The ADR Section of the Florida Bar put together a six-part series: Health and Wellness. Together with Karen Lapekas, Maia Aron, two lawyers that I featured in my book, A Lawyer’s Guide to Creating a Life, Not Just a Living we presented; Navigate Lawyering and Life: A Road Map. Karen Lapekas’s presentation was so powerful that I want to share some of it with you.

Can Lawyers Find Happiness… Against The Odds? 

By Karen Lapekas

The question is shocking. What do you mean… “against the odds?” Are the odds stacked against attorneys?

Most people think “lawyer” and they think money, success, respect, prestige, and maybe the guy in the new Porsche that cut them off on the highway. Few people think depression and battles with mental health.

A 2016 study from the Betty Ford Foundation found that 28% of licensed, employed attorneys struggle with some level of depression and 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety. I bet if they did that study today, in the midst of the pandemic, the numbers would be worse.

Don’t lawyers have everything we need to be happy? The answer is a resounding, “Yes.” Brains, education, money…but we also have everything to be unhappy. Ironically, the very characteristics that help someone achieve success are characteristics that have a high correlation with depression. There’s a chicken and the egg argument. Which came first? Depression or the lawyer? It doesn’t really matter which came first. What matters now is finding happiness as a lawyer—and even better—as a successful lawyer!

But I’m going to back up a bit. I’ll tell you how I came to be here, the owner of my own tax law practice, speaking about finding happiness in the legal profession. To do so, I have to first admit that I tried a couple of times to NOT be here—I tried to back out of this speech. I can speak for hours about tax law, running a business and cases. But this is different. This is personal. Vulnerable—especially in a professional setting. Who am I to speak about happiness or mental health? I’m not a psychologist or a doctor. I don’t have any piece of paper to hang on my wall that says, “I’m qualified to talk about well-being.” The only thing I can say is I’m a lawyer and I have struggled with…being. And I’ve struggled with well-being, too.

So, yeah, I have major imposter syndrome presenting here today. But I hope that by sharing my story it gets easier for everyone to share their own, to get help, to be the help others need, to reduce the stigma of depression, and help others see that facing, living with, and confronting depression can prove to be the most important and satisfying work you’ve ever done. It was for me.

For years, I fought depression. I say fought because I don’t like to say I suffered from it. I suffered from it for years (for as long as I remember) but through suffering, I learned to fight it. I learned what made it tolerable. I learned what got me through it. I learned what made it lessen and lessen, until I could say I felt . . . normal. When you fight the same opponent over and over, you learn its techniques. You know its second move as soon as you see its first. The fight thus becomes easier to bear. You don’t fear it as much. And you can punch it out quicker.

For me, depression is like that. I see signs of it very early, and I know what I need to do to avoid it spiraling out of control. Almost always, it requires me to do something, like breathe, get out of bed, put one foot in front of the other, walk the dog, go out for coffee, go to the gym, call a friend, take a trip, quit a job, start a business.

Eight years ago, I had a great job with the IRS. I was a senior attorney litigating cases in the U.S. Tax Court. I loved it. It was great hands-on experience. I loved my colleagues and the benefits were generous.

But my shoulders started getting heavy as I walked into work every morning. It happened for weeks in a row. One day I noticed that by the time I reached my office door at 7:30 a.m., all of the day’s energy was already zapped. I was restless. I knew that the question I had to ask was not whether I could make enough money if I left, but whether I could be happy if I stayed.

The question came down to this: Am I happy? And I knew that if the answer was NO, I had to tell myself, okay, CHANGE IT.

I didn’t know it at the time, but starting my own law firm was the greatest thing I have ever done to tackle depression.

How so? Through starting my own firm, I learned A LOT. I can summarize perhaps the most important 6 really basic, but important lessons that have helped me feel more happiness over the last 8 years that I could have ever imagined. Here they are…

1.   Most of the things we worry about never happen. 
This is not anecdotal. It’s science! In one study, subjects were asked to write down their worries over an extended period of time and then identify which of them did not actually happen. It turned out that 85% of what people worried about never happened, and with the 15 percent that did happen, 79% discovered they could handle the difficulty better than expected, or it taught them a lesson worth learning. This means that 97 percent of what you worry over is not much more than a negative mind torturing you with unrealistic and embellished thoughts.

2.   Business wealth follows mental health. 
I credit a lot of my mental health to starting my own business. But I credit my business wealth (or success) to my mental health even more. I knew that if everything wasn’t OK in my mind, nothing would ever be great any where else. As a business owner, I had to work on my mental health. I wanted the most solid foundation from which to start my business. That foundation was up here, in my head.

I can’t afford to think negatively. I can’t afford NOT to be OK. Through the years, I have come to truly believe that we attract what we put out into the world. I’ve see it happen, over and over again. I do believe in the power of positive thinking and that we can manifest or “attract” our dreams.  To see it, we have to believe it first.

