A CONVERSATION WITH THE CHIEF: A MODERN REFLECTION ON THE HAPPINESS, HEALTH, AND ETHICS OF THE LEGAL PROFESSION WITH CHIEF JUDGE PATRICK J. SCHILTZ
By: Katheryn Furlong, Volume 107 Staff Member
Dear Law Student:
I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the profession that you are about to enter is one of the most unhappy and unhealthy on the face of the earth–and, in the view of many, one of the most unethical. The good news is that you can join this profession and still be happy, healthy, and ethical. I am writing to tell you how.
Over twenty years ago, Patrick J. Schiltz wrote an open letter to law students, shepherding them into the legal profession with lessons he learned throughout his own career. At the time, he was a faculty member at Notre Dame Law School. Over the course of several visits as a guest speaker for a class on professional responsibility, Professor Schiltz shared the wisdom and lessons he learned by working at a large law firm prior to beginning his teaching career. Through these visits, Professor Schiltz’s reflections on the legal profession—specifically as it related to their health, happiness, and ethics or lack thereof—became more refined. Before long, what began as percolating thoughts jotted down on index cards transformed into “one of the most widely read law review articles ever published.”
In his 1999 Vanderbilt Law Review article, On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession, Professor Schiltz took stock of the dismal data surrounding the health and happiness of lawyers, particularly those at large law firms. High rates of mental illness, substance abuse, and low job satisfaction in the legal community were evident. Why were lawyers so unhappy and unhealthy? Three phenomena emerged: the hours, the money, and the “game.”
- The Hours – The already high and ever-growing billable hour requirements in large firms severely impinge on personal time.
- The Money – Billable hour requirements increase as salaries rise; lawyers work these long hours for the money.
- The “Game” – Large firm lawyers are generally an ambitious group, and they tend to compete to bill hours, attract clients, and win cases: “If a lawyer’s life is dominated by the game—and if his success in the game is measured by money—then his life is dominated by money. For many, many lawyers, it’s that simple.”
The hours, money, and game are hardly conducive to living a balanced life. These forces lend themselves to working morning, noon, and night—on weekdays and weekends alike. Even if you carve out time for a dinner with friends or make it home for your kids’ bedtime, you very well may be spending additional hours on work afterwards. This kind of living impedes on one’s responsibilities outside of work. Yet, a balanced life—and ethical life—involves fulfilling responsibilities in the personal realm. Thus, as Professor Schiltz wrote, “[i]f you become a workaholic lawyer, you will be unhealthy, probably unhappy, and, I would argue, unethical.”
Professor Schiltz did not leave the law students he wrote to in despair. Considering alternatives to large firm culture, making informed decisions when going to a large firm, and being satisfied with a smaller income are avenues for building a healthier, happier lifestyle. When it comes to ethics, Professor Schiltz’s advice was to make right living a habit, as natural as putting on your seatbelt every time you get in the car: “[i]f you are going to practice law ethically, you need to decide now, while you are still in law school, what kind of lawyer you want to be, and then act as that kind of lawyer would act. Always. Everywhere. In big things and small.”
Today, Patrick J. Schiltz is the Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota. I read his article for the first time when I joined his chambers as an extern in the fall of 2022. A few months ago, I sat down with Judge Schiltz to talk about the article’s legacy and his modern reflections on the health, happiness, and ethics of the legal profession today.
Though he published the law review article over twenty years ago, he still gets emails from readers all the time. “People are still reading it. Professors still hand it out. Judges still hand it out,” he says. The piece has been translated into several languages. Why is it still so popular after all this time? Perhaps because it resonates on an intuitive level. “Everything I’ve said in [the article] has been said a million times before and has been said a million times since,” Judge Schiltz notes. It is “ancient wisdom applied to a particular context.”
This ancient wisdom had an impact. He wrote that law students should “cross-examin[e] prospective employers” about “workloads and billable hours and recently departed associates,” and law students began to heed his advice. “A lot of firms had meetings and planned how they would answer each of these questions because so many students were asking the questions.” The article has become popular with an audience wider than just law students, too. “The people it really reached were the third, fourth, fifth year associates at big firms,” Judge Schiltz says. The article provided the language to explain the root of a certain dissatisfaction they experienced at large firms, even inspiring associates to make a transition in their careers.
