Want career satisfaction? Don't chase money and prestige, lawyer survey suggests

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Money and prestige aren’t key to career satisfaction, according to findings from a multiyear survey of University of Michigan law grads.

Instead, work satisfaction is more closely related to the law grads’ perceptions of the social value of their work and the quality of their relations with co-workers and superiors, according to the study author, University of Michigan law professor David Chambers.

The project began with a survey in 1966 that reached back as far as the class of 1951. The surveys continued for 40 years. Chambers focuses on more than 9,000 grads surveyed in the final 10 years of the project, from the classes of 1952 through 2001. The results are summarized in a paper noted by Legal Ethics Forum.

One finding from the final 10 years: 62 percent of the grads from surveyed classes reaching back to 1952 said they were “quite positive” with their careers overall. When broken down by work setting, the percentage who were quite positive with their careers was 59 percent for those in law firms, 71 percent for those in government and public-interest law, 63 percent for those in corporate legal departments or businesses, and 71 percent for everyone else (which included those working for nonprofits, unions or occupations such as painters, physicians and poets).

Good co-worker relationships was most strongly linked to career satisfaction among lawyers. The issue “obviously touches upon a central aspect of most attorneys’ work experience,” Chambers wrote. In addition, good relationships with co-workers may be tied to other qualities that contribute to satisfaction. Practitioners with mentors, for example, and those who were less skeptical of the motives of others were more likely to be satisfied with their careers.

Chambers called the relationship between overall satisfaction and satisfaction with the social value of work “quite robust.”

“Put simply,” Chambers wrote, “a large proportion of the Michigan graduates in private law firms who were doing well materially were not highly satisfied in their work unless they also believed that they were serving the good of society, or at least believed that they were not causing harm.” A dissonance between conduct and values, he said, appeared to have made work “relatively painful,” he said.

Only about 30 percent of law grads who worked in private firms or corporate counsels’ offices were quite positive about the social value of their work. “It is ironic and distressing that the Michigan graduates, who in general had wide choice in the jobs they took … chose in such large numbers to work in settings where they saw their own work as having such comparatively low value to society,” Chambers says.

With just a few exceptions, the longer lawyers had been out of law school, the more satisfied they were overall with their careers. At the extremes, 83 percent of those who graduated 45 years before, but only 46 percent of five-year grads, reported themselves quite positive overall. The finding is consistent with research finding that older workers in general, and older lawyers in particular, are more satisfied than younger workers and lawyers.

Chambers notes one difference between the older and younger lawyers that could affect their satisfaction—more of the older graduates began law practice in smaller law firms, and many remained in such settings for most of their careers.

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