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Why Are Lawyers so Unhappy?

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Why are lawyers so unhappy? To be clear, when I entered law school and the legal profession, I had no idea that lawyers were so unhappy or why.

I did not even realize that was a thing! 

I still remember when I first got accepted into law school. I remember the moment clearly. It was the early 90s, and I was finishing up my Master’s Degree in Toronto, Canada. The early spring had not yet sprung, the day was cloudy and a big fat envelope was sitting in the mailbox at the front of the tall brick house I lived in. Thinking a big fat envelope could only be good news (as opposed to a thin envelope with a rejection letter), I tore apart the envelope and read the letter . . .

Dear Ms. Hemminger, We are pleased . . .

Lawyer Stress

I began jumping up and down and dancing, the joy I felt, oh so much joy.

I had gotten an early acceptance and felt I would burst with happiness. 

The life I wanted, middle-class, great comfort and abundance awaited me. I believed that all lawyers were wealthy lawyers. Never being afraid of hard work, I knew I could do it, and I knew I would succeed. 

I had no idea what I had just gotten myself into. 

I had no idea I would struggle with being desperately unhappy with my work for years. I had no idea that a lot of the time lawyers are so unhappy. I had no idea as to why lawyers are so unhappy. I had no idea that I was going to be miserable for, well, quite a while. 

The statistics are clear. Disillusioned lawyers are leaving our profession in droves because it is so stressful, overwhelming, thankless, and time-consuming. Yeah we all know that.

But what if we could transform our disenchantment into something better?

What if we could enjoy our profession and have it be as deeply rewarding as we had hoped for?

So Why are Lawyers so Unhappy? Here are the reasons: 

Why are lawyers so unhappy? What are the reasons? And, what can you do about it so you do not become an unhappy lawyer?

As you read this, you will likely see that some of these reasons resonate with you. The point is you are not alone. 

So many people advise that if you are unhappy in this profession, the answer is to leave it. There are better answers. Being a happy divorce lawyer does not have to be an oxymoron.

1️⃣It is an Adversarial Profession by Nature and Design

2️⃣It can be Emotionally taxing like crazy

3️⃣They are broke

4️⃣They are disillusioned and have lost sight of their purpose

5️⃣They are overworked and overwhelmed because of not taking charge of their time

6️⃣They are overworked and overwhelmed because they haven't applied business principles to their law practice

7️⃣They spend too much time on administrative tasks

8️⃣Fear of our Law Society or Bar

9️⃣Because sometimes it is thankless

🔟Because it is just the way it is

Reason #1 Lawyers are So Unhappy: 
It is an Adversarial Profession by Nature and Design

“I am a divorce lawyer and I don’t even LIKE conflict”

- Says me, probably millions of times by now 

Remember the Monty Python skit called the “Argument Clinic?” It is very funny. People come to a clinic to get into an argument, and they pay for it. Unfortunately, and all too often in family law, lawyers and their clients end up in the argument room and don’t know how to get themselves out of it. 

As I write this, just yesterday I was at a Judicial Case Conference. Although I am good at attracting great clients, let’s just say this particular client I was acting for is difficult and, well, not so great. For some reason, she thought it was okay to continue collecting child support from her child’s father even though she knew the child did not live with her. 

This client of mine collected over $15,000 in child support, and the child did not even live with her. The opposing lawyer, whom I (used to) respect a lot, seemed intent on repeating the same argument repeatedly rather than communicating with the Judge and me in a way that moved the matter forward. Always an ethical lawyer, I could see that he was very stressed. 

He kept repeating, “Val, Val, Val! What is crappy is that your client collected $578 per month that she was not entitled to and has been doing so for over 25 months!” 

Yeah, I got it and was trying to help resolve the situation. However, the other lawyer was intent on the conflict and demonstrating that he was taking a stand for his client. He is not a bully lawyer by any means, but there was no doubt I could see that the stress of the job was getting to him. He looks miserable this lawyer and probably spends much of his days shouting at people. 

Although we got a partial resolution in the end, it made me think about how many of us divorce lawyers do not even like conflict and how we are immersed in it all day long. 

So, what to do about it? Lawyers are so unhappy due to the adversarial nature of our profession. One of the most powerful things you can do to avoid being an unhappy lawyer is to take dispute resolution training. Become qualified as a mediator. The training alone will save you tons of lawyer stress. Even if you don’t become a mediator. It will make you curious about the “other side’s” position. It will make you a better advocate and your clients will thank you for it. It will reduce turmoil and keep you out of the argument room much more often.

Reason #2 Lawyers are So Unhappy: 
It can be Emotionally taxing like crazy

So, here I am, feeling stress, anxiety, and negative feelings first thing in the morning, and I am not even getting paid for it.

