Joy in the Legal Profession
How lawyers can find joy in the legal profession, and how mindfulness can help.
I write this post on the heels of ending a week-long silent meditation retreat. The theme was Awakening Joy, the same title of James Baraz’s now-famous book on how to live a happier life. What does this have in common with lawyering, you might wonder? For a few lucky lawyers like myself, the two go hand in hand.
Generally when you think of lawyers, you think of contentious, money-oriented professionals who like to muscle their way through most situations. Yet many lawyers like myself went to law school to pursue social justice and thought the legal system would be a powerful forum in which to do that work. I admit that after three and a half years as a public defender, I was disillusioned about pursuing that goal in a system that seemed more interested in recrimination than reform.
However, over the years, the law has graciously allowed me to reinvent myself over and over again so that I have always pursued meaningful work. When I left criminal defense, a career that truly felt like a calling, I pursued plaintiff employment work with the idea that I’d advance the cause of women’s rights (another cause I was passionate about). When I found that California employers were, by and large, too savvy or enlightened to violate the law in the ways I had envisioned, I decided to switch to defense-side employment work and privacy law. Doing defense work helped me switch my focus from litigation to preventative employment work, and privacy law helped me focus on cybersecurity best practices, not worst-case-scenarios.
Over the 18 years that I’ve been practicing law, I have found that a law degree opened all kinds of doors for me and allowed me to pursue my passions as those passions evolved. What’s even better, over the 27 years that I’ve been practicing meditation, I’ve been able to increasingly integrate the principles of mindfulness and kindness into my legal work. It is not an easy thing to do in a profession that prides itself on being aggressive and confrontational, but it is possible. For me, it means working with clients whose values match mine, or when they don’t, trying to hold the space of calmness, rationality, and big-picture thinking for clients dealing with intense anger and confusion.
Pursuing an unusual path after law school has made my self-growth and self-discovery possible. I’ve found creative ways to live my passions and have had enough autonomy to follow my conscience the vast majority of the time. Many other lawyers are not that lucky. They are in corporate environments where the goals of the firm don’t match their own, or they are struggling enough financially that taking themselves off a soul-sucking case doesn’t seem possible. My vision, however, is that all lawyers can and should expect more. They can find work that makes them happy most of the time, if not every minute, and a professional life that squares with their values and their priorities, whether that’s making millions or having a modest salary but more time with their families.
In making that transition, I identify two things that are required: willingness to compromise in earning/spending goals (at least temporarily) and mindfulness of how current choices are impacting them. Without the former, the choices for attorneys may be very limited, and without the latter, attorneys lose out on the critical feedback they need to see what about their job is making them unhappy. Mindfulness is a powerful tool to paying attention to how our actions make us feel, and by that I mean really feel in our bodies v. how we think we feel in our heads. They help us feel, for example, how pursuing an unwholesome course of action usually creates a stressful response in our system that, over time, might convince us that the allure of an easier or more lucrative path really isn’t worth the way it makes us feel when it means compromising our values.
Of course, anything I can do to help other attorneys find meaning or joy in their legal work makes me even more joyful and fulfilled in mine. It also helps convince me that the law and lawyers can be the source of more happiness and clarity in the world.
May you be joyful!
Diana Maier is the owner of the Law Offices of Diana Maier, a Marin County-based law firm specializing in employment and privacy law for businesses and employers.