Finding Happiness As A Lawyer

A year ago, CareerBliss reviewed 65,000 employee-generated reviews and concluded that the “least happy job” in the country was “associate attorney.” A couple naysayers jumped in this as proof that the younger generations of lawyers are entitled complainers, but, truth is, if you ask enough lawyers of any age how they feel about their jobs, the description of life in the law begins to sound like Nabokov’s translation of the Russian word toska:

“At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

The close relationship between misery and the law isn’t anything new. Consider the law review article from fifteen years ago, “On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession,” 52 VAND. L. REV. 871, 874 (1999), written by Patrick J. Schiltz, who is now a federal judge. It’s such a good read, and still so relevant, that it seems to vanish from every location it has been posted in the past; the best I could find was this abridged and unformatted version, and this scan of a printout of an online article that Schiltz published a year later, summarizing many of his arguments.

Schiltz article has such gems as:

After you start practicing law, nothing is likely to influence you more than “the culture or house norms of the agency, department, or firm” in which you work. If you are going into private practice—particularly private practice in a big firm—you are going to be immersed in a culture that is hostile to the values you now have. The system does not want you to apply the same values in the workplace that you do outside of work (unless you’re rapaciously greedy outside of work); it wants you to replace those values with the system’s values. The system is obsessed with money, and it wants you to be, too. The system wants you—it needs you—to play the game.

Schiltz wasn’t the first to make the argument that the law isn’t the problem, but rather the way the law is practiced at some firms is the problem, and he wasn’t the last, either. Carolyn Elefant and Evan Schaeffer made these same points nearly ten years ago, with Evan noting, “The notion that big-firm partners are the most successful lawyers—and, by extension, the rest of the bunch didn’t quite make the cut—is a flawed way of thinking about the legal profession.” I made the same point years ago: the law offers far more to the good man helping debtors in his spare room than the rich man protecting banks in the skyscraper, but if potential law students knew that, they wouldn’t be so quick to throw themselves into debt just to sign up for the the most miserable “prestigious” firms.

And now there’s empirical proof, in the form of “What Makes Lawyers Happy? Transcending the Anecdotes with Data from 6200 Lawyers,” a draft article by Lawrence S. Krieger and Kennon M. Sheldon, which found “(1) the internal factors seen to erode in students during their initial law training were the precise factors most strongly predictive of lawyer well-being, and (2) the external factors emphasized in law school and by many legal employers were, at best, only modestly associated with lawyer well-being.” That is, “Income,” “Law school ranking,” “Law journal,” “Prestige” of work, and “size of firm” all did diddly-squat to make lawyers happier. Keith at Associate’s Mind spells out some more details.

What did make lawyers happy comes as a slap in the face to those who would say that the quality of one’s legal career is measured by the size of their paycheck or the number of offices the firm has open, and as a stern rebuke to the baby boomers who think the fault can be placed entirely with their children:

[The top group factors most closely correlated with happiness include] Experiences of autonomy (including authenticity), relatedness to others, and competence most strongly predicted attorney WB; correlations ranged from .63 for competence to .66 for autonomy. These large correlations indicate that well-being co-occurs with these experiences so commonly that that it may not be possible to attain thriving without relative satisfaction of all of these needs. Choosing work for internally-motivated reasons, i.e. for enjoyment, interest, or meaning within subjects’ belief systems, was also very highly predictive of well-being, with a correlation of .55.

[The second group factors most closely correlated with happiness include] Autonomy-supportive supervision of attorneys at the work place (provision of understanding, respect, and choices, as opposed to control) strongly predicted well-being (r = .44). Replicating law student research, autonomy support also appeared to increase the critical experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, suggesting itself as an effective intervention for promoting well-being.

In short, the key to personal happiness in the law is professional satisfaction, i.e., feelings of autonomy, competence, engagement, and of the value of the work done. Little wonder that public interest lawyers are far happier than corporate defense lawyers.

