What Makes 44% of BigLaw Lawyers Happy?

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A significant minority of BigLaw lawyers are apparently satisfied with their careers, a statistic that has a former partner speculating on the reasons why.

Steven Harper, a former Kirkland & Ellis partner, points to a 2007 ABA survey that found 44 percent of lawyers at firms of more than 100 lawyers reported career satisfaction. In a column for the American Lawyer, he asks: “What makes these satisfied attorneys tick and what can be done to increase their ranks?”

He suggests that some of those lawyers may be the type who thrive in firms where the focus is on metrics such as billable hours and partner-associate ratios. “When I was in law school, most of the people with these preferences were in business schools,” he writes. “Now they’re increasingly found in the law.”

Another group, he says, may work at firms that have “resisted the MBA mentality.” Another reason for happiness, he says, could be the intellectual challenge of the work. While young lawyers are often assigned menial tasks, “most lawyers in all big firms work for clients whose problems often are at the cutting edge of the law,” he says. “For many, that’s a sufficient payback.”

Harper concludes that “a viable path to career satisfaction remains possible at large law firms” and speculates on the future. “The current generation of large-firm managers will find itself replaced by a younger group of leaders who will impose their own vision on the workplace,” he writes. Will their choices redefine law firms? he asks.

In the 2007 survey, 44 percent of lawyers in firms of more than 100 lawyers reported they are satisfied with their careers, compared to 68 percent in the public sector, 53 percent of solos, 57 percent of lawyers in small firms, 58 percent in medium-size firms, and 49 percent who work in-house. Out of the 800 lawyers who responded to the survey, 97 were from firms of more than 100 lawyers.

Related coverage: “Survey: Young Lawyers Glad They’re Attorneys”

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