But to believe it, we have to be it. We have to act the part. And we need to come from a solid foundation first. You can’t squeeze orange juice from an apple. To be a business “success” we have to be a personal success first. And what if you achieve business success/wealth without being OK? Well, I think we know how that turns out. It’s either quickly lost, or not worth working for. Because how sweet is success if you can’t enjoy it?

3.   Mental health requires exercise. It’s work. 
When I started my business, I filled every available moment of my day with uplifting and inspirational messages and people. I listened to audiobooks while walking the dog, driving, getting ready for work. Having fought depression most of my life, I knew I needed to train my brain. I needed to reprogram the software. I had a brain that always went to the negative. If someone gave me a compliment, I wondered why they were lying. But I knew that’s not the person I wanted to be. I wanted to be positive. I wasn’t necessarily worried about becoming a person others wanted to be around, but I wanted to become a person I wanted to be around.

I have to add a caveat. When I was in the troughs of depression, the hardest thing I ever heard people tell me was “Smile! Be happy! Happiness is a choice!” I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to tell people where to go when they told me that. Because I know, when you are depressed, you don’t just smile. You don’t just choose to be happy. Just like you don’t choose depression or someone doesn’t choose to have cancer. No. When you’re depressed, you don’t choose to be happy. But you can choose to do the small things that seem monumental at the time. You choose to get out of bed. You choose to call a therapist. You choose to go to therapy. You choose to go to a doctor to find out if antidepressants would be right for you. To others, those seem like small things, but when you’re depressed, they are huge.

All of these things are work. Just like someone doesn’t choose to be in shape. They don’t just choose it and BAM they have a great body. No, they choose to go to the gym, or take the stairs, or chose the apple over the candy bar. They do the work, little at a time, constantly, to get to a better state. Mental health takes exercise, too.

4.   There is nothing more important than being OK. 
I catch myself saying there is “nothing more important than happy.” But, having fought depression and knowing such dark feelings for so long, the simple lack of depression is amazing. When you’ve been there, being OK is incredible. You don’t need overwhelming jump-up-and-down joy. But just having the weight of depression off your shoulders and the ability to think clearly again is incredible. Getting to OK is a huge accomplishment. It’s the stepping-stone to getting to moments of joy.

Everyone who has been through hell—we’ve all been through different versions of it—is more grateful for the little things. I don’t take little things for granted. I don’t take happiness—or even feeling OK— for granted. Because if I had never focused on OK, I would never have gotten to a place where I could have a thriving practice. I would never have been approachable enough to meet my husband. And I would never have imagined that I could have been a good mom—let alone want to be a mom at all! If I had not put getting to be OK first, simply put, I wouldn’t be here.

If I had focused on objective measures of success—like the balance of my bank account or my job title, I would not have ever gotten to OK.

5.   Redefine success.
For me, success isn’t what’s parked in the driveway. It’s not the number of people that work for me or the number of people that know me.

Granted, I find myself thinking that maybe I’m not striving enough, or maybe not living up to my potential because I have chosen to occupy a small part of the world and a small part of the legal profession. Yet, every time I am given the opportunity to have society’s version of success, I can’t come up with a dollar amount that will make it worth giving up what I have. I wake up and don’t dread the drive to work. I know all my clients and I know they’re taken care of. I have had my daughter near me in my office every day since she was only 10 days old.

I know myself. I know I don’t feel OK when I work 50/60/70 hours a week. I don’t feel OK when I spend every evening at professional events. I don’t feel OK when I’m constantly measuring, calculating, chasing. For me, success is a feeling. Being OK, and being happy, is success.

6.   Everything is a cherry on top.
I still go to a therapist every few weeks. Though I’m not depressed, and I’m more often happy than just OK, I go for maintenance. I also go because I like knowing that if I start feeling the signs of depression in the future, I have an existing relationship with a therapist I trust greatly. Recently, I was lamenting to him that I worry that I’m not living up to my potential and that I should be making more money, that I could have a bigger firm and more than I do. He asked me, “Is that what you want?”  I said no… but I feel like it’s what I should want! He told me, given what I’ve been through, I’ve already accomplished more than what anyone would have ever imagined. So right now? My only job is to enjoy it, because everything right now, is the cherry on top.

Getting to well-being, getting to OK, these things are not just things we do for ourselves. They are things we do for the ones we love and  for our clients.

Focusing on your mental health, getting to OK, and even getting to “happy” is the best investment in your career. It takes work. It takes work to put aside worries. It takes work to put mental health above other things, it takes work to redefine success. It takes work to see that everything is a cherry on top. But it’s worth it. Happiness is worth fighting for. It is possible. Even for lawyers.