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Positive Psychology and the Law: Why Lawyers Are So Dissatisfied

Lawyers Weekly USA
July 18, 2005
By Bill Ebelle

Ellen Ostrow, a clinical psychologist and founder of Lawyers Life Coach, agrees that a worldview that makes lawyers effective in their profession can pollute their personal lives.  "Almost every lawyer I've worked with is looking for the dark cloud behind the silver lining," she says. "That's what they've been trained to do. If they are looking at job options, they are focusing on what can possibly go wrong in that position. Their spouses complain that when they go to a restaurant, rather than focus on the great food and atmosphere, they fixate on the bad service."

The second form of happiness is "The Good Life," which Seligman defines as a state of absorption. Ostrow describes it as a state of "flow," in which a person loses all sense of time and self because they are so completely immersed in the activity at hand. This is often achieved through creative pursuits, inspiring conversation, sports, immersion in a beloved hobby - or in practicing law. According to Ostrow, "when work is meaningful and utilizes a person's core strengths, it provides a form of engagement that produces a deep sense of satisfaction and pride.  Burnout is the opposite of engagement," she said.  "It occurs when your work is no longer meaningful. I think that much of the dissatisfaction among lawyers is due to burnout."  Ostrow says she works with lawyers on engagement issues and finding their core strengths. Her goal is to help them discover what elements of the legal profession are most meaningful to them. "They often come in extremely dissatisfied and say, 'I just hate law.'  But it's not that they hate the law, it's that their practice has no intrinsic meaning to them," she says.

"There are a lot of happy lawyers," said Ostrow. "But the ones I know who are truly happy don't just litigate. They also mentor younger lawyers, they have rich family lives.  And, for many, they find it enormously meaningful to fight hard for their clients. The important thing in work is finding balance. It's not about how much time your work consumes, it's about the engagement. When I say this to lawyers, it really resonates."


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Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., CMC

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