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By Laura Mahr

One of the most enjoyable aspects of authoring this column is the positive response from lawyers and judges around the state. It is inspiring to hear from readers that the content of the column resonates, and that the issue of lawyer wellbeing is galvanizing individual lawyers and organizations alike. I was thrilled to receive a call from one such reader, Charlotte attorney and former judge, Carl Horn III. 

In 2003 Judge Horn authored LawyerLife: Finding a Life and a Higher Calling in the Practice of Law. During our conversation, I asked him what motivated him to write Lawyer Life 15 years ago, and he responded, “I wanted to point out some troubling trends in the legal field, and to suggest some philosophical, practical, and spiritual steps lawyers can and should take to maintain balance and find professional fulfillment.” My conversation with Judge Horn reminded me that while the issue of lawyer wellbeing is recently picking up momentum, the concern has been alive for many years. I so enjoyed our conversation, I interviewed Judge Horn for this quarter’s column so that he can share with readers what shapes his perspective on maintaining balance in the legal field.

Laura: Who helped to shape your professional values and what initially sparked your interest in lawyers having a better quality of life?

Judge Horn: The seeds that shaped my professional values and priorities were first sewn by observing three lawyers in my own family: my great uncle (Guy Carswell, who practiced in Charlotte), my uncle (Judge Richard “Dick” Emmet who practiced in Montgomery, Alabama), and my father.

My Uncle Guy was a very successful trial lawyer (and astute investor) who made lots of money. During his life and at his death, he gave most of it away. Thanks to his generosity, there were many hundreds of men and women from less affluent families who were able to get college educations (beginning with the children of his mailman and a garbage collector with whom he became friends). My Uncle Dick, a progressive in the heart of the Jim Crow South, was also one of my heroes. I recall, for example, when the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court refused to swear in the first African American elected to the Alabama Legislature since Reconstruction. My uncle immediately stepped up and said he would be pleased and honored to do it.

While I admired and emulated much about my father, who finished his career as president and CEO of Duke Power Company, there were a few of his qualities I hoped to improve upon. Specifically, I hoped to forge closer and more fulfilling relationships with my children than he had the time to develop with his. And of course, you can’t do that without intentionally striving for a healthy work-life balance, which was in the forefront of my mind each time I came to a fork in my career path.

Laura: You started practicing in 1976, but didn’t publish your book until 2003. Were there changes in those 27 years that motivated you to write LawyerLife?

Judge Horn: By 2003 there was a growing consensus that law was a profession in crisis. Anecdotal evidence of lawyer unhappiness—including eight lawyer suicides in a seven-year period in Charlotte—was followed by a series of state and federal surveys to determine the scope and contours of the problem, and to develop effective ways to help lawyers who were struggling. One of the most extensive surveys was conducted by the NC Bar Association in 1989 and published in 1991. Reporting what was described as “a severe level of dissatisfaction with law practice among some attorneys, and lost dreams and idealism among many others,” the statewide survey found that:

  • 24% of the North Carolina lawyers who responded would not become attorneys if they could make the decision again;
  • Only 54% wished to remain in law practice for the remainder of their careers; and
  • Over 24% reported symptoms of depression “at least three times per month during the past year,” with 11% reporting they had considered suicide at least once a month during the past year

Lawyer dissatisfaction with their professional lives—and the toll it was taking on their overall quality of life—was not unique to or more pronounced in North Carolina than elsewhere. ABA surveys in 1984 and 1990, for example, found a 20% drop during those six years alone in the number of lawyers describing themselves as “very satisfied.” In the 1990 survey, 22% of all male partners and 43% of all female partners reported that they were dissatisfied with their professional lives. For solo practitioners, the reported dissatisfaction rate rose to 43% of all men and to an astounding 55% of all women.

These and other survey results were consistent with research at Johns Hopkins University reported in 1990. The Johns Hopkins study examined the prevalence of “major depressive disorder” in 104 different occupations (including the professions as “occupations”). The research found only five of the 104 occupations in which the occurrence of major depression exceeded ten percent—and lawyers topped even this list, suffering from major depression at a rate 3.6 times higher than nonlawyers with the same socio-demographic traits.

There were also scholarly books and articles written in the 1990s that caught my attention, beginning with Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman’s The Lost Lawyer, subtitled Failing Ideals of the Legal Profession, published by Harvard University Press in 1993. In words usually reserved for the pulpit, Dean Kronman pronounced that what we were facing was a “spiritual crisis” in which “the profession now stands in danger of losing its soul.” About the same time Sol Linowitz, chair of Xerox Corporation and an ambassador in several presidential administrations, expressed kindred concerns in The Betrayed Profession, as did lawyer/psychotherapist Benjamin Sells in The Soul of the Law, and Harvard Law School Professor Mary Ann Glendon in her 1994 book, A Nation of Lawyers.

Laura: That said, are you one of the 24% of lawyers who wouldn’t become an attorney if you could make the decision again?

Judge Horn: Absolutely not; I remain proud to be a lawyer. I have truly enjoyed the various phases of my almost 42-year long legal career, and I would choose our profession again without hesitation. But I do believe there are steps we can take, practices and habits we can adopt, and practices and habits we should definitely avoid, if we hope to find satisfaction and fulfillment in the contemporary practice of law.

Laura: What is the first step you recommend to find fulfillment in the practice of law?