Today, the ancient wisdom the article contains remains relevant to contemporary legal practitioners. The pressure lawyers faced from the hours, money, and game have not disappeared. Indeed, the advent of social media has intensified the pressures lawyers face. “It’s made it harder to stand up to the prevailing culture, the prevailing ethic,” Judge Schiltz says, because it homogenizes the message law students and young attorneys receive about what they should desire. When the prevailing culture celebrates salaries, and every other LinkedIn post or Tweet promotes chasing a higher position, young lawyers face more challenges in resisting unethical and unhealthy pressures. Thus, Judge Schiltz advises young people not to silo themselves in the echo chamber of social media, as it only exacerbates the trends of unhealthiness and unhappiness.
For law students trying to set themselves up for success in the legal profession, Judge Schiltz suggests the most important thing is to be self-conscious. Whichever path they choose to embark upon, law students ought to be aware of the implications of those choices. Judge Schiltz continues to encourage students to resolve to live now in a way that will provide a solid foundation for their legal careers: “Law school is a very unusual experience. It’s unlike anything before law school, it’s unlike anything after law school. Try to not lose yourself in those three years.”
For me, law school certainly is an unusual experience. Although there is no billable hour requirement, the time spent working can similarly consume most waking moments. In a typical week, there may be hundreds of pages in assigned readings, multiple case briefs to write, and outlines to prepare. There is always more to be done. Classes are graded on a curve, so how well you do is measured by how well you do compared to your peers. Competition is built into the law school structure. I can see the roots of the game Judge Schiltz speaks about starting already in law school, which makes the importance of a firm foundation in health, happiness, and ethics become increasingly apparent. Though it takes effort to build and reinforce such habits, Judge Schiltz’s parting words in his article offer encouragement: “Living a balanced life and defining success for yourself are lifelong struggles, and they do not end once you leave a big law firm. The one thing I can promise you is that, as we rediscover everyday, they are struggles well worth undertaking.”
 Patrick J. Schiltz, On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession, 52 Vand. L. Rev. 871, 872 (1999).
 See e.g., id. at 924 (offering advice about where to work based on his experience as a partner in a large law firm).
 Id. at 871.
 Interview with Patrick Schiltz, Chief Judge, U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota (Nov. 17, 2022).
 News Release: New Chief Judge Named for U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota, U.S. Dist. Ct. Dist. Minn. (June 30, 2022), https://www.mnd.uscourts.gov/sites/mnd/files/2022-0630USDCMNNewsReleaseNewChiefJudge.pdf [https://perma.cc/TF8P-JXYP].
 Schiltz, supra note 1 at 874–88 (discussing data about depression, mental illness, substance abuse, divorce, suicide, and physical health in the legal field).
 Id. at 888–906.
 Id. at 895.
Every hour that lawyers spend at their desks in an hour that they do not spend doing many of the things that give their lives joy and meaning: being with their spouses, playing with their children, relaxing with their friends, visiting their parents, going to movies, reading books, volunteering at the homeless shelter, playing softball, collecting stamps, traveling the world, getting involved in a political campaign, going to church, working out at a health club. There’s no mystery about why lawyers are so unhappy: They work too much.
 Id. at 899 (“How do firms pay for this ever-spiraling increase in salaries? In theory, they have two options: First, they can raise billing rates . . . Second, they can bill more hours . . . In reality, though, firms only have one option: They have to bill more hours.”).
 Id. at 905–06.
 See id. at 908–10 (discussing how a balanced life that allows for meeting personal responsibilities is important for being an ethical lawyer, along with acting ethically at work and following the rules of professional conduct).
 Id. at 910 (“[B]eing admitted to the bar does not absolve you of your responsibilities outside of work—to your family, to your friends, to your community, and, if you’re a person of faith, to your God.”).
 Id. at 924–49.
 Id. at 949.
 The Honorable Patrick J. Schiltz, U.S. Dist. Ct. Dist. of Minn., https://www.mnd.uscourts.gov/PJS [https://perma.cc/T9MN-GNRC].
 Some of the quotations from this interview with Judge Schiltz have been lightly edited for clarity.
 Schiltz, supra note 4.
 Schiltz, supra note 1 at 949. Schiltz also recommends asking questions about the personal lives of lawyers at a firm:
[A]sk them how many times last week they had dinner with their families. And then ask them what time dinner was served. And then ask them whether they worked after dinner. Ask them what their favorite television show is or what is the last good movie they saw. . . .Ask them about their last vacation. Where did they go? How long did they stay? How many faxes did they send or receive while on vacation? Get some sense of what their lives are like.
Id. at 948.
 Schiltz, supra note 4.
 Schiltz, supra note 1 at 895.