Lawyering Happily 1L at a Time

Note: The author’s views are entirely his own and are not endorsed by his law school or this publication. 

By Laurence O'Donnell

I want to weave several threads together on lawyering happily that might not appear connected on first glance but upon a longer look are interconnected in a beautiful tapestry because lawyers are human too; humans first, actually. 

Aristotle taught that happiness is that which all humans desire (Nichomachean Ethics I.7). Perhaps this is especially true for lawyers because, among the professions, it is hard to think of one with so many challenges to happiness such as dealing with all the unpleasant aspects of human nature (the many human vices) and conflict (there’s a reason litigation is called “going to war”) and carrying large loads of stress and risk at all times (which starts day one of law school and continues on). We’ll need a few threads for the weave on this brief journey into whether happiness is a thing for lawyers and, if so, what sort of a thing it is. 

All the “Ls” 

The first is an observation on the “L” tradition. I do not know its genesis, but I love it. It’s fitting for the situation. Anyone who starts the law journey, regardless of one’s background or life stage, must walk the novice progression. To enter the temple of the law, one must pass through the crucible of the 1L. I had not heard of a 1L until about a quarter century ago. Back then, on the first phase of my law school journey (which ended in an abrupt pause as my career went another direction), I came across Scott Turrow’s autobiography, One L. It was both a harrowing and fascinating read. I still remember it to this day. And having survived my own 1L last year, I still think it is a worthy read along with Professor McClurg’s 1L of a Ride for anyone considering taking the plunge. 

But I’ve lived a little since then and have met a few attorneys on the colorful phase two of my law journey (part-time law student, full-time civil construction professional, dad of 4 ages 14, 12, 8, and 6). One of them taught me something about the “L” tradition that I’ll never forget. She is a highly successful attorney at a Big Law firm, barred in several states including the difficult Louisiana bar, a former clerk for a federal judge, former law review—all the successful lawyerly career things and no lightweight of an attorney. She’s well into a successful career in commercial real estate. But she introduced herself to me as a 23L. I loved that because it’s such a positive perspective on the lawyerly career path. Surely the game changes as you go. (Thankfully, 1L is one-and-done.) But lawyers are learners the whole ride. 3L (or 4L for us part-time Ls) is not the end but the beginning. One L leads to another for happy lawyers. 

Loving the Law 

The second is a line from Mem (מ) in the Hebrew Psalter: 

Oh how I love your law! 

It is my meditation all the day. 

Psalm 119:97 (English Standard Version).  

The 119th Psalm is a long acrostic. It’s as if the psalmist is saying, from A to Z, let me lay it out for you: here’s how you live life to the fullest coram Deo. In the middle of the alphabet there’s this line about loving the law worth pondering for all the Ls.

The context here is divine law, not human. But posing the question regarding the practice of law is a valid one nonetheless: is it possible for lawyers to love lawyering? Can lawyers taste happiness in a lawyering way of life, which, let’s be honest, is full of many woes, sorrows, and challenges unique to the practice of law? 

We still need a few more threads before we begin the weave. 

The Happy Lawyer 

The third is the subtitle from Nancy Levit and Douglas O. Linder’s The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law (Oxford University Press, 2010). Two years ago when I looked into restarting my law journey, I toured UMKC School of Law. On the tour, I lucked into an opportunity to take in Professor Levit’s tort’s class. After a fascinating lecture, she invited me to chat in her office. I was so impressed with her demeanor in the classroom and in conversation with her that, when I learned that she had written a book on lawyering happy, I was intrigued. I picked up a copy and took it in with delight. 

Both by her way of life and in her book, Prof. Levit taught me one thing that I’ll never forget: good lives in the law are made. No one hands an enjoyable career path to you full of happiness. Lawyers must forge one through intentional choices. 