Judge Horn: The first step we can take is to be aware that there are choices for us to make—and that there are professional and personal consequences which flow from those choices. We can, for example, educate ourselves on—and even be inspired by—the noble roots of our profession, which saw itself as a calling to serve and help others and to seek truth and justice, or we can accede to the more recent and far less inspiring view of law as no more than a “value- free,” dollar-driven business.

Laura: You quote the Yale Law School Dean’s emphasis on lawyers adhering to certain values. Why do you think that’s important?

Judge Horn: Dean Kronman suggested that “an older set of values” should be reinvigorated, including the pursuit of “wisdom about human beings and their tangled affairs.” When was the last time, if ever, you have heard the word “wisdom” used in connection with the practice of law? I believe that we should care, as individuals and as a profession, more about justice and truth than about winning at any cost or doing anything and everything to maximize our bottom lines.

I would like all lawyers to ask themselves, “What do we individually and collectively value?” Is it those who are charitable with their time and resources? Those who are passionate about a cause and sacrifice to advance it? Those who transcend narrow self interest, reaching out helping hands or giving of their time and resources in a meaningful way to those who are less fortunate? Have we lost sight of the central importance of nurturing our families and close friendships and making our relationships a clear, high, and life-long priority?

Laura: What do you think will help lawyers to prioritize their relationships with family and friends?

Judge Horn: Sometimes we need a wake-up call before we understand the importance of the people in our lives. I recall a conversation in chambers with Keith Tart, then a partner in a large North Carolina firm who had a national toxic torts practice and had been admitted pro hac vice in over 30 state and federal courts, so you can imagine how much time he was spending at home. Keith told me that he got his wake-up call when his first-grade daughter was asked in school to draw a picture of her family. He wasn’t in the picture! The family dog was, but he wasn’t.

We take a major step in the right direction if we simply commit to applying the Golden Rule in our professional lives: treating others—including our clients, opposing counsel, and their clients—as we ourselves wish to be treated. It perhaps goes without saying that this implies civility, honesty, and unimpeachable ethics, including scrupulous honesty in our billing practices.

Laura: One of the chapters in LawyerLife is titled “Twelve Steps Toward Fulfillment in the Practice of Law.” Can you briefly summarize the steps?

Judge Horn: I constructed what I call “the world’s first 12-Step program exclusively for lawyers” partly tongue in cheek, although the recommendations are seriously intended. In a quick nutshell the “steps” or recommendations are: (1) Conduct a professional and personal self-evaluation; (2) Establish clear priorities; (3) Develop and practice good time management; (4) Implement healthy lifestyle practices (especially regular exercise); (5) Live beneath your means; (6) Don’t let technology control your life; (7) Care about character—and conduct yourself accordingly; (8) “Just say no” to some clients; (9) Stay emotionally healthy; (10) Embrace law as a “high calling”; (11) Be generous with your time and money; and (12) Pace yourself for a marathon.

Many thanks to Judge Horn for sharing his words of wisdom with readers this month. If you are inspired to put into action any of his suggestions on finding fulfillment in the practice of law, try this:

1. Schedule a 20 minute break—find a time and place where you can focus.

2. Read Judge Horn’s interview again, this time slowly.

3. As you read, circle the recommendation in Judge Horn’s interview you found most compelling (i.e., his invitation to ponder what it is that you value, or one of the “Twelve Steps Toward Fulfillment”).

4. Set a timer for ten minutes. Free-write (i.e., write continuously without regard to grammar, spelling, or syntax) for ten minutes about ways you personally can respond to the circled call to action.

5. When your writing time is up, read what you wrote, then circle the most meaningful or compelling sentence in what you wrote.

6. Calendar an action step, or time to think more about, or share with someone else what you wrote.

If you would like to connect with other lawyers who are interested in lawyer wellbeing while cultivating your own resilience using mindfulness, join Laura as she presents at these upcoming NC events:

9/7/18: “What Every New/Young Lawyer Needs to Know about Building Resilience Using Mindfulness and Neuroscience,” NCBA’s YLD CLE, Cary (Co-sponsored by NCLAP and NCBA YLD)

9/18: “A Joyful Life: Finding Ease and Satisfaction in the Practice of Law” (on-going virtual program with Jeena Cho, career)

9/21/18: “Mindfulness and Neuroscience for Building Resilience to Stress,” 30th Judicial District CLE, Waynesville (sponsored by NCLAP)

10/4/18: “Mindfulness for Lawyers to Build Resilience to Stress” (one hour online CLE) (

10/11-11/1: “Mindfulness for Lawyers: Building Resilience to Stress Using Mindfulness, Meditation, and Neuroscience” (four week online course, consciouslegalminds. com/register)

10/12/18: Resilience Retreat for Immigration Lawyers and Support Staff, Asheville (

11/14/18: “Mindfulness and Neuroscience for Building Resilience to Stress,” 10th Judicial District CLE, Raleigh (co-sponsored by NCLAP) 

Laura Mahr is a NC lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing mindfulness-based coaching, training, and consulting for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Laura’s cutting edge work to build resilience to burnout, stress, and vicarious trauma in the practice of law is informed by 11 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney, two decades of experience as an educator and professional trainer, 25 years as a student and teacher of mindfulness and yoga, and a love of neuroscience. She is an advisory member of the 28th Judicial District’s Wellness Committee and the author of the Mindful Moment column in the North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program’s quarterly newsletter. Find out more about her work at

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