Wellness and the law is a topic I am deeply passionate about. Having myself had to overcome what I call ‘unhappiness’, I now spend a lot of my time exploring wellness, happiness and even joy in legal practice, and I have come to learn that with some thought and effort there are things we can all do to be ‘happier’ in law.
But much of my work to date has focused on the individual – what you and I can do, when we may not have the ability to change our organisation or our structures, to make our individual lives in the law that bit more manageable.
Lately, thanks to three very different influences in my life, I have begun to explore what our legal lives might look like if we as a collective of professionals began to re-think the very core of how we do what we do.
So, colliding in my life right now are these three things.
Marie Kondo! Yes, somehow mindfully folding your clothing will change your legal life! Trust me! If you are a little like me and have been binge watching Marie Kondo’s hit Netflix show, then there is a good chance you have been clearing out your wardrobe too! I have been transfixed watching the sense of calm that has come over her guests as they transform ever so gently, one piece of ‘joyful stuff’ at a time. How on earth does this relate to law you ask? Well for that you will have to read on.
The second significant influence on my thoughts at the moment is the most beautiful book penned by American designer, Ingrid Fetell-Lee: Joyful – The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. I was introduced to Ingrid last year when a dear friend shared with me Ingrid’s amazing TED talk. Ingrid has travelled the world exploring the idea that joy exists all around us but more importantly, that by purposefully choosing to do, be, say or see certain things, we can create more joy everywhere.
And finally, my many hours of talking ‘happiness’ with lawyers all over the country. I spend a good part of my week hanging out with lawyers just like you … learning more and more about just what makes our profession great but also the many things that need some work and it is those things, the not so great parts, that I think it is time we tackle together.
So, my mind is full as you can tell of mindfully folded Kondo wardrobes, joyful coloured scenes and much happiness in among the usual life in the law and it is in these thoughts that I have been hatching a bit of a plan!
Just what are the modern lawyer’s problems?
Law is an inherently stressful job. I am not sure that can ever really be changed but I do think some of the drivers of our ‘lawyer problems’ are well within our collective control to better manage than we are.
Long work hours, high billable targets, sensitive and sometimes even traumatic content are just part of the job for most of us. But then there is this little oft unspoken challenge – ‘the other lawyer’.
Our adversarial system has somehow developed into a deeply conflictual landscape where sometimes even colleagues in the same office can barely trust each other for fear of missing out on that important promotion, the pay rise or that next client file. ‘The other lawyer’ – your colleague and your opponent – has fast become one of the biggest drivers of unhappiness in law.
Law is a serious job.
And so it should be. The Rule of Law is the central backbone of our civil society and is not to be taken lightly. But by serious, do we really mean devoid of emotion? Devoid of humanity? Devoid of care, compassion, kindness? When we travel back in the history books a few hundred or so years and really consider just where lawyer life began, we were more than anything a helping and healing profession.
And to this day, what drives so many great lawyers to law is the desire to make a difference in the lives of others but what has them racing fast away from the profession only a few years in is the deep disconnect between that desire – their purpose – and the daily practice of law.
In ‘lawland’, as I like to call it, we have come to reward the overworked, the difficult, the serious and the fight. In my mind none of those terms are associated with ‘helping’. Calm, considered, kindness and compassion for me are needed if we ever intend to genuinely help anyone, anywhere in life.
Is there really a place for happy lawyers?
A few years ago, I found myself called ‘The Happy Family Lawyer’ thanks to a blog I started by chance one Saturday night. I never set out to become a happiness advocate. I had just found myself on the edge of a steep (virtual) cliff. Deciding whether law really was for me. I was tired, stressed and confused and could not see a place for me – a person who values kindness, care, calm and compassion, in an industry that only seemed interested in ‘the win’.
But, fast forward five years, and I have come to learn that there are many ‘happy lawyers’ all around the world and that they, like me, are quietly creating a wave of change in ‘law land’, one little piece of ‘legal confetti’ at a time.
Happiness in life is a feeling, a sense of contentment, of joy. But to be ‘happy’ there are a few simple things we all need a lot of the time. Health is key, but I am not here to harp on about that today, for a change! For most of us, happiness is deeply connected to moments of passion, purpose, colour, creativity, learning, fun, play and laughter. All of which can feel very scarce in the daily grind that can be the modern practice of law.
Is it time to ‘spark some law joy’?
We can’t change how we feel if we keep thinking the same way and doing the same thing. We need to change what we think and what we do if we want to feel differently.
I suspect the feeling most of have when it comes to the enormity of the task in changing the very culture law for all of us in it is much the same as the participants in Marie Kondo’s show. As she leaves their home on that first day having tossed all of their worldly belongings in a giant pile in the middle of their bed, I am certain they stop and ask why? Why bother ‘sparking joy’ in all of that mess.
