According to a Johns Hopkins University study of more than 100 occupations, more lawyers suffer from depression than any other occupation. In this episode of The Florida Bar Podcast, hosts Christine Bilbrey and Karla Eckardt discuss lawyer wellbeing with Larry Krieger, who expands on why attorneys often struggle with depression and the wellbeing factors that may lead to satisfaction in a legal career. Together, they also talk about why firms should care about their employees’ happiness and how to create a positive environment.
Professor Larry Krieger co-directs the Externship Program and supervises criminal justice externships at the Florida State University College of Law.
The Florida Bar Podcast
Attorney Mental Health and Wellness
Intro: Welcome to The Florida Bar Podcast, where we highlight the latest trends in law office and law practice management to help you run your law firm, brought to you by The Florida Bar’s Practice Resource Institute. You are listening to Legal Talk Network.
Christine Bilbrey: Hello, and welcome to The Florida Bar Podcast, brought to you by The Practice Resource Institute on Legal Talk Network. We are so glad you are joining us. This is Christine Bilbrey. I am a Senior Practice Management Advisor at PRI and one of the hosts for today’s show, which is being recorded from our offices in Tallahassee, Florida.
Karla Eckardt: Hello, I am Karla Eckardt, also a Practice Management Advisor at The Florida Bar’s Practice Resource Institute and your co-host for today’s podcast.
Our goal at PRI is to assist Florida attorneys with running the business side of their law practice. We will be focusing on a different topic each month and we will carry the theme through our newsletter and website with related tech tips and articles.
Christine Bilbrey: So, this month at PRI our topic is “Attorney Mental Health and Wellness”, and joining us today is Attorney and Professor Lawrence Krieger. Larry Krieger is an internationally recognized expert on lawyer well-being. His most recent research on 6,200 lawyers identifies the specific factors that are required for attorney wellness and satisfaction. And this study and the report was the most shared article on The New York Times website for two days. Larry is also the founder of the Humanizing Legal Education Association and Founding Chair of the section on Balance in Legal Education for the Association of American Law Schools. He was Chief Trial Counsel for the Florida Comptroller, and now teaches Litigation Skills and Professionalism at the Florida State University College of Law. He is one of 25 teachers recognized in the 2013 Harvard Press Book ‘What the Best Law Teachers Do’.
Welcome to the show, Larry.
Larry Krieger: Thanks very much.
Christine Bilbrey: Larry, tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and what you’re doing in your role at the Florida State Law School in relation to mental health and happiness?
Larry Krieger: Sure. So, I would say I’m a lawyer at heart. I mean, I was a litigator for 11 years before I was fortunate enough to get this teaching job and I still have been teaching litigation for the last 25 years, so I read student journals every day. After I teach them to litigate, they go out into internships. I travel around the State and visit them and meet their judges. So, I would say, I’m a lawyer at heart and way back I did see the stresses and tensions that I was experiencing and that seemed to get the better of some of the lawyers that I worked with and against. And I had a background in biology and psychology, so when I had the opportunity to teach here at FSC law I wanted to research these issues.
Karla Eckardt: Great. So, what we wanted to talk to you about really is kind of your specialty and it is concerning wellness and mental health and the overall perspective of that within the legal profession. So, one of the most concerning studies includes the findings that attorneys had the highest rate of depression of any occupational group in the US. What would you attribute this to?
Larry Krieger: Yeah, some of the research is pretty little bit depressing, the depression research. I’m always telling my students when I tell them about this, hey, don’t get depressed about this, and then we have a good laugh, because I like to start out by saying that most of us are healthy and happy and I certainly enjoyed my years litigating, but if I knew what I then what I know now I would have enjoyed it more.
So, I think that the reason we get into this snit, if you will, because we really shouldn’t. I mean, we’re all smart people and relatively powerful, relatively affluent. We are fortunate, and so, our group should be one of the happiest groups statistically in society, but that we are not.
I think two big contributors, one is that we put too much emphasis on success which is the subject of our study that was the big hit in The New York Times because we showed that actually success doesn’t make lawyers happy, but because we put so much emphasis on it, we forget to do the things that will make us happy. So that’s one contributor.
The second contributor is the way we’re taught to think like lawyers, actually separates us from the natural sources of well-being that pretty much science has known about for a while but we showed in this study definitely are the few important things for lawyers.
