This article was first published in Law360

To read this article in PDF format, please click here.

Time Magazine recently listed the legal profession as one of the five worst high-paying jobs in the country.[1] "Lawyers turn to drugs and alcohol because their jobs suck. ... With those fat paychecks come long hours, competitive environments, and decreased social interaction, leading to a miserable, anxiety-filled existence which leads to alcoholism and the aforementioned drug use."[2]

Notably, the newest member of the United States Supreme Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch, recognized problems plaguing the legal profession during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, stating:

As you know and I know, we have an unhappy and unhealthy profession in a lot of ways. Lawyers commit suicide at rates far higher than the population. Alcoholism, divorce, depression are also at extremely high rates. Young lawyers also face the problem of having enormous debts when they leave law school ... and that’s a huge inhibition for them to be able to do public service like you and I are so privileged to be able to do.[3]

And if you’ve ever personally spent time with a group of lawyers, it is not uncommon to observe them engaging in excessive drinking and expressing job dissatisfaction — often simultaneously. Day-to-day, lawyers can find it increasingly hard to shut off their relentless inner critic, spending their time daydreaming or worrying about the past or the future; self-medicating or distracting with social media, shopping or substances; or simply asking themselves, “Is this really all there is?”

And lawyers are not alone. Per the founders of The Flow Genome Project: "Life is better than ever, but we are feeling worse than ever. We are neurotic, stressed and unmotivated, and it’s literally killing us."[4] Thus, it may be time for the legal profession to pull one from the playbook of musicians and professional athletes and seek to enter a state of "flow."

"Flow" has been defined as "a state of mindfulness when one is fully present and completely focused on the task at hand."[5] The term "flow" was coined by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who describes the mental state of flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."[6] According to Csíkszentmihályi and other positive psychologists, achieving the flow state on a regular basis is a key component of happiness. "That is, by learning how to enter the state of flow, you can increase your productivity, be more creative, and be happier, all at the same time."[7]

The biologic explanation behind flow is that our nervous system can process only about 110 bits of information per second. Hearing and understanding speech requires 60 bits per second, which is why you cannot listen to more than two people talking to you at once. Being in flow tends to use up all processing power of the brain, such that physical sensations such as thirst, hunger or pain, may go unnoticed. Performance becomes effortless.[8]

Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Charles Limb used functional MRI to examine the brains of improv jazz musicians in flow. Interestingly, he found the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain best known for self-monitoring, deactivated. Self-monitoring is the voice of doubt, that defeatist nag, our inner critic. "Since flow is a fluid state — where problem solving is nearly automatic — second guessing can only slow that process. When the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex goes quiet, those guesses are cut off at the source. The result is liberation. We act without hesitation. Creativity becomes more free-flowing, risk taking becomes less frightening, and the combination lets us flow at a far faster clip."[9]

According to Csíkszentmihályi, there are 10 factors that accompany the experience of flow. While many of these components may be present, it is not necessary to experience all of them for flow to occur:

  • Clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable
  • Strong concentration and focused attention
  • The activity is intrinsically rewarding
  • Feelings of serenity; a loss of feelings of self-consciousness
  • Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing
  • Immediate feedback
  • Knowing that the task is doable; a balance between skill level and the challenge presented
  • Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome
  • Lack of awareness of physical needs
  • Complete focus on the activity itself

In applying the above flow factors, Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of "The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want," finds that janitors are happiest at work because they can control their workday and they can see immediately how they are helping people. "Lawyers, by contrast, are the most universally unhappy, because they have little control over their hours and they are generally dealing with people who hate that they have to hire a lawyer, whatever the lawyer is doing."[10]

Others disagree. In fact, according to one lawyer seeking flow: "The art of lawyering is a wonderful challenge, in that it provides many opportunities to find flow in a variety of activities, from legal writing to negotiation to oral argument."[11] Specifically, a lawyer who loses track of time while preparing for trial or while writing a trial memo or appellate brief, may already have experienced a flow state. If achieving and experiencing a flow state is a key component to happiness — how do lawyers promote and create opportunities for more flow experiences? First, choose something you enjoy doing. If you dread a task, you’ll have a hard time losing yourself in it. If you salivate at drafting a lengthy brief or coverage opinion, have at it. If brainstorming about the theme of your case is more up your alley, select that task in seeking flow. Next, develop the skills necessary to meet the challenge. Remember, a task should be challenging enough to require your full concentration and achieve the flow state. If it is too hard for your skill level, you will find it difficult to lose yourself in it, as you will spend most of your concentration just trying to figure out how to do it. You also want to be very clear on what you want to achieve and how to measure your success.

Find your quiet, peak time and focus completely on the task at hand. That might be early morning, when you just wake, or early in the work day, before most arrive at the office. "Whatever time you choose, it should also be a peak energy time for you. Find a time when you have lots of energy and can concentrate."[12] You’ll want to clear away all other distractions. If your concentration is broken, you’re going to exit the state of flow.

Make sure to set aside enough time, as it will likely take at least 15 minutes to start to get into the flow state, and a while longer after that until you are fully immersed. "Once you enter the flow state, you are going to make sure that you make the most of it."[13] And do not forget to enjoy yourself. "Losing yourself in flow is an amazing thing, in my experience. It feels great to be able to really pour yourself into something worthwhile, to make great progress on a project or important task, to do something you’re passionate about. Take the time to appreciate this feeling."[14]

If happier lawyers are better-performing lawyers,[15] and being able to enter the flow state — which is a very enjoyable experience — is a key component of happiness,[16] then lawyers should seek flow at every opportunity. And if Time Magazine is correct in that being a lawyer is one of the five worst high-paying jobs, it may be now or never for lawyers to go with the flow.