Lawyers are often thought of as a miserable lot: depressed, anxious, bitter and frequently alcoholic. Whether this is true or overstated is a matter of debate. But the view that lawyers are unhappy is ubiquitous, and there’s now a growing scholarship devoted to lawyer well-being. And if the nascent literature has a canon, Nancy Levit and Doug Linder’s 2011 The Happy Lawyer—a straightforward look at the psychological and social issues plaguing lawyers—has a prominent place in it.
Now, in The Good Lawyer, they’ve written an excellent follow-up. More philosophical in tone and expansive in scope, their latest work is a sort of quixotic quest to fine the qualities that define “good lawyers.”
Like many undergraduates in the 1970s, co-author Linder was obsessed with Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a reflection on the metaphysical notion of “quality.” Pirsig defines quality as something innate, a manner of thinking blending the formalistic and the intuitive. Mind and heart, so to speak. Levit and Linder borrow Pirsig’s construct of quality and his picaresque narrative structure to take us on a cross-country journey to look for those “good” lawyers who embody both mind and heart in their work.
What do they find? That “good lawyers” share certain positive cognitive and emotional traits—like empathy and realistic optimism—as well an unwavering commitment to professional excellence.
Although Levit and Linder teach law, they quickly dismiss any notion that “quality” is taught in law school. To the contrary, the authors argue that law school, in its overly rigid and formalistic pedagogy, strips students of intuitive and emotional thinking. In the process, the goals that attracted many of them to law school—to serve clients well, make a difference in people’s lives and society—are willfully exorcised.
But The Good Lawyer is far more than another attack on law school and legal pedagogy, like Brian Tamahana’s 2012 Failing Law Schools. Instead, Levit and Linder seek to inform and inspire through stories of the “good lawyers” they find in their journey. Organized into 10 chapters built around specific virtues, behaviors, and cognitive skills (“The Good Lawyer is Empathetic,” “The Good Lawyer is Courageous,” “The Good Lawyer Uses Both Intuition and Deliberative Thinking,” “The Good Lawyer Pursues Justice With Integrity”), it presents, in fine narrative style, a wide variety of characters who embody each trait.
For example, the chapter on courage tells the story of John Doar, a justice department lawyer who risked his life in the streets of 1963 Jackson, Mississippi, to prevent a race riot. The chapter on empathy takes us to the Wyoming ranch of legendary trial lawyer Gerry Spence, who teaches lawyers that the ability to stand emotionally in the shoes of clients, jurors, and victims—empathy—is his winning secret.
Most of us won’t do anything physically heroic like John Doar or win as many jury trials as Spence. That said, the authors argue that advances in psychology can help most lawyers find or rediscover the innate qualities of their practices and professional lives. Relying heavily upon the work of Martin Seligman and his colleagues in positive psychology (disclaimer: I have worked with Dr. Seligman for the past five years) as well as behavioral economists and neuroscientists, they argue that building one’s optimism, open-mindedness, willpower, resilience, emotional intelligence, and character strength is a path toward greater life and professional satisfaction. Those steeped in the positive psychology literature might quibble with their relatively indiscriminate survey of studies in the field. But their larger point is convincing—that a growing body of research provides a path to harness our emotional and psychological states to become better lawyers.
The Good Lawyer finds most of its subjects outside of the world of Big Law. That’s not surprising. Until major firms start recruiting and developing attorneys who embody the virtues and traits of “good lawyers,” progress will be slow.
Levit and Linder offer few compelling suggestions to change Big Law’s collective mindset, admitting it will require “bucking some trends.” Trends? Like the power and riches of those running top firms as businesses rather than partnerships, and the elite law schools that supply them with cannon fodder every year? Those are more than trends; those are entrenched business practices.
Finding the irrefutable link between professionalism, profits, and happiness in Big Law has been elusive so far. But I maintain hope. When a lawyer’s well-being is seen as elemental to his or her professional being as hard work and critical thinking, real change will occur in the profession. And thanks will be owed in large part to the groundwork laid by Levit and Linder.
Until then, read their fine book.
Contributed by Dan Bowling