So, yes, emotionally taxing is right.

Why are lawyers so unhappy? Well, a big part of our unhappiness stems from our work often being emotionally taxing. As I write this, I have a very high-conflict case. The opposing party has borderline personality disorder. The opposing party is the most difficult person I have ever met in over 25 years of practice. I am scheduled to make an emergency court application tomorrow to obtain a protection order for my client and his new girlfriend. This case has been all-consuming. To give you an idea, I dreamt of this woman becoming a shark and attacking me yesterday. When I woke up yesterday morning, my first thought was about this case, and I felt worried for my client, his new girlfriend, and his new girlfriend’s child.  

So, here I am, feeling stress, anxiety, and negative feelings first thing in the morning, and I am not even getting paid for it. So, yes, emotionally taxing is right. 

Lawyers are unhappy because they often do not know how to avoid the emotionally taxing part.

How to avoid it you ask? Well, I try to keep my home life at home and my work life at work, that is, if I am not “working” I try not to think of my file matters.  

Are you thinking that is easier said than done? Well, try it.

Reason #3 Lawyers are So Unhappy: 
They are broke 

Why are lawyers so unhappy? So many lawyers are so unhappy because the fact is that contrary to popular belief, on top of the hard work and stress they experience, they are broke! I know I was.

For years I was broke and struggling financially. 

When you take the time to apply business practices to your law practice (because your law practice is a business), you will certainly have a better and more abundant bottom line.

Reason #4 Lawyers are So Unhappy: 
They are disillusioned and have lost sight of their purpose

Disillusionment often comes up when people ask "Why are lawyers so unhappy?". So many of us stepped into the profession so we could help people and expected to earn a great living doing it. I recall an incident “back in the olden days” when I still did legal aid work. I was representing someone who was fighting with the other parent about the return of a child from the other parent’s care. We went into a stressful court dispute over whether the child was to be returned to the other 15 minutes later than the other parent wanted. 

I thought, “I went to law school for this?!” 

I admit that this was a dumb fight to have. Part of avoiding dumb fights is not to take stupid instructions. I make it part of my intake with potential clients. I tell them that I won’t spend their time, energy, and money on taking stupid positions that are costly to them and not in their best interest.

Reason #5 Lawyers are So Unhappy: 
They are overworked and overwhelmed because of not taking charge of their time. 

The fifth reason for "Why are lawyers so unhappy?" is simply because we work too much and stay connected to our case files all the time as opposed to taking time off. We work too many hours and let the priorities of our law practices consume not only our workday five days per week, but our evenings and weekends. While we may think this is because we are busy and that there are always client emergencies, the issue is really about us having poor boundaries and not taking charge of our time. 


For example, I attended an arbitration recently with a very stressed-out colleague. He has been a lawyer for more than 30 years. I will call him Testy Tony. Although Testy Tony has a reputation for being a “gentleman,” I have been surprised about how combative and testy he has been in our recent dealings. It seems he is at his wit’s end from exhaustion and overwork. Even the simplest discussions with Testy Tony end up in a dispute. Testy Tony is exhausting to deal with and seems desperately unhappy. 

Testy Tony told the arbitrator and me that he takes work home with him every single weekend.

Imagine 30 years of never, if ever, having a full weekend off.

Yikes ...

I compare my experience with Testy Tony to someone I will call Easy Going Ernie. Easy Going Ernie is a lawyer who has also been practicing for more than 30 years. He is polite, collaborative, and a pleasant person to deal with. I did a mediation with him recently, and he was the opposing counsel. We resolved the matter in a day and got a signed agreement. This is despite the parties being in fairly high conflict with each other. I saw that the way Easy Going Ernie and I worked together benefited both of our respective clients. Easy Going Ernie seemed like a happy lawyer. He looked like a pretty content guy to me. 

Because of a Protection Order issued by the court, our respective clients could not communicate directly. Because the parties had to exchange some personal items as part of their final agreement, I had proposed that he and I touch base on the weekend the items were to be exchanged. This was his response: 

Sorry my personal phone number is a carefully guarded secret from my clients.  Maintains sanity and weekend calls about going to court on Saturday morning because the child was dropped off missing a mitten.

I burst out laughing when I read that. Unlike Testy Tony, Easy Going Ernie knew how to draw boundaries and knew to protect his weekend time. He is a much happier lawyer for it.

Reason #6 Lawyers are So Unhappy: 
They are overworked and overwhelmed because they haven't applied business principles to their law practice

Why are lawyers so unhappy? A lot of our disconentment has a ton to do with how we structure our legal practices. A lot of lawyers don’t even realize that our law practices are a business, and just like a Starbucks, our businesses must have structures and systems that are reliable and repeatable. 