So, this is the reason I think that lawyers fair a little bit worse than doctors and other professionals even it is because we’re taught as supposedly better way of thinking which really is not a better way of thinking. It’s good for handling legal problems, but it’s a complete failure when we start to apply it to life, and we’re not taught in law school to distinguish between a legal problem and how to think in real life.
Karla Eckardt: So, you mentioned your study, I want to go back to that. The study is called ‘What Makes Lawyers Happy?: A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success. Can you tell us a little bit more about your study? What did you find, because I remember reading that it was also sort of a guide, not just for lawyers but for law students, so what were the findings that you probably share with your law students and that lawyers should also consider?
Larry Krieger: Sure, and I’ll just mention that the — that article I think it — it kind of resonated with other professionals too. It ended up being in the national news section actually in the print newspaper, The New York Times, as well as online, and it was the most shared article in the whole newspaper for a couple of days.
The reason is, we really showed that success does not make people happy. It doesn’t mean that success is bad, but making a lot of money, being at the top of everything, having a lot of power, these are not sources of happiness for lawyers or pretty much anybody else, but of course our study was limited to lawyers and judges.
By contrast there’s a number of human factors kind of personal relational factors, which really are the sources of well-being and I’ll just refer you and the listeners to the link, which I think is posted there by the link for this podcast, because there’s a graphic there at the link which lists the happiness factors. I would call them the well-being factors, so they can view this at the same time that we’re speaking if they care to. It’s very distinct.
We were able to actually quantify how powerful all these different factors are for a lawyer’s well-being. We were able to measure it mathematically, and I think that’s what’s gotten people’s attention because it makes it very concrete.
So, your question is, what actually works to make lawyers happy? So to starting from the top, there are five factors that are really very important, and four that are most important. The most important ones are what we call the authenticity need or the autonomy need, which means a sense that I’m true to myself, that I’m true to my values, and basically I have integrity; what I say is what I mean, what I say is the truth and so forth. So, a sense of authenticity and autonomy, that’s the most important thing. And without that a person really can’t be happy, I think this study shows.
The second most important thing, and it’s almost equal in importance, is what’s called the Relatedness Need or really relating in a meaningful way to other people in your life and work. So, relatedness is a sense of feeling meaningfully connected to someone, like you and I are talking now, we can’t see each other, but if we feel like we’re really connecting I appreciate what you’re asking, you appreciate what I’m saying, then we’re getting some sense of relatedness, but it comes more from co-workers, family, friends, it can also come standing in line at the grocery store and just talking to people if you feel you’re being genuine with them.
So, those are the top two most important things. The third thing is a sense of competence, pretty much common sense, meaning that we have a sense of being able to do what we need to do in our personal and professional life, both.
And then the fourth most important thing, and these are all very, very high. I think I would say that a person who doesn’t have all four of these experiences, regularly is not going to be very happy. You would need all four of these on a regular basis, although we’re all going to have some lapses in them all from time-to-time.
But the fourth and last I would say critical thing is called Internal Motivation, it means that what we choose to do we choose for internal, personal reasons. Primarily it relates to work, two aspects. One, I’m doing my work because I enjoy it and it’s interesting to me, that’s a one form of internal motivation enjoyment and interest in what we are doing, and the second one is that it’s important to me, it matters so that it gives meaning and purpose to life.
So, those four things: being authentic, feeling connected with two other people, feeling competent in our work, and in our personal lives and choosing things for internal rather than external purposes.
Christine Bilbrey: That’s absolutely true and we’ve heard that these different points are very important for happiness, but what do you think about on a practical point, because I am going to imagine that our listeners, probably a big share of them today are your students, so maybe they are feeling powerless, they think that they have a ton of law school debt, they have papers to write, they are still trying to find a job if they are about to graduate, and so they feel powerless. So, when we are telling them all these things, what do you tell them, how can you get some power back to feel better about what’s going on in your life if you feel like you really don’t have any power in the situation that you are in?
Larry Krieger: Yeah, I am sure students would be listening, hopefully, lots of lawyers are listening too. We’ve got what, how many, hundreds of thousands of Bar members now, what I encourage students about is you have the power every moment to choose what you are going to do in the next moment and that’s really what this boils down to.
