subways:
And then keep doing it. Clients and partners appreciate lawyers that add value and don’t sit silently on endless conference calls.
And once you speak up, and contribute, you’ll feel better about the work you’re doing every day. You’ll quickly gain confidence to do it more often.
Go for it. Don’t be afraid to look stupid.
The best part about the legal profession is being valued as a trusted advisor. Start becoming that today.
3) Get into Flow
A. Set boundaries for your email usage.
This is especially the case for lawyers, who feel the need to constantly be available to their clients, or their partners. We’re stressed out about checking email so much it’s ruining our mental and physical health.
Research finds that the more time you spend on email, the lower your productivity and the higher stress levels.7
Ironically, it’s “frequent filers” – who are always on alert for new emails and jump into action and file it immediately – are among the worst at getting into flow.
Here’s the issue: it creates a system of interruption that requires an enormous amount of time to get back on track with deep work. By some measures, it’s 26 minutes.
Research shows that if you have an elaborate folder system, you end up doing more harm than good.8 You’re expending too much brain power finding the right folder to store the message, then trying to remember where you put it in the first place.
Do I think you’ll stop checking your email for hours at a time? No, we’re all addicted to our phones and I’m not delusional.
What I am saying is you check it way, way too much. Worry you’ll miss something important if you put your phone in the drawer for an hour? Don’t. You won’t. You have other obligations. Give yourself space to enjoy your job without interruption. Even if it’s just closing your email completely for 30 minutes. Start somewhere and see how it makes you feel.
So block off regular chunks of time – try 30 minutes each workday – and check your email after.
Researchers at the University of Chicago conducted an experiment: they asked three groups of participants to put their phones in one of three places – turned over on their desk, in their pockets, and in another room.
Then the participants were asked to do simple tasks including memory exercises and basic math.
When they examined the results, the researchers found something incredible: the more accessible the phone, the worse the subject did. All of the phones were silenced. The phones on the desks were turned over. Still, the subjects with phones on the desk did the worst, pockets next, and phones in the other room performed the best. By a lot.
The mere presence of a phone made the subjects worse at basic cognitive tasks. Crazy.
If you want to get real work done, which is proven to lead to higher levels of satisfaction, put the phone away. Even if it’s just for an hour.
Research shows that the mere presence of a smartphone can make you perform poorly, even if it’s sitting silently on your desk.
You’re the boss of your technology. Make it that way.
4) Keep Learning Keep Growing
Law firms may seem to value you as a cog – working among the myriad of interchangeable parts. But you are unique, and today talent and creativity are rewarded more than obedience.
Look at history’s most impactful lawyers – from Thurgood Marshall who engineered the legal civil rights movement, to Joe Flom who practically invented M&A – trailblazers who were incredible attorneys and also challenged the status quo.
Finding innovative solutions to new problems never gets old.
But investing in yourself in ways that transcend your practice will keep you growing. Expand your mind by reading genres that inspired you when you were younger. Try meditating, writing poetry, traveling, or visiting a museum you’ve never entered before.
This isn’t me telling you “go get a hobby” – this is about carving out time to continue learning. Keeping you sharp and creative will permeate every aspect of your life. Including your work.
In the words of Thoreau, “For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root” – and we can only achieve improvements in our lives if we quit hacking at the leaves of seemingly urgent work and invest in our roots. This is the foundation from which our talents and behaviors flow.
Organizations will always strive to replace replaceable elements. But truly talented, creative lawyers aren’t easily replaceable – those lawyers are different. And you can become one by continuing to invest in yourself.
You can be the creation of your own proactive design, or the creation of other people’s agendas.
Paying attention to your own self-development is the most important aspect of improving your ability to produce and contribute in meaningful ways.
Give yourself permission to be creative and explore. Go read a book.
5) Form Meaningful Connections
You’re tired, you want to go home. Or more likely, you’re already home.
But meaningful interpersonal relationships are the most consistent predictor of a happy life, and since we’re talking law practice here, also improves your ability to find and retain clients.
Go meet that client in person for coffee. Convince your partner it’s a good idea to fly to their office and spend time getting to know them. Meet that colleague for a drink and share ideas on how to become better at what you both do.
People get energy from real human connections. Push yourself to do it, and you’ll feel better afterward. It’s like exercising in that way.
Pursuing Connections (& Exercise)
Anticipation is the worst part, but during and after you’ll feel glorious. Which is the opposite of eating junk food or other sugar-highs.
There are many paths to finding happiness at work. Traveling those paths is a process, not an event.
Commit to investing in yourself – by using technology to organize your workspaces, carving out space for deep work, reading books, and investing in meaningful relationships – Your future self will thank you.
About The Author
Founder and CEO @ Dashboard Legal
Licensed Attorney turned legaltech founder – Mat spent 7 years in NYC biglaw before launching Dashboard Legal. He is passionate about harnessing technology to make lawyers’ lives easier and their interactions more rewarding. Connecting with new people is the best part about this journey (aside from no longer tracking life in 6-minute increments). Feel free to reach out!