Unfortunately, I have an abundance of stories of where I made embarrassing mistakes because of forgetting something important on a client file. One cringeworthy moment was that I had not reviewed a draft order before handing it up to a judge. I had instructed my staff to type it out and instead of using the client’s name, I said “Mom” and “Dad,” assuming my staff person would automatically know to put the parties’ proper names in the document. Well, they didn’t. The judge, looking down at me from the bench, read out what was written on the draft order in a jeering manner. Of course the courtroom was packed with my colleagues. Yep, that was embarrassing. 

A great way to have a great structure to your business is by using checklists and workflows. Having checklists and workflows reduces stress, increases productivity and delivers much better results for our clients.

When I introduced checklists and workflows, it was LIFE-CHANGING.

That is why I share those as part of the Be the BEST Divorce Lawyer Academy program. It is part of my checklists to draft and review draft orders before I hand them up to a judge. Should be obvious right?

Reason #7 Lawyers are So Unhappy: 
They spend too much time on administrative tasks

Why are lawyers so unhappy? Because if we are not well-organized, we will spend way too much time doing administrative tasks. Remember, do not steal work from your support staff. They are there to support you for a reason. Also, if you are a sole practitioner and don’t have a support team, think about hiring someone on a limited contract basis, even for a few hours per week.

You can’t do it all yourself and be happy about it. 

If I use my checklists, I can easily delegate administrative tasks when preparing for mediation or hearing. However, if I have not referred to my checklist early enough, I end up doing more of the administrative tasks myself. For example, I have a hearing coming up, and because of many changes at our local courthouse, I am not sure if the judges still want us to print out the case law in hard copy, or just send it to them electronically. If I wait to find that out, then it will be me that has to call the court clerk’s office, and me who ends up compiling the case law. If I delegate this task early (the finding out), it will take me no time at all.

Reason #8 Lawyers are So Unhappy: 
Fear of our Law Society or Bar

When I think about the question "Why are lawyers so unhappy?", this is one of the first things that comes to mind.

Let's face it. We cannot make everyone happy all of the time, and it is part of our profession, an occupational hazard, if you want to call it that, that we can be reported to our local bar or law society, that is our governing body, for doing something “wrong.”

Professional conduct for us lawyers is a thing that we must always abide by. 

For example, due to a big financial mistake, I made over 12 years ago as I write this, I have had unresolved professional conduct proceedings ongoing with my Law Society for years now (will be eight years in a few months!). To say these proceedings have been stressful, terrifying, humiliating, embarrassing, and expensive is an understatement. I thought that the only way I could experience these proceedings was with all of these feelings wrapped up with it. 

Then I had a case once where coincidentally, my psychologist (who I respect a lot) was reported to his governing body by a litigant in a file I was involved in. I asked him how he dealt with the stress of it. He said it didn’t bother him at all. He said it was an occupational part of his profession that he could be called out or disciplined for making a mistake.

He said he knew he was doing his best and that was all that mattered and he was not going to get all worried about it. 

Whoa, I thought, that is good, really good. Starting right now, I am going to start being that zen about the proceedings I am facing. Sometimes this plan has worked for me, and other times it has not. All I can say for sure is that I am doing my best, did my best, and have been facing this occupational hazard head on, whether I have wanted to or not. 

The best way for you to avoid this kind of stressor is to do your best, be organized, and get the support you need.

Reason #9 Lawyers are So Unhappy: 
Because sometimes it is thankless

Why are lawyers so unhappy? Well, sometimes despite our best efforts, this job can be thankless. Have you ever had that client that you went above and beyond for only to get great results for them and then have them not even acknowledge your work? Yeah, me too. 

The only way to deal with this is just knowing that even though we do our best for our clients, it does not mean that we will always get their accolades.

Reason #10 Lawyers are So Unhappy: 
Because it is just the way it is

The answer to the question "Why are lawyers so unhappy?" has a lot to do with us lawyers assuming that because we chose to do law as our profession, that:

  1. We will always have overwhelming stress at times and that is just the way it is;
  2. That we will always have to put in long hours and that is just the way it is; 
  3. That we will always be working in high-conflict situations because that is just the way it is;
  4. That we will always be overworked and that is just the way it is; 
  5. That we will always have to be terrified of our governing bodies and that is just the way it is. 
  6. That it can be such a thankless job and that is just the way it is. 
  7. That we will always have financial challenges and that is just the way it is. 
  8. That there is always the looming threat of professional conduct and disciplinary issues and that is just the way it is. 

Well, my dear friend, I hope by now you realize that it does not have to be just the way it is. You can remain in the practice of law and have a thriving practice and life at the same time. You can do it when you follow the suggestions in this article, "Why are lawyers so unhappy?"

Much love,


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