Laurie Santos teaches the most popular class in the history of Yale University. About one in four Yale students take it. On Wednesday she gave an abridged, one-hour version of her class to a packed, oversized conference room at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom’s New York office in Times Square. The class wasn’t about finance, time management or crafting convincing arguments. It was about happiness.
This begs a couple of questions: Why are students at Yale so unhappy that 25% of them feel the need to take a course on being happy, and what does this have to do with the legal profession?
Turns out the same reasons that mental health issues, substance abuse and depression are so prevalent in the legal profession also affect students at elite academic institutions. The high-achieving, high-performing students at Yale are often taken in by a culture that socially rewards long hours, overdrive performance and financially motivated outcomes.
That environment is not different from the culture that persists in Big Law, which, according to the studies that Santos cites and the course that she teaches, fosters unhappiness. What’s more, happy lawyers perform better than not happy lawyers.
Skadden, like most major firms, is hoping to enact programs that help their attorneys deal with mental health issues. Santos’ talk was well attended by dozens of Skadden employees and well received by the audience, indicating that the attorneys and other firm personnel were also quite interested in engaging in a mental health discussion.
“As our industry grapples with how best to address substance use, depression and other serious mental health issues, [Santos] offers a salient perspective to the broader conversation around emotional well-being and health, and the connection between the two,” said Jodie Garfinkel, director of talent development and strategy at Skadden.
Santos mentioned some interesting facts, such as the ability to be happy is roughly 50% genetic (so yes, some people are literally born happy). And that in order to be happy, you actually need to work at it (sounds counterintuitive, but OK). And that talking to strangers on the subway during the morning commute will make someone happier for most of the rest of the day (how can that be possible? But OK.) And daily gratitudes work (truth).
But this discussion might have also been a bit of a wake-up call for some. During the course of her talk, Santos cited various studies about behaviors that can lead to increased happiness and those that lead to increased unhappiness. Many of the behaviors that can be causal to decreased happiness also happen to be behaviors traditionally associated with the legal profession.
Some were obvious, some not so much. Getting enough sleep, eating right and taking care of oneself physically were ones that made sense. “After just one week of minimal sleep (less than five hours), you are more susceptible to disease, have lower cognitive function and are four times more likely to have a stroke than someone who gets adequate sleep,” Santos said.
But things like not being financially (or as much so) motivated and taking time to relax (meditate, chat with a friend) might be a bit harder to swallow, especially in a profession that measures success by how much money it brings in and tracks that money through billable hours.
The good news is that many of the factors for happiness are within an individual’s control. Santos said that it is great that law firms as a whole are starting to implement plans for wellness and offer things like midday meditations or more flexible hours for those who want to spend time with family. But she also said that, in order for people to utilize these resources, the mandate needs to come from the top to have it be culturally acceptable. And for at least an hour on a Wednesday at one of the most busy and successful law firms in the world, it was.
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