Lawyers and Happiness (And a Little Bit of Virtue Ethics)

Most of the lawyers I know are happy to be lawyers.  They take pride in their work, and they feel good about their role in the justice system.  Life as a lawyer isn’t easy, but it’s rewarding and fulfilling.

But it seems like there’s a perception that has intensified in the past decade or so that lawyers are miserable—that we feel alienated from the profession and that justice rarely plays a role in our tedious, all-consuming work.  There’s a stereotype of a “soulless” lawyer who works to pay off debt or make more money but who feels no satisfaction with the job.    I’m not sure how true this stereotype is (see above), but it’s prevalent and widely discussed.  (Raise the Bar:  Real World Solutions for a Troubled Profession is an interesting book published by the ABA that contains multiple essays exploring the “miserable lawyer” question.)  I want my law students to become lawyers who are happy in their chosen profession, and this blog seems as good a place as any to consider happiness and lawyering.

What is it about being a lawyer that can make us happy?  Surely, individual lawyers will have individual answers to that question, but I want to think about the question broadly from a “virtue ethics” perspective.  Virtue ethics focuses on character.  Happiness is having the right character.  In other words, lawyers will be happy when they act according to virtues that are necessary for good lawyers. (But, you say, lawyers have different conceptions about virtues necessary for good lawyers; that’s true, but we’ll turn to that conundrum in a moment.)

In some ways, “virtue ethics” is best understood by contrasting it with other ethical frameworks.  The virtue ethics perspective is not consequentialist, meaning the end result is not the most important aspect of happiness.  A consequentialist would say that happiness for a lawyer happens when the lawyer receives more “of the good”:  more money, more praise, more clients, more name recognition, more “wins.”  I’m not opposed to any of these goods, but I can see how a lawyer who bases happiness on achieving these goods might quickly become unhappy.  Sometimes despite really excellent lawyering, you don’t win; you don’t make money; you get criticized instead of praised.  And even if you do “win” and get a large share of “the good,” your happiness is fleeting.  You have to keep getting more and more of the good to sustain happiness.

In contrast to this consequentialist (result-focused) framework, a deontological framework  focuses on rules.  A lawyer achieves happiness by doing her duty and making decisions according to the rules.  In a deontological framework, the lawyer is honest because the rules governing lawyers require her to be honest. (In contrast, for a consequentialist, a lawyer is honest because honesty brings in more “of the good,” and dishonesty can have disastrous consequences.)  I am all for following the ethical rules of our profession (I do volunteer work for the Office of Lawyer Regulation), but following the rules as a foundation of happiness in the profession seems insufficient.  If our only source of happiness is in doing our duty according to rules, I can see how some might be unfulfilled.

In a virtue ethics framework, a lawyer is honest because she believes that good lawyers must be honest, and she makes decisions according to that virtue (not because she gets a good result for honesty and not because rules require her to be honest).  Virtue ethics is usually an introspective project, so what matters to your happiness is your conception about what it means to be a good lawyer.  What virtues do good lawyers live by?  What if we don’t agree about that?  (Now I’m talking about the objection raised above). If your conception of appropriate virtue is bizarre (good lawyers are dishonest), then consequences and rules will help keep you in check.  Absent bizarre conceptions of appropriate virtues for lawyers, though, you are responsible for your own happiness.  And it’s not enough to say what your virtues are, you have to put them into action; you have to live by them.  According to Aristotle, you even have to seek out opportunities to live by your virtues.

You could see how virtue ethics might work for law students, too.  You could study hard because you want to get a good grade or because you want to avoid flunking out (consequentialist).  You could study hard because that’s just what law students do.  It’s your duty (deontological).  Or you could study hard because your conception of a good law student is one who diligently pursues excellence, and you are developing habits according to that virtue (virtue ethics).

I want law students and lawyers to discuss what virtues are essential for a good lawyer.  I bet we agree about honesty and diligence, but are there other virtues we widely agree are necessary?  Are there some we disagree about? That would be a fun and potentially useful conversation.  Originally I had planned to write a blog post about service to poor people as a virtue, but this post has already gotten long.  And it’s about lawyers and happiness, not about the way in which being a lawyer makes me happy.

To be sure, external circumstances can affect our happiness in the legal profession, but for those who feel alienated and unhappy in the profession, thinking about virtue ethics and the kind of lawyers we want to be might reveal some insight.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Michael M. O'Hear

    Thank you for this thoughtful post, Rebecca. By coincidence, I just noticed a new piece on the New York Times website ( that provides a nice discussion of Aristotle’s view of happiness as flourishing (which is closely connected to the theory of virtue ethics you are writing about). I especially tried to emphasize this perspective on happiness when I taught Plato and Aristotle to law students last spring. I couldn’t agree more that these are very good things for law students and lawyers to be thinking about.

  2. John Taber

    For “good lawyers”, there’s no such thing as honesty. There’s no such thing as truth. All that matters is winning, and making the best argument possible to do that, no matter how hollow it is.

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