Opening Statements

Are You Happy Now?

  • Print

If you think that a happy lawyer is a contradiction in terms—think again, say law professors Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder. The pair started studying lawyer happiness three years ago after helping to send countless JDs out into the world.

The law profs from the University of Missouri at Kansas City interviewed more than 200 lawyers and delved into the research on professional happiness before publishing their findings this year in The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law. The book explores why so many attorneys are unhappy and offers more fulfilling paths to careers in the law.

Do you think you know what it takes to make a happy lawyer? Take Levit and Linder’s quiz to find out. The correct answers are at the end of the quiz.

1. The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago surveyed workers in 198 occupations, asking whether they were “very satisfied” with their careers. Among the professionals surveyed were lawyers, doctors, accountants, clergy and teachers. Which of the possibilities below is correct in order of reported satisfaction for these five occupations?

(A) Doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, clergy

(B) Clergy, teachers, doctors, lawyers, accountants

(C) Teachers, clergy, doctors, accountants, lawyers

(D) Lawyers, doctors, teachers, clergy, accountants

2. U.S. News & World Report places American law schools into four tiers, with the first-tier schools being the most highly ranked. Lawyers who report the highest levels of career satisfaction are graduates of law schools ranked in which of the following four tiers?

(A) Top tier

(B) Second tier

(C) Third tier

(D) Fourth tier

3. Which one of the following factors in the work of a lawyer correlates least with higher reported levels of career satisfaction?

(A) The degree to which the lawyer sees his or her work as contributing to the betterment of society.

(B) The latitude the lawyer has to make key decisions about the shape of work products and services.

(C) The amount of creative challenge his or her work affords.

(D) The frequency and quality of interactions in the lawyer’s work.

(E) The lawyer’s level of income.

4. How many lawyers find their work to be intellectually stimulating?

(A) 80%

(B) 60%

(C) 40%

(D) 20%

5. Which order below of types of law practice corresponds to how satisfied lawyers in each practice type say they are with their careers?

(A) Big firms, small firms and solo practice, public sector work

(B) Public sector work, small firms and solo practice, big firms

(C) Small firms and solo practice, public sector work, big firms

(D) Big firms, public sector work, small firms and solo practice

6. Lawyers in what age range report the highest level of job satisfaction?

(A) Lawyers under 30

(B) Lawyers 31 to 40

(C) Lawyers 41 to 50

(D) Lawyers 51 to 60

7. Which lawyers are happiest with their decision to become a lawyer?

(A) African-American

(B) Hispanic

(C) White

(D) Asian-American

8. What aspect of the actual practice of law most disappoints lawyers, when compared to their expectations at the start of their careers?

(A) Their level of financial remuneration.

(B) The intellectual challenge of their job.

(C) Their ability to contribute to the public good.

(D) The quality of their relationships with their colleagues.

9. How do lawyers compare to the general population on standard personality tests?

(A) They are more extroverted.

(B) They are more spontaneous.

(C) They are more introverted and future-oriented.

(D) There are no significant differences.

10. How do lawyers born after 1980 compare to baby boomer lawyers?

(A) They are more intolerant of drudgery and feel less committed to their firms.

(B) They value compensation more.

(C) They are less sociable and care less about feedback.

(D) Young lawyers and baby boomers score about the same on all of the above measures.


1) B Why are the clergy so gosh-darn happy? Their work provides all of the benefits associated with satisfying careers: 1. seen as a calling, it aligns with the worker’s own values; 2. it provides creative challenges; 3. it affords opportunities to develop deep and meaningful relationships; and 4. the workers have a good measure of control over their own working conditions. Law practice scores well on some of these measures, but not others. The good news is that lawyers, although slightly below doctors, rank in the top half of the 198 occupations surveyed in terms of job satisfaction. Roofers, in case you were curious, were least satisfied with their jobs. It apparently is not a lot of fun being stuck up on hot asphalt by yourself, laying one dang shingle after another, and wondering whether you might fall off or get struck by lightening.

2) D Graduates of fourth-tier law schools are the happiest of the lot. Maybe they appreciate their work knowing how close they came to not making the cut at all. Graduates of top-tier law schools, after all their hard work and academic success, perhaps enter practice with unrealistic expectations about the happiness it might bring. Only 27 percent of grads from top-10 law schools call themselves very satisfied with their career choice, compared with 43 percent of grads of fourth-tier schools.

3) E When asked what would most improve their own level of happiness, Americans most frequently say “more money.” In fact, however, beyond a salary of about $75,000, additional income does very little to improve happiness. What really matters to career satisfaction are the factors listed in (A) through (D).

4) A One aspect of law that rarely disappoints is the intellectual challenge that law provides. In this aspect, the reality of law practice most closely matches the expectations of law students.

5) B Government lawyers are happiest (68 percent report satisfaction) and big firm lawyers are least satisfied (44 percent) with their careers. In between those extremes fall solo practitioners and small firm lawyers, who generally report that their work autonomy adds to their satisfaction with their job.

6) D Happiness with a career in law usually increases over time. There are several explanations for this, including feeling better about one’s own competence, finding a satisfying “niche,” and developing better ways of coping with the inevitable frustrations of the job.

7) A An American Bar Foundation survey of lawyers who had been in practice for over three years found African-American lawyers happiest with their decisions to become lawyers. They were also most satisfied with the substance of their work. The higher levels of reported satisfaction among African-American lawyers is partially attributable to their practice setting—they are more likely than lawyers of other races to work for the government or a non-profit organization.

8) C According to an ABA study, only 16 percent of lawyers found that their jobs afforded them the “ability to contribute to the public good” as much as they expected when they entered the profession.

9) C Compared to the general population, lawyers are more introverted and future-oriented. Lawyers are also more likely to have “high dominance” personalities than the general population, and to be more logical and more pessimistic. Some of these characteristics, such as pessimism, are associated with unhappiness, but also with “prudence,” a trait that often serves clients well.

10) A While some “Gen Y’ers” have values largely indistinguishable from Baby Boomers, as a group, however, younger lawyers value work flexibility, teamwork, and mentoring, and are much less tolerant of work they find to be boring. Only 32 percent of Gen Y’ers consider commitment to a firm to be important, compared to 58 percent of middle-aged workers. The reluctance of younger lawyers to make a commitment to a job might be an obstacle to their finding happiness as a lawyer, as studies show that committed workers are happier workers.

Last updated on Nov. 10 to correct a copy input error. The reference to income in No. 3 is $75,000 instead of $70,000.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.