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On Lawyers and Happiness; a Chat with Gretchen Rubin

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  • On Lawyers and Happiness; a Chat with Gretchen Rubin


    We have a few favorite Web sites, apart from those we regularly feature here. Most of them have to do with baseball (the LA Angels, of course) and rock music played by shaggy-haired bearded men in Brooklyn, but one of our flat-out favorites that we’ve been reading fairly religiously for a few years is Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project.

    Rubin, the author of several books including Forty Ways to Look at JFK and Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide decided to spend a year pursuing a whole host of advice on how to be happy. During the year, writes Rubin, she test-drove “the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happy — from Aristotle to Martin Seligman to Thoreau to Oprah.” Her blog got picked up by Slate and ultimately she got a book deal on her undertaking. The book, The Happiness Project, is due out in December.

    In our opinion, the blog (and presumably the book) is a good read for pretty much anyone interested in, well, happiness (and who isn’t?). But we decided to check in with Rubin partly because, before she became a writer, she went to law school, at Yale. In the midst of a clerkship with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (yes, that Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor), Rubin realized that the practice of law probably wasn’t going to provide her pathway to happiness — that she wanted to write.

    But Rubin is still in touch with a lot of lawyers, and she has a lot to say about happiness. So with this in mind, we got in touch. What follows is Part I of our chat with Rubin. Part II will follow Thursday.

    Hello Gretchen! Thanks for taking the time to chat. Let us mention right away that we’re big fans of the blog. Anyway, congrats on the book. When’s it come out?

    Hi. Sure. The book comes out December 29. It’s published by Harper.

    Okay. And what’s it all about, in your own words?

    Well the shorthand version I use goes like this: The book is an account of the year I spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier.

    Sounds like you memorized that.

    I did. But basically I did everything I could think of that I’d heard could promote happiness.

    And did it?

    Yes! Fortunately for me, very much so.

    I don’t want to dumb this down too much, but is there one takeaway? One secret — above all others, at least — that leads to happiness?

    Well, here’s one thing: One of my resolutions was to start a group. Starting or joining a group is a very efficient way to maintain relationships, and they’re very efficient engines of happiness. You don’t have to schedule drinks or coffee with six people at six different times, you can see a big group all at once. To do this every six weeks or so is a big driver of happiness.

    Did you start a group?

    I did. I started a group that would read and discuss children’s literature. For the longest time, I was in denial that I loved children’s literature, and I thought I was the only person in the world who was into this. But I started a group and proved myself wrong. In the process, I made a ton of friends and had a great time.

    But it doesn’t have to be a book group. It could be a poker game or a get together to talk about fly fishing or just sit and watch Gossip Girl and talk about it.

    Anything else?

    Well, sometimes happiness can seem this transcendent, abstract thing. But I really came to believe in the power of sleep. Recent studies have showed that two of the top reasons people are unhappy at work are because they have tight deadlines and because they don’t get enough sleep. I think a lot of people, a lot of lawyers, get used to the feeling of being tired all the time. They just adjust to it. But sleep is really a key to happiness. If someone asks me to suggest one thing they might do to improve their happiness, I ask them how much sleep they’re getting, and then usually suggest they get a half-hour more every night.

    Let’s switch to the law. Why did you go to law school? Can you remember what your thinking was?

    I remember thinking nothing.


    Really. There’s whole notion of “drift” that I think a lot of people fall into with law school. They don’t decide, necessarily, to go to law school, but they drift into it, really for lack of a better idea.

    And I think that’s one of the reasons so many lawyers are unhappy. They hear these lines that, on their face, seem to make sense: ‘It can’t hurt to take the LSAT.’ ‘I can always go to law school.’ ‘I can always change my mind later.’ That’s what happened to me. I drifted into it. My father is a lawyer, and he’s very happy, but I didn’t give it a lot of thought. Then I got into Yale, and thought ‘wow, this is great.’ And I did well at Yale. Each step of the way I was like ‘wow, I’m editor-in-chief of the Law Journal, that’s cool!’ And then it was: ‘a clerkship with Justice O’Connor! That’s fun!’ But I really had no plan, no vision.

    I’ve always thought it was easy to get wooed into thinking that you’re doing the right thing while you’re in law school. You look around and see what everyone else is doing and just sort of follow along.

    Right! And that’s exactly what happened to me. I thought, as long as they keep giving me gold stars to put on my forehead, I’ll keep trying to get them. As long as they give me bars to jump over, I’ll jump over them.

    Don’t get me wrong. I really liked law school. I enjoyed it while I was doing it, and I was successful at it. But five years later, you realize you haven’t made any real choices.

    So you clerked for Justice O’Connor. Then what? Did you practice?

    I went to the FCC and worked as an adviser to Chairman Reed Hundt. I did that for about 18 months. The whole time I was thinking that I was going to be a writer, that what I really wanted to do was write. So I bought a book on how to write a book proposal and how to write a book, and I just followed the instructions.

    At the time, my husband was a lawyer, too. We were living in D.C., and we decided we were going to switch careers and move to New York. He took accounting classes at night and switched to finance.

    You switched, just like that, eh?

    We did. We were lucky because it was an easy time to switch! When the economy’s good, you can move around easily. When the economy’s bad, you don’t have the flexibility that other people have.

    But it was still pretty scary. As a lawyer, I had amazing credentials, and I immediately became a writer with no credentials.

    Did you ever spend time at a law firm?

    I did. I worked at Skadden the summer after my first year of law school, and then Davis Polk after my second year.

    Unhappiness among law-firm lawyers is a well-known phenomenon nearly at every level. Young associates are bored and unhappy; midlevel associates are overworked and stressed about making partner; and partners are, as the old saying goes, the winners of the pie-eating contest who get to eat more pie. What are your thoughts on lawyer unhappiness at law firms?