That internal motivation is, I am doing things for an important reason, for a purpose that what I am doing matters. In other words, if we are working 40-50 however many hours a week, for the money there’s not a lot of purpose in that, and so ultimately people get depressed and burned out from that.
If we are working we are making lots of money but we are mainly working because we want to help those people get a fair divorce and custody decree or we want to help corporations make good business decisions or we want to help indigent clients or whatever it is, then that’s going to be satisfying, and sometimes that can be deferred in time.
So, going to law school, say, a person has a passion to become a corporate lawyer or a public defender, whatever it is, as humans we have the ability to make that choice and say, well, I am not enjoying law school which by the way I was not a big fan of law school. It took me eight years to do — I think it was six or seven trimesters, eight years to get through law school. So, I wasn’t a fan but ultimately I made in here, I have been teaching law school for 25 years, and so, it’s just as long as we can connect what we are doing to a purpose that’s important to us.
Another example is, say your baby gets sick, if you have a baby and makes a big mess or the usual thing, need to change the diapers, that may not be the most fun, you are pretty much powerless to ignore that, but you can still be a very happy mom or dad if it’s important to you to have a healthy clean baby, you do it anyway and you feel actually good about it, even though the experience isn’t pleasant. So that’s the one kind of internal motivation that we connected to a higher purpose for ourselves. The other one is, I just play and enjoy it, and ideally people have some of both in their life.
Christine Bilbrey: I also think you would be hard-pressed to convince some associate attorneys out there who think, when I make partner I am going to be happy; when I get the higher salary, the bigger house, I am going to be happier there or they are convinced that that is the brass ring that is eluding them. Are you sharing with them that that’s really not going to be — all that it’s cracked up to be like who are the happy attorneys? So, if you are just saying, that’s not going to do it, have you found in your studies? Who does achieve some happiness in their career?
Larry Krieger: Yeah, that’s a really important point, I always cover that when I talk to lawyers or students, because the study says money and the big house and so forth in the partnership and getting on law review and being at the top of the class if your student is just not going to get the job done for you. The study is very clear about that, and I think we can see that in our own lives, you look around you see lots of wealthy, powerful people who are miserable and may even be into addictions and other kind of problems because they are so unhappy.
So, clearly, the money and the rank and the status and all that is not going to make people happy, but we still like it and it’s still good. I mean, I always say, I ask for a raise every year, we get a chance once a year to ask for a raise, we write to dean a letter and I write that letter, it’s like — and occasionally even as a State employee occasionally I get a raise, and you know what, it doesn’t make me depressed either. I am happy when I get the raise.
It’s just that it’s not going to be a strong enough source of well-being that it’s going to satisfy your life, and so, where lawyers and law students and the rest of us make the mistake is that we trade off a lower — a higher source of happiness for a lower source of happiness, practical example, I have students all the time get the job offers.
Well, I will give you a specific example, I think they speak the loudest. I had a student come to law school who wanted to be a prosecutor. He was a police officer, he loved his job, he loved his town, which was out in the Panhandle, all he wanted to do was get through law school and go back to his hometown and be a prosecutor, that’s all he wanted to do. He took my program, which is Training Litigation Skills, he went back to his hometown, he interned there at the office where he hoped to get a job, they loved him, they offered him a job, but he was also at the top of the class and he got offered a job and it had a wonderful law firm nationally with a strong presence in Florida in the Southeast and the salary was triple and so he took it.
And so, he got into a really prestigious firm with way-way more money and those are modest benefits for well-being, that’s one of the advantages of this slide that I have got posted if people can open that link, they will see the numbers. So, the number for higher income, how much that’s going to relate to well-being is 19% and the number for being true to yourself, how much that relates to well-being is 66%.
So, he took more income and 19% factor and gave up being authentic to himself and his internal motivation which was a 55% factor. He gave up over a 110, we could say quality points there in order to get a 19-point benefit of more money and he was miserable, he finally got out of the firm and opened his own small practice and in an area that he cared about and he is doing great now.
So, it’s not that none of these things are bad, what’s bad is and when we don’t understand what’s an actual source of happiness, and that’s why the name of the paper is, “Redefining Professional Success” because professional success right now does not include the factors that will make a lawyer happy and satisfied with their career and that’s why we have depression.
