A Lawyer’s Life Can Be A Happy One


Published in the Hastings Weekly, February 2004.
University of California Law  School


When a felon’s not engaged in his employment
Or maturing his felonious little plans,

His capacity for innocent enjoyment

Is just as great as any honest man’s.

But take one consideration with another,

A lawyer’s lot is not a happy one.

–adapted from Gilbert & Sullivan.

So you want to be a lawyer?  Studies during the past 20 years have shown that lawyers are among the most depressed class of professionals in the United States.  Some have shown that they are the most depressed.  In urban areas, alcohol and drug abuse have been reported by State Bar Associations to be among the most common problems afflicting lawyers –especially trial lawyers.  The past often predicts the future.  It is therefore important for you to consider why you want to be a lawyer, and the kind of lawyer you are going to be –not technically, but humanly.

There are many reasons students decide to go to law school.  These include to make a good living –or even become “rich”– in an interesting profession; to develop one’s talents in a calling congenial to one’s personality; to pursue a law-related career ambition, such as politics or government; to follow a family tradition; and to help promote justice in a highly competitive society where injustice is not a rare thing.

I have heard lawyers say that they were making more money than they ever thought they would, but were also unhappier than they ever imagined they could be.  After nearly 40 years as a civil lawyer in both public and private practice, I have come to some firm conclusions about why so many lawyers are unhappy people.  I will share these conclusions with Hastings students in a talk and discussion at the Law School, sponsored by the Placement Office, on Wednesday, February 18.  One of my main conclusions is that many lawyers are unhappy precisely because the prevalent legal practice ethos has led many lawyers to lose sight of the real reasons they wanted to become lawyers in the first place.  They do this out of a perceived practical necessity. My own experience tells me, however, that no such necessity really exists, and that a lawyer’s life can be a happy one so long as his or her original motivating visions are not lost.  Practicing lawyers are likely to tell you that this is very difficult to do.  To the contrary, as my talk will explain, the real difficulties for lawyers arise when they accept this point of view.  For the longer term, and in the deepest sense, remaining true to one’s self is the easiest thing to do.

And when you do that, your lawyer’s life can be a happy one.

Harrison Sheppard (Hastings ’67), principal of Harrison Sheppard Law & Conflict Resolution and a frequently published essayist, is author of What’s Right with Lawyers/What’s Wrong with Lawyers. His column on Law & Justice appears regularly in San Francisco Attorney magazine, the quarterly journal of the Bar Association of San Francisco.  His website is voicesoflife.com.

(c) 2004, Harrison Sheppard