    I think the main one is the one I referred to earlier — that people don’t go into it mindfully. They didn’t choose to be there. Of course, there are people who went to law school knowing they wanted to be law professors. I have a friend who’s like that. He talks about his job and my eyes glaze over, but for him, it’s a real passion. My father is another example — he’s a very happy lawyer. But if you’d rather be doing something else and you’re stuck in a law firm, you’re liable to be unhappy.

    I’ve always thought that law school lures a lot of people who are highly ambitious, but don’t exactly know how to channel that ambition. It’s a weird mixture of highly driven and sort of clueless.

    I think that’s right. And then, after you take on all this debt, you’re stuck there and don’t have control over your life. When you don’t have control, it can be an unhappy feeling.

    (On Thursday, we’ll post part II, in which Rubin gives her advice to all those considering law school.)
    Welcome to our discussion forum!

  • #2
    On Happiness and Lawyers, A Chat With Gretchen Rubin, Part II

    On Wednesday, we had a lengthy chat with Gretchen Rubin, a former lawyer, Supreme Court clerk, daughter-in-law of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and now an author and the brains behind the Happiness Project, a blog about, well, happiness. In December, a book by the same name — focusing on her year-long project to try out every piece of advice on how to be happy, and then report on it — will be released by Harper Collins. (Disclosure: Harper is owned by News Corp., owner of Dow Jones, which publishes the Law Blog.) Click here for Part I of the interview.

    Part II of the interview continues here:

    I’d imagine there’s another factor at play in lawyers’ unhappiness: the hours. A lot of sacrifice is required to practice law at the highest levels at big firms.

    It’s true. The practice of law can crowd out other smaller things when you’re younger, like dusting. But as you get older, the things that get sacrificed can get more meaningful, like seeing your kids. Some people don’t care — they can tolerate the long hours, but others can’t, and they’re miserable. Some people have hobbies that are enormously time consuming, others don’t. It’s just a matter of the match.

    This doesn’t just apply to the practice of law, does it?

    No. But I think it’s especially acute in any type of job in which clients and time deadlines are involved.

    That said, I do have friends at law firms who are enormously happy. I have one at Cleary who seems very happy, and a couple people I clerked with who are now working at Davis Polk seem happy also.

    What do you think makes them happy?

    It’s hard to know, but they’re partners now. Once you’re a partner, things change. It still might be stressful, but it’s not like being an associate. That’s very tough.

    So what advice would you have for someone just out of college or someone who’s been in the work force for a while who’s thinking about law school?

    At some point you have to sit down and examine yourself. Nobody wants to work through the exercises in What Color is Your Parachute? — it’s a very hard process, hard for people to acknowledge their own natures. But I strongly think people need to do it. And it’s better to do it before law school than during or after.

    In some ways, I was lucky. I had an epiphany when I was clerking on the Supreme Court. I saw that my fellow clerks wanted to talk shop all the time, they’d read law review articles for fun. I was doing a good job, but I didn’t put one more second into work than I absolutely had to. It was then that I realized I wanted to have a job where what I did during the week was the same thing I did on the weekend. For me, that pull was irresistible, and it was to writing. But for a lot of others, they don’t know. They think ’should I go be a producer for an NPR station?’ ‘Should I go into teaching’? They just don’t know.

    Let’s go back to the self-analysis point for a minute. Why do you think it’s hard for people to do this?

    It’s painful to acknowledge a dream, because as soon as you acknowledge it, you also acknowledge that you might fail.

    It’s also hard to acknowledge that if your dream is to be a yoga instructor, you might give up some of the prestige — in some people’s eyes — of working at a big law firm. And you’re likely going to have to give up the money that comes with the law firm as well. It’s daunting.

    It’s one of the biggest lessons I learned during the Happiness Project. It’s the oldest advice in the world — to know thyself. What can be more vital than that?

    Alright. That makes sense. How does one go about figuring out what it is he or she really loves?

    I knew a guy in law school — a successful guy who’d landed a 9th Circuit clerkship — who was always sneaking away to play video games. He loved video games. At one point, during the end of law school, his wife happened to get a job interview with a video-game company. During the course of the interview, in response to a question she said ‘you know, you really should interview my husband. He knows far more about these things than I do.’

    The company interviewed the guy and offered him a job. Then he had to make the tough decision on whether or not to give up his clerkship. But he went ahead and did it, and he’s still in the business of video games.

    My take is that you love your job if you love talking about it outside of work. If you don’t love talking shop, it’s a warning sign you’re not all that happy with your work.

    Okay. But if someone’s thinking about law school, but isn’t convinced, would you try to talk him or her out of it?

    Not necessarily. I’d ask first how he or she was going to pay for it. That’s one thing. If you’re going to take on massive debt, you’re not just spending three years waiting for the economy to improve, you’re making an extremely serious commitment.

    Another thing: I completely understand the appeal of ‘it can’t hurt/it’ll keep your options open’ argument, but people should know that law school is hard. It’s hard and humbling. It’s not like going to college for three more years.

    Michael Melcher, who wrote a book called the Creative Lawyer — which is a great book for lawyers trying to boost their happiness, by the way — said his rule is, ‘if you’re on the fence about having a baby, have one. If you’re on the fence about going to law school, don’t.’ I subscribe to that.

    Great. Anything else?

    Just one thing to mention. On my blog, I put together a happiness project toolbox that I think a lot of lawyerly types might be attracted to. It’s very task and goal oriented. If there are any unhappy lawyers reading this, they might check that out; it’s something you can engage with while you’re sitting at your desk.

    Good. Well, Gretchen, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for taking the time, and good luck with everything.

    Thank you.
    Welcome to our discussion forum!


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