Midyear Meeting 2009

76% of Young Lawyers Glad They're Attorneys, Study Finds

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Contrary to all the media reports about lawyer dissatisfaction, a new study of 4,160 individuals who became lawyers in 2000 has found that 76 percent report they are either extremely or moderately satisfied with their decision to become an attorney.

That surprising result is part of the second phase of the American Bar Foundation’s After the J.D. study, presented at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Boston this afternoon.

The $1.8 million study is tracking the careers of lawyers over the course of 12 years. The attorneys were first interviewed in 2002, two years after they began practicing. The latest set of data comes from interviews conducted in 2007.

The high satisfaction rating “is a startling number,” said panelist Kay H. Hodge, a partner in Boston’s Stoneman, Chandler & Miller and a former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association.

“I think to some extent, the [legal] profession is its own worst enemy,” she said. “We don’t walk with the pride we must to encourage young people to become lawyers.”

Among the study’s major findings was that, as lawyers move deeper into their careers, fewer and fewer work in private practice. It also found that women continue to have difficulty becoming equity partners in law firms and are still not paid as much as men are.

Between their second and seventh year of practice, 58 percent of the lawyers changed jobs, the study found. “It’s like musical chairs,” said Professor Joyce Sterling of University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Sterling is one of the academics conducting the study.

Almost every size of law firm employed fewer of the lawyers in 2007 than they did in 2002. Firms with 251 or more lawyers—what the study calls “megafirms”—saw the biggest drop, from 18 percent to 9 percent. Only solo practice attracted more of the attorneys, increasing from 5 percent to 9 percent during the five years.

“The thing that surprised us most,” Sterling said, was the increase in the number of lawyers working in business. The number serving as in-house counsel jumped from 4 percent in 2002 to 11 percent in 2007, while the number working as nonlawyers for corporations increased from 4 percent to almost 8 percent.

The study found a “stunning disparity” in the ability of men and women to make partner at firms of all sizes, according to Ronit Dinovitzer, an American Bar Foundation faculty fellow and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto.

In firms of two to 20 lawyers, just 19 percent of female respondents had been made equity partners, while 30 percent of the men had. In firms of 51 to 100 lawyers, the gap was even wider, with 6 percent of women now equity partners, and 22 percent of men.

At the megafirms, the path to equity partner tends to be longer than seven years, so the study asked how many of the lawyers working there had been named nonequity partners. It found 10.5 percent of the men had, but just 8 percent of the women.

Women continue to earn less than men do, but the pay gap has narrowed, the study found. Two years after starting practice, women employed full-time earned an average of 83 percent of what men did. Seven years out, they now earn 92 percent of what men earn.

But Dinovitzer cautioned that much of that narrowing is because more men than women moved to jobs in the lower-paying public sector. In private practice, women earn 78 percent of what men do, the second phase of the study found.

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