A Happy and Successful Lawyer Is Not an Oxymoron: Judge Shares His Advice in New Book

For the past 17 years, I have had the great honor of serving as a judge for the Los Angeles Superior Court, the largest court system in the country. Sitting on the bench, I’m essentially afforded the box seats to life.

We all know a legal career is incredibly demanding. The very hallmarks of studying and practicing law include an intense environment, cut-throat competition, unrealistic demands on time, and immense expectations to succeed. While lawyers aim to serve their clients’ best interests, they often ignore or neglect their own.


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What’s more, few attorneys will say they are genuinely fulfilled. Rarer still are those lawyers who are truly thriving in both their personal and professional lives. In short, the legal field contains a vast wasteland of untapped potential.

It is my firm belief that a happy and successful lawyer is not an oxymoron. Based on my experience as a judge, professor, and certified life coach, I found there is a great, yet unfulfilled, need for lawyers to learn how to be happy, healthy, and successful.

As a result, I wrote the “The Whole Truth for Lawyers: A Complete Guide to Flourishing in Your Life and Career.” The purpose of the book is to provide a practical and comprehensive manual for thriving in both your legal practice and your personal life. I offer real-life tools for successfully navigating the courtroom as well as attaining excellent health and vital relationships.


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You cannot live your best life if you are succeeding in your career but languishing in life outside of work, and vice versa. This book provides the truth and the whole truth for realizing your full potential in all the essential aspects of life. Yes, you can be both happy and successful as an attorney.

Following is an excerpt from Judge Pfahler’s book, in which he acknowledges that you will face a never-ending cascade of challenges and problems in life. It’s a fact. He asserts, however, that having problems and a great life are not mutually exclusive. In fact, he proposes that challenges serve as the primary fuel for our growth and evolution as humans. 

The Excerpt: Seeing Problems as Opportunities

It was my very first day as a judge. I was ready. I had been a lawyer for a long time. I knew what I was doing. I was prepared. In fact, I had reviewed each of my files twice that morning before calling my calendar.

Never mind that my first judicial assignment was presiding over criminal cases, and that my background was primarily in civil law. I had been reading, studying, and training in criminal law for the past several months and had even observed criminal judges calling their calendars for the past week.


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So, I confidently took the bench, greeted the lawyers, and called my first case. The prosecution and the defense lawyer both stated their appearances, and before I could utter another word, the defense lawyer said, “Your Honor, I would like to make an Arbuckle Waiver.”

A what? I had never even heard of an Arbuckle Waiver. (An Arbuckle Waiver is essentially a request by the defendant to be sentenced by a different judge when the original judge who took the plea is unavailable.) I was mentally knocked down with the first punch. But outwardly, I needed to keep my composure, so I calmly said, “You may proceed.” After hearing from both sides, I asked counsel to approach at sidebar. I sincerely confessed my ignorance about Arbuckle Waivers. Fortunately, both the prosecutor and the defense lawyer were seasoned. They both were very respectful and appreciative of my candor. This gave both lawyers an opportunity to educate the judge.

It was an immediate and eye-opening experience right off the bat to realize judges don’t know everything, nor should they. Most judges certainly know a fair amount, but typically the lawyers know more about their case than the judge, at least initially.

So, yes, I got knocked off my feet as a judge in my very first case. It certainly wasn’t the first or last time I faced setbacks, challenges, and failures. Likewise, for many of you, you may have a professional or personal goal and know what needs to be done but get tripped up or sidetracked. For others, you don’t yet have a goal but are just trying to get through the day or not feeling perpetually lost. In either situation, the first step in the pursuit of happiness is understanding that every problem is an opportunity. The word opportunity means “a good chance for advancement or progress.”

I learned this truth early in my own legal career. After one particularly stinging criticism about a legal brief I drafted for a partner, I came to this deep realization: Everything is an opportunity. I could either get dejected after being criticized, or I could get better. I chose the latter. Because challenges and problems are inevitable, I now saw that life is a series of one opportunity after another. In each moment, I get to choose how to respond to that opportunity. It was only when I realized all challenges were simply opportunities to grow that I started to really improve as a lawyer and person.

Problems equal opportunities.

Comments 1

  1. Michele Santopietro says:

    Judge Pfahler is a TITAN and my HERO. He has SAVED MY LIFE and he is the most extraordinary person I have never met. He is a HERO. A SAVIOR. No one in the world has “bought” this amazing judge. You can’t afford him. He has too much integrity for that. MY WONDERFUL JUDGE PFAHLER has literally saved my LIFE. And I will be giving him and his family a check for 20 million dollars as a gift for saving my life after what he does.

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