But I sense we lawyers can all learn a lot from Marie on what to do next. We don’t need more surveys, more research or ‘wellness committees’ touting lunch time yoga – that part is done. We know that lawyers experience psychological ill-health at rates far beyond the average population. It is time to grab the rituals of the past, toss them in piles on the bed and pick them up, one at a time, mindfully asking ‘does this really spark joy’. And perhaps ‘sparking joy’ is setting the bar a little too high, but if we just ask the simple question – does this still serve us, this way of working? And how does it serve our clients? We can start the task of purposeful change.
Whether you call it joy, happiness or a sense of contentment, I think there are many things we can all do to effect change in our profession. Long working days, rigid daily structures and combative practice styles are slowly being replaced by their opposites.
And this is where the confetti comes in. Find me a person that doesn’t smile at the idea of confetti. All of those little colourful paper wheels floating to the floor: a reminder of celebrations, of fun and happy times in our lives. Now I am not suggesting that courtrooms suddenly embrace the confetti canon on a daily basis (although that could be a fun way of signalling a successful appeal!) but rather that we, as a profession, embrace some of what confetti stands for to lead the change that is still needed.
Confetti is known for its rainbow of colour hues. Law is known for the opposite. If law was a colour it would be brown, black or better still, grey. Grey is the ultimate ‘non- colour’. The perfect mix of black and white and I would suggest not really a colour at all. When I think of law I think of grey. And I suspect our clients do too. But what might law life be like if we let a little bit of colour in?
What if the next time you send that advice, it goes as a colourful one-page mind map rather than a 20 page black and white impossible to read pdf? What if our workspaces, our offices, our courts were suddenly infused with tones of pink, yellow and blue instead of grey, black and brown?
I began my life as a designer, spending a year at university studying colour theory and learning just how the use of different colours in our surrounds can change human behaviour. Thanks to my summer reading of Ingrid’s book over Christmas I have been transported back to those design classes, to my colour wheels and paints and reminded of the power colour plays on the human psyche.
There is no better example of this than Brisbane’s own Banco Court. The most stunning space full of natural light and hosting a wall size pastel mural by Cape York Indigenous Artist Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda (Sally Gabori).
Next time you are in town I encourage you to step into that room and tell me just how it makes you feel. I suspect you will tell me the space commands your attention, it speaks to the importance of the work conducted in it; however, that mural, those colours and the streaming natural light also create a serenity and calm that I have never known in the otherwise plain courtrooms I visit.
Our surrounds, everything around us impacts on how we feel even when we don’t think it does.
Last week I arrived in Melbourne late thanks to a cancelled flight. Without looking and in my state of haste I sent my taxi driver to the wrong university! I have since concluded it was meant to be. As I walked the halls and rode the lifts of the Melbourne Law School, trying to find my way to the conference that wasn’t even there, I could hear the most amazing music playing from a piano placed in the foyer. Why is a piano in a law school foyer? I have no idea but wow I am so glad it was. As that music took over, I felt my body relax, I stopped worrying about being lost and paused for a small moment and smiled. That piano in a split second changed my mood, my behaviour and my actions and in that moment, I felt joy.
Colour, music and confetti are associated with fun, play and the frivolous parts of life and do not currently sit well with the serious world that is life in the law. But I have been wondering what law life might look like if we allow a few more murals, a little more day light and even some music into our surrounds.
Life is important, but not serious
As I finished speaking about confetti and joy last week, Merv Neal took to the floor to share his work infusing laughter into hospitals and workplaces, all now known to improve mental health outcomes. Merv wisely said ‘Life is important but not serious’ and it got me thinking that perhaps the same should be said of a life in the law. It is important but it doesn’t need to be serious in the 1980’s US TV Show interpretation of that word – grey suits, adversarial practice and a purposeful avoidance of all human emotion. Instead life in the law is important and requires compassion, understanding and a considered, purposeful intellect.
There is so much we lawyers can all do to change our workplaces and our profession for the better and I wonder if changing our mindset, embracing a little colour and revisiting the parts of our work and work places that really can spark joy might be the next phase that is needed.
So yes, I say confetti- not in its actual form but rather all that it stands for- could well hold the answer to sparking the change that is needed in our profession, to reduce the unnecessarily high rates of poor mental health outcomes, of burnout and unhappiness and to ensure the health and wellness of lawyers and our clients for many decades to come.
This post originally appeared on Clarissa Rayward’s blog, The Happy Family Lawyer. She presented on this topic at the recent Wellness for Law Forum in Melbourne.