Christine Bilbrey: So, Professor Krieger, everyone wants to be happier, whether you have already made partner and you found out that it wasn’t all that was cracked up to be or you are in your dream job but you just — it’s — something is missing. We have the Hazelden Study telling us that the rate of suicide is so much higher for attorneys, the different addictions are higher, and anxiety is huge; if I have already arrived at the point that I wanted to in my career and I am just not happy, what can I do in my day-to-day life, some real things to make it better?
Larry Krieger: Yeah, it’s a great question, because — that’s a goal for all of us. I mean, I have been very fortunate to get wonderful, enjoyable, satisfying jobs and I have been doing this research for — how many years now — and teaching it for decades and I’d like to be happier too.
I am always trying to take my own medicine and try to improve as well, and I think it always just boils down pretty simply to understanding these four or five top contributors to human well-being what they actually are and then looking how can I improve that this week?
I mean, it can be the simplest thing. I talked to a group of local lawyers a month or two ago and I asked questions like, so, for this first need, the authenticity or autonomy need, write down something right now. I suppose listeners could do it as well, because I do it right in the context of CLE talks I do and so forth, think about it for 20 seconds, right, what’s one thing that I could do, that’s practically be the smallest little thing that I could do in the next two weeks consistently that I would like to do, something that I have been wanting to do, but I just haven’t done because I have’nt taken the time. And people always click on something, oh, I used to run and I felt so good when I ran, now I don’t have time.
So, the one lawyer said, well, I am going to — twice a week I am going to go out for a 20-minute run, I can do that, and so, it’s really understanding, we are always looking to improve.
I’d like to use the analogy of flying from Miami to Los Angeles on a modern jet. They’re on autopilot, they’re on course all the time, they’re never off-course. But is that true? Actually, it’s not. That electronic autopilot is constantly, constantly sensing that the plane is off-course and constantly correcting it. So, I think our human life is the same way we’ve got to be humble and realize that we are born to be happy and we’re born to grow, and it doesn’t come automatically.
We’ve got to be willing to think about it and work for it and be open to it, so the woman who makes partner, who gets appointed judge, and then gets bumped up to appellate judge, whatever, who isn’t happy, something else is missing here. And so, it’s a matter of looking at these top four or five factors, and fixing it.
It may be that work-life is great, but home-life isn’t that good. We’re struggling with relationships, we’re not spending the time with our kids that we would like to, so we’re not being authentic about that. We’re not getting the relatedness satisfaction because we’re not spending the time with them because work is so fulfilling.
So, it constantly involves an open mind to look at our life and journal. How am I doing today? I would say, once a week write a little five-minute journal, how am I really doing this week? And look at these few factors and be willing to make little adjustments like the autopilot on the jet plane.
Karla Eckardt: So, we’ve gone over why it’s important on an individual level to sort of improve our happiness and our mental health, and just make every day better, at least try to, but why should law firms or companies care about their employees’ happiness levels?
Larry Krieger: Yeah, great question. So, lots of reasons. The first reason is that the employers who care about their employees’ and colleagues’ happiness level will be living at what are called intrinsic values, that’s the 22:06 most important factor, caring about others altruistic motives and that’s a big source of well-being.
The bigger reasons are of course, from a business standpoint or from an output standpoint for a public agency, that’s not a profit generating agency, is that output goes way, way up. There’s absolutely no question that the research is all one way. People who are happier perform better; it’s as simple as that.
In our law student studies that we did before this big lawyer study and those appear in some very strong psychology journals that are peer-reviewed, we were able to show that the students who had this internal motivation, they were in law school mainly for a high purpose and because they loved the idea of learning the law, more so than they wanted to get rich and famous and so forth.
Those students first of all got higher grades than their incoming numbers would predict. And then secondly, they were much more likely to pass the Bar exam. And there’s been lots and lots of studies in industrial and business settings. There’s a book by two Swiss economists called “Happiness and Economics”, and it’s all about all these studies where when you pay attention to these internal human principles that I’m talking about here, your employees are happier, they stay longer.
Your bottom-line is way, way better, you don’t have the turnover, you have much longer retention and people are encouraging each other to do better and simply maximizing their output, they’re sick less and they’re much more engaged and motivated in what they’re doing. In other words, they care more, they care more about the work because it’s bringing them joy.
