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Va. Law’s Class of 1990: Happy in their Careers, but Less So in BigLaw

Posted Oct 15, 2008 12:30 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Reports of unhappy lawyers tell of problems with depression, alcoholism, divorce and suicide. But the reports appear to be exaggerated, if the Virginia School of Law’s 1990 graduating class is any guide.

A study finds the group is largely contented with their careers and their lives, albeit less so if they work for big law firms.

The study (PDF) found 81 percent of grads responding to a 2007 survey were satisfied with their decision to become a lawyer, and 86 percent were satisfied with their lives more broadly. Both men and women reported similar levels of satisfaction.

Despite the similarities, women earned significantly less than men, even when controlling for employment setting and hours worked.

Just one factor had a negative effect on job satisfaction: working at a large law firm. Those working at large private firms were less happy in both their jobs and lives than the other lawyers.

Half the grads who started their careers at large law firms ended up leaving. Still only 20 percent of those at the large firms reported they were unhappy with their lives.

Job-hopping wasn't all that unusual, no matter what the employment setting. Eighty-five percent changed jobs at least once and half changed jobs twice.

The study’s authors, Virginia law professor John Monahan and Duke medical professor Jeffrey Swanson, say the findings on satisfaction are consistent with an American Bar Foundation study of lawyers admitted to the bar in 2000.

The Virginia study, “Lawyers at Mid-Career: a 20-Year Longitudinal Study of Job and Life Satisfaction,” was based on survey responses supplied by 72 percent of the living graduates contacted. The average age of the respondents was 42 and their median household income before taxes was $250,000. Almost 99 percent of the men and 61 percent of the women were employed full time. The reason given most often for women who were not working full time was to care for children.

The study found other gender differences. Seventy-seven percent of the female grads had a spouse who worked outside the home, compared to 24 percent of male grads. Women also earned significantly less than men.

The average annual salary for full-time work in private law firms was $536,000 for men and $473,000 for women. The average at small private law firms was $286,000 for men and $257,000 for women. In government, it was $138,000 for men and $103,000 for women.

A quarter of the graduates working full time were no longer practicing lawyers. Those who chose other careers had jobs that included academics, business owners, CEOs and bankers. The average annual salary for those in business and financial careers was $374,000 for men and $217,000 for women.

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