By Andrea Boyack from Washburn University School of Law
As Pharrell Williams’ hit song, “Happy,” tops the charts for yet another in a series of several weeks, as the academic calendar winds to a close, and as many law students prepare to graduate, the moment is ripe to consider not only whether legal educators have achieved their articulated goals, but also whether legal education has, in fact, chosen the right goals to begin with. Peter Huang, in his memoir-styled law review article, raises a very basic question: Does legal education help students achieve career fulfillment and lifetime satisfaction? In other words, are we helping our students become happy?
Aristotle believed that all other aims in life devolve into the meta-goal of increasing happiness. “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence,” he wrote (in Nichomachean Ethics). As a society, we often measure success according to more quantifiable metrics – whether such measures are GPA and class rank, or salary and U.S. News ranking. But such external measures do not guarantee, or even correlate, with the ultimate good of personal happiness.
Professor Huang, inspired by Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and his own “tiger cub” childhood, examines whether a system that pushes achievement and cognitive intelligence helps achieve this ultimate good. He concludes that legal education, like “tiger parenting,” does produce hard-working, analytic thinkers. But he also contends that both constructs inhibit the development of three key attributes that contribute to happiness, namely judgment and decision-making, emotional intelligence, and ethical character. Reforming legal education (and parenthood) to address these areas is essential, says Huang, if we as educators (and parents) hope to inspire life-long love of learning and sow the seeds of personal success.
Because I’m happy ~ Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
(Note: This and all subsequent lyrics are from the chorus of Pharrell Wiliams’ song “Happy.”)
Throughout his memoir article, Huang references the social and professional costs of a “tiger mom” approach to education that neglects development of empathy and interpersonal skills. Huang opines that “mainstream modern American legal education and tiger parenting” both are “hierarchical, top-down learning environments, which entail authority, compliance, extrinsic incentives, fear, memorization, obedience, paternalism, precedent, and respect for one’s elders.” These methods can achieve cognitive success and strong work ethic, but they are inherently limiting as well. Authoritarian, top-down teaching fails to inspire passion for the law, and rewarding compliance with paternalistic systems caps individuals’ potential. Huang speaks of the “bamboo ceiling” limitations faced by Asian Pacific American lawyers, who make up “almost half of all minority associates nationally” but only a small handful of law firm partners. He opines that perhaps this results from stereotypical over-obsequiousness among the ranks of APA associates. But if legal education achieves the same results as tiger parenting, Huang’s concern regarding inherent career limitations is more broadly applicable. There is something systemically worrisome about a widespread teaching approach that creates cadres of submissive lawyer worker-bees.
Fostering the development of judgment, character, and emotional intelligence, on the other hand, can unleash unlimited professional and personal potential. When people tap into their passions, they achieve career success. In addition, being passionate about one’s work allows one to enjoy the present, avoiding what Tal Ben-Shahar, in his book Happier, calls the “arrival fallacy” – the idea that only at the destination, rather than along the journey, does one find joy.
Because I’m happy ~ Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
In his article, Huang reminds the reader of an oft-neglected truism: “learning is not only informative, but can also be transformative and empowering.” He concludes “parents and educators can and should make learning not only less depressing and stressful, but also more engaging and fun.” After all, since happiness is the ultimate goal (per Aristotle), education should help students “be more engaged, happy, healthy, inspired, and resilient,” and this will “foster happy, meaningful, and productive lives.”
Another seemingly obvious truism that Huang necessarily articulates is that it is more important for a lawyer to have good judgment than vast knowledge. Lawyers are, after all, problem solvers, and their very livelihood depends on their ability to assess evidence, analyze outcomes and risks, and assist in client decision-making. “Good thinking” and “rationality” are thus more important lawyer values than mere cognitive intelligence. As lawyers and legal educators, we know this to be true. And yet, are we adequately fostering the development of good judgment in our students?
Because I’m happy ~ Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Huang asserts that “much of current American legal non-clinical education teaches students that lawyering is just about logical analysis and not about feelings.” But successful attorneys must recognize and respond to emotions in the many people they must interact with, including “attorneys, clients, judges, juries, and other legal actors.” Huang cites an empirical study that showed that students with more positive emotions and emotional habits achieved greater success in negotiations (in terms of both individual and joint gains), course grades, and emotional health and mental wellness.
Lawyers are not known for being happy individuals. In fact, several recent scholarly studies have called attention to the fact that graduating law students are generally more depressed and more stressed than they were when they began law school. The legal profession also regularly struggles with lawyer addiction and depression rates. Efforts to improve emotional intelligence among law students could pay great dividends in these problem-areas.
Emotional intelligence also builds empathy, which is one of the most underrated attributes of good lawyering. Legal education can and should be concerned with assisting students’ development of emotional intelligence, including “mindfulness, self-reflection, and creativity.”
Because I’m happy ~ Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do
I once taught a required Professional Responsibility class and found rather shocking the dearth of student interest and engagement in the topic. If taught as preparation for the MPRE, the course devolves into memorization of ethical “rules.” The study of legal ethics, however, could be so much more. Professor Huang agrees, pointing out that “one’s character strengths, ethics, and professionalism are crucial to achieving happiness and satisfaction in school, work, and life.” Although all law students are required to take a course in professional ethics, these classes as currently taught generally fail to inspire future lawyers to aspire to high integrity and character.
Rather than focus on cases in which lawyers are being disciplined for professional rule violations, Huang challenges legal educators to find ways in all courses to inspire students to develop their own noble, professional character and reputations. This sort of character-building goes deeper and is more fundamental than teaching a collection of ethical rules. After all, as Professor Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, explained, “[e]thics are the rules you apply to get what you care about. What you care about – your values – is more basic than ethics.”
Huang’s article is an entertaining, if rather rambling, narrative (a fact he acknowledges in his explanation of the piece’s “memoir” approach). Nevertheless, the legal education themes and insights he articulates are of tremendous value to the academy. Rather than exclusively focus on how well legal educators are achieving the goal of teaching students to “think like a lawyer,” Huang points out that we must consider whether our defined objectives are the most important ones. Perhaps feeling (empathizing and self-actualizing) “like a lawyer,” using good judgment “like a lawyer,” and being professional and ethical “like a lawyer” will lead to even better outcomes. Fostering judgment, emotional intelligence, and character-building will make successful lawyers, not only in terms of dollars earned and cases won but in terms of “career and life satisfaction” and “sustainable personal happiness.”