Christine Bilbrey: And if I’m a managing partner and you’ve convinced me, I want all my attorneys working for me and my staff to be happier, I know it’s going to improve our bottom-line, what’s something that you’ve seen as a real example inside a law firm that the firm was able to do to create an environment, where the staff and the attorneys could be happier? How can I impact that?
Larry Krieger: Sure. Yeah, and I think this goes equally again for public interest, to State attorney office, a county attorney, public defender, legal aid. The principles really are the same, it’s just that the hooks to get distracted are a little stronger in the private firm because the profit motive is so strong just for survival and then for markers of success, the purpose of our study.
So what really works again is kind of understanding that and accepting that your most important resource is your human resource, not the money that they create for you. The money comes and goes but your human resources are precious, they are truly precious.
Once you have that understanding then you look at these five or six factors you understand them and you start to integrate them into your firm or your agency or your organization or your business. By the way, they work equally well at home with your partner and your children, equally well. It is all human dynamics here.
So to answer your question on a practical level, once your attitude as a manager isn’t well, I’m the boss and so I get to say whatever I want to say, that may be true, but your attitude more is, I respect and appreciate my employees, I see the potential in them, I want to develop that potential. I’m going to benefit from that too, both psychologically and economically, but I want to do that for them as well.
Once you are in that place where you are employee-centered and you are purpose-centered rather than money and bottom-line-centered, then you start doing things automatically that express that. For example, you go and see your employees in their offices you walk around, get off your butt, get out of your big office, don’t make people come to you all the time, stroll around, pop in on people, who look like they have a little time, wave to them if they don’t. So it looks like you actually care about, and the ones you do have that can talk to you, you go and just stopping in for a minute, how are you doing? Any problems I can help with? Any concerns that you want to share with me? I may not be able to fix them, but I’d like to know, but you show genuine interest in a sense of respect to them.
This is actually called Autonomy Support, where you are supporting the autonomy or the sense of value of the self of the other person. This is the fifth most important factor in that chart at the link. And so, you find lots of ways, I think the articles that I’ve got — recently I had one, The Florida Bar Journal, explain a little more about that.
I also want to suggest a book by Anne Brafford, it’s an ABA Law Practice Division Book that just came out that covers all of this in great detail. It’s really a wonderful book. It’s called “Positive Professionals: Creating High-Performing Profitable Firms Through The Science of Engagement.” So that’s Positive Professionals. I just threw a little plug-in to actually — it’s a great book, and it’s small.
Christine Bilbrey: Excellent.
Larry Krieger: Right, so once you see — once you have those attitudes that your employees are your greatest resource and you can get a lot more benefit from them for yourself and your organization, if you treat them as a resource that can be developed, then you take on the responsibility to develop the resource.
I think a simpler way to say it is you become less controlling and more supportive. It’s a big trap as we get more power, we can just use it to control people through consequences and anxiety, and fear basically, that’s a very undermining, eroding way to manage and many of us do it.
The same thing with children, raising children, if you control them rather than support their autonomy, they are stifled. So, get out and walk around, do things that help the employees collaborate, make sure that they feel competent at what they’re doing, it doesn’t mean that you praise them for doing bad work but you praise them for doing good work and you say, here’s where you could improve and I’d be looking for that on your next employer review.
So, be honest, but for every negative thing you tell them or something where there’s a critique, give them two or three good things that they’ve done. So, they see you’re appreciating both sides of them, so they feel appreciated, understood and that you’re trying — you’re setting expectations for them that are clear and that they can meet. Don’t keep them in the dark, don’t keep them in fear and anxiety about how are they doing for the promotion or the partner track or whatever.
Christine Bilbrey: Yeah, excellent points. It looks like we’ve reached the end of our program. Professor Lawrence Krieger, thank you for joining us today.
Larry Krieger: It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Christine Bilbrey: If our listeners have questions or want to follow-up, how can they reach you?
Larry Krieger: Yeah, I’m on the FSU website, FSU Law or just my email HYPERLINK “mailto:[email protected]” [email protected]. I’d love to hear from people.
Christine Bilbrey: Great. If you liked what you heard today, please rate us in Apple Podcast. Join us next time for another episode of The Florida Bar Podcast brought to you by the Practice Resource Institute on Legal Talk Network. I am Christine Bilbrey.
Karla Eckardt: And I am Karla Eckardt, until next time, and thank you for listening.
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