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Lawyers in prestige positions aren’t as happy as those in public service jobs, study finds

Posted Mar 17, 2014 5:50 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A new study of lawyer satisfaction proves the old adage that money can’t buy happiness.

The survey of lawyers in four states found that satisfaction of psychological needs—including the need for autonomy and to feel competent and connected to others—is far more important to happiness than external rewards such as money.

The study by Florida State University law professor Lawrence Krieger and University of Missouri psychology professor Kennon Sheldon noted that law schools emphasize grades, honors and potential for high earnings, though those factors “have nil to modest bearing on lawyer well-being.” Legal Skills Prof Blog noted a draft version of the professors' article on the study, available here.

The survey measured lawyers’ “subjective well-being,” a combination of life satisfaction and mood. More than 7,800 bar members in four states responded to the survey; the study focused on about 6,200 who provided complete data and said they worked as lawyers, judges or in related positions.

The survey found that lawyers in “prestige” jobs, who had the highest grades and incomes, aren’t as happy as lawyers working in public-service jobs for substantially lower pay. Judges, however, were happiest of all.

“Prestige” jobs included lawyers working in firms of more than 100 lawyers and those working in areas such as corporate, tax, patent, securities, estate-planning and plaintiff’s tort law. Public-service lawyers included legal-aid lawyers, prosecutors, public defenders, government lawyers and in-house lawyers for nonprofits.

Least happy were the other practicing lawyers, including those working in the fields of general practice, family law and private criminal defense.

“These data consistently indicate that a happy life as a lawyer is much less about grades, affluence, and prestige than about finding work that is interesting, engaging, personally meaningful, and is focused on providing needed help to others,’ the authors conclude. “The data therefore also indicate that the tendency of law students and young lawyers to place prestige or financial concerns before their desires to ‘make a difference’ or serve the good of others will undermine their ongoing happiness in life.”

Other survey findings:

• To the surprise of the authors, reported well-being did not vary significantly with the number of hours worked in a week. A subsample of lawyers who had to report billable hours, however, experienced a small decrease in life satisfaction as billable hours increased. Taking more vacation, however, did show a modest correlation with well being.

• Married lawyers were happier than others, as were lawyers with children.

• There was “an almost meaningless correlation” between lawyer well-being and graduating from a higher-tier law school.

• Those who exercised regularly reported greater well-being than others. Practicing yoga and tai chi, however, was not related to well-being.

Related coverage:

ABAJournal.com: "Want career satisfaction? Don’t chase money and prestige, lawyer survey suggests"

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