Is There a Healthy Dose of Pessimism?

Healthy PessimismFor better or worse, negativity plays a huge role in the legal profession. The legal field boasts a disproportionate number of unhappy members.

With mental health and substance abuse issues skyrocketing in both the profession and in law schools, it is important to examine when a healthy dose of cynicism is beneficial to an attorney’s professional well-being and success and when the level of unhappiness has become a real problem.

Pessimism Helps a Lawyer Succeed

A recent article proposed that pessimism is good for lawyers. The piece highlighted how various negative emotions, such as anger, cynicism, and frustration, each serve an important function in the work of a lawyer. These emotions strengthen the attorney and bolster his or her ability to effectively get the job done and serve the client’s interests.

The notion that strategic pessimism is crucial in a lawyer’s work has some merit. Lawyers must anticipate the worst and take steps to mitigate risks for clients. While pessimism might counteract the journey to success in other professions, a glass-half-empty attitude might be what places a lawyer ahead of the pack. Lawyers are compensated for being skeptical and cynical on behalf of their clients and worrying that every potential problem that may arise will do so. Lawyers may also face unhappiness and pessimism in their work because they often get involved after their clients are in the throes of a high conflict high stress situation. Empathetic lawyers cannot help but feel some of their clients’ pain.

Too Much Pessimism is Not Good

As famed University of Pennsylvania professor Martin E. P. Seligman has written, pessimism is both highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer and also one of three psychological factors that demoralize lawyers. The others are feeling like you have low decision latitude in high stress situations and feeling like you are part of a win-loss enterprise. Many newer attorneys, particularly those in large firms, report feeling like a cog in a huge impersonal organization. And many lawyers bemoan the fact that legal practice has become like a business characterized by requirements to bill a lot of hours and contribute to the bottom line.

The bottom line is that we all seek meaning in our lives—including at work. We need to remind ourselves of the noble reasons we went to law school and the importance of seeking justice and fairness for our clients. And we should seek work environments where these feelings are fueled.

Because the same pessimism that fuels success and effectiveness with clients may not support a happy and satisfying life outside of work. Being able to anticipate every possible problem or obstacle for a client may correspond to a propensity to dwell on all the potential negative outcomes for oneself of for family and friends. Pervasive pessimism can grow to be unhealthy, resulting in depression, substance abuse, and general health issues.

If Pessimism Turns into Depression

If you or a lawyer you know is feeling stressed out, please know that Lawyer’s Assistance Programs are set up in most states to assist lawyers with mental health or substance abuse problems. Originally established to address alcohol abuse problems, LAP programs report that depression and mental health issues are on the rise. I have heard some powerful and moving stories during the Illinois LAP programs I have attended over the years and many are shared on the website.

Lawyers and judges are a self-regulated profession, and lawyers and judges help others through LAP. We need to help each other be healthy. In this regard, we are our colleague’s keeper.



Jessica Saltiel, our intern from IIT Kent College of Law contributed to this post.

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