Big surprise, right? It shouldn’t be — indeed, not just common sense, but empirically proven, that meaningful work makes people happy and happy people in turn are more productive — but in the law this is a revelation. Surely every lawyer would prefer to have spent more time making law review than making friends, and then have done six to ten years of 60+ hours per week of drudgery at a huge corporate law firm just for the (unlikely) opportunity to become partner and spend the rest of their life protecting a company they would have protested in college?


  • Jamison

    I start with autonomy.

    Years ago I read something about how unhappy clerical staff can be. And the major factor behind this unhappiness was their inability to control what happened to them each day. What they did every day, for example, was dictated by someone else.

    Although I have never been an associate myself, I can see the same dynamic here. The partners arrange things to suit their own schedules. The partner, of course, wants to take the weekend off. So he or she will drop off an assignment on Friday night and ask that the finished product be on his/her desk the following Monday. That’s when the partner will be ready to work again. This can make life awfully miserable for the associate — and it has nothing to do with an adversion to hardwork or a lack of interest in the law.

    P.S. Are you doing re-runs?

    • It’s incredible how many lawyers can simultaneously expect too much from their staff and show them no respect. They do nothing to set up workflow in a manner that plays to the strengths of their staff, spend no time at all helping them understand the purpose and function of various tasks (or the substance of the cases), and then throw a fit when the staff can’t put together a perfect product with minimal notice.
      My first advice to anyone who says that a member of their staff is “too slow” is to spend a half hour with the staff member understanding the biggest problems of their job, and if they have any recommendations. A few minor adjustments can make a big difference in productivity.
      P.S. I’m returning to an important theme. Just because the birthday cake tastes the same this year doesn’t mean it’s the same cake from last year.

      • rrhersh

        Paralegal here, in a small PI firm. I have worked for lawyers where I literally had to negotiate and apologize get their attention to discuss a case, and I have worked for lawyers who automatically include me in the case. The latter guys get much better work out of me. Early on in a case, I have my hands on the file a lot more than does the attorney. I often see something that we should think about and discuss sooner rather than later. If this means I stick my head in the door and we spend five drama-free minutes, then this discussion will absolutely happen. If I have to fight my way through barriers, and have to apologize all the way for the time I am taking, then maybe it will but maybe it won’t. After a while the psychic toll becomes too great, and I will do exactly what I am told: no more and no less. While spreading the resume around, of course. The people who are willing to stay in that sort of environment tend to be the ones not capable of better work anyway. The moral is, if you have trouble keeping good staff, the reason might be in the mirror.

        Am I bitter? I little. But I am four years into working for one of the good ones. Life is good.

    • AMB

      Krieger and Sheldon’s study was only published in draft form a month ago, with the final article to come out in 2015.

      So, it’s new information on an old theme that will always be relevant to lawyers.

  • “Lowly” Staff Attorney

    I’m a “lowly” staff attorney. I say “lowly” only because my position isn’t considered prestigious because of the salary. Still, I am probably the happiest lawyer I know. Many of my corporate defense friends have jumped firms repeatedly, most have left New York, and some have even left the law entirely (after only 5-7 years of practice).

    What makes me happy is the meaningful work I do. I have never had a case I didn’t believe in, and I probably get more say in the type of work I do than most associates with the same level of experience.* That said, a public interest lawyer’s autonomy will depend on the organization’s mission and the leadership of the executive director and managing attorney. Some are more controlling than others. The more controlling they are, the less happy their staff attorneys will be, even when the work is meaningful.

    *Obviously, public interest lawyers don’t choose their jobs for the money, but it’s offensive to see fee petitions (in the few cases that earn fees) where a public interest attorney with 5-7 years of experience can’t even bill at the rate of a first year associate at one of these corporate defense sweatshops. We need to reevaluate the worth of corporate defense lawyers and readjust the level of prestige associated with these jobs.