A Happy Lawyer 

The fourth is a living expression of an attorney who is making those intentional choices and forging a path full of happiness. She’s loving more and living more through her law practice. I met her at a recent bar association meeting. Complete stranger. I happened to have a chance to speak with her, and I’m so glad I did. I’ll never forget what she shared. Like my 23L friend, she too is a wildly successful attorney with an award-winning career at a large law firm. She was winning multi-million-dollar suits for her clients left and right, making it rain for the firm, all the signs of success in the courtroom but finding no meaning in the work. Happiness was lacking in the situation. Depression was taking root. 

When she learned I was a law student looking to get into the practice of law in a law firm setting, she shared with me that suicide is a legitimate concern for not a few practitioners of the law. Our worlds intersected unexpectedly here because, as I shared with her, I have faced the same challenge as an HR professional in the industry with the highest suicide rate around the entire globe: construction. I was surprised indeed to learn from her that the same darkness that pervades construction lurks in the legal industry as well. 

But she made a major change to be happy. She chose to leave the firm and to take on the significant risk of putting out her own shingle as a solo practitioner. She found a client niche that she loves serving, and she’s going for it. To put it in terms of Prof. Levit’s book: my friend has “found her flow.” And she is tasting the joy of lawyering happily. Her work has new meaning. Her heart is in it. Her name is on it. She is proud to be helping people through the law. And you can see it in her eyes. This counselor radiates happiness. 

The Metaphysics of Happiness 

The fifth, if you will allow some deeper waters, is a bucket drop into the deep well of a master teacher in the Christian theological tradition. Thomas Aquinas wrote a lot about happiness human and divine. (Yes, divine happiness is a fascinating topic. See his chapters in Summa contra gentiles on God’s happiness; I.100, 101, 102.). 

In another of his works he poses a question worth posing to lawyers seeking happiness: whether some good of the soul constitutes man’s happiness? Summa theologiae I-II.Q2.A7. What he means by this question is: if we agree with Aristotle that all humans seek happiness and that happiness is thus humanity’s good; then because there are three kinds of human goods (external goods, goods of the body, and goods of the soul), it seems to be the case that human happiness would be a good of the soul, right? 

He gives two answers. The first is a quote from St. Augustine: “that which constitutes the life of happiness is to be loved for its own sake. But man is not to be loved for his own sake, but whatever is in man is to be loved for God’s sake. Therefore happiness consists in no good of the soul.” Id. sed contra. The second is his own answer, which concludes as follows: “happiness is something belonging to the soul; but that which constitutes happiness is something outside the soul.” Id. respondeo. 

Now we’re ready to weave. 

A Tapestry 

If one is willing to learn from the likes of Aristotle and Aquinas, the following factors may affect a lawyer’s happiness at any point on the law journey: 

(1) Lawyering happily is possible. It is a human good to be experienced and enjoyed over time. Loving lawyering is possible for any L. Its richness grows in proportion to one’s experience and wisdom. 

(2) Happy Ls exist. I have met the one I described above and would be happy to introduce you to her. I aspire to become one like her. There are many more. 

(3) Lawyering happily is an intentional choice. It doesn’t fall from the sky. One intentionally chooses to forge a career path full of happiness. Happiness is hard work. It is a habit that requires exercising. As with gaining strength, so with gaining happiness: one must work to maintain it over time. 

(4) Lawyering with friends tends toward happiness. The lonely lawyer is not the happy lawyer. The good of happiness is self-diffusive. It radiates. Happiness shines most brightly together. The friendly lawyer tends to be a happy lawyer. The friendless lawyer does not. 

(5) For those willing to approach the deep waters, the metaphysical things, that “something outside the soul” toward which Aquinas points may unlock the door to the mystery of the lawyer’s deepest happiness. The happiest lawyer may be the one willing to consider the matter sub specie aeternitatis.

Laurence O’Donnell, ThM, is a part-time 2L at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law and is pursuing a career in the practice of civil construction law and real estate law. He is a former academic theologian and blawgs frequently on construction law (public works compliance, contracts and contracting), employment law, and occasionally on matters philosophical and theological. When he’s not working or writing, he’s playing with his four kids, who are his chief joy in life, or undergoing barbell therapy at the gym.