The Legal Beat
Happy Lawyers? Yes, They’re Out There!
Posted on Wednesday August 09, 2017
My colleague Staci Zaretsky recently wondered, “Where are all the happy lawyers?” They’re nowhere to be found in the world of stock photography. But as we all know, stock photography diverges greatly from reality. And when it comes to lawyer happiness, new research suggests that reports of lawyer misery have been greatly exaggerated.
To be sure, we here at Above the Law may contribute to the sense that the legal world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. We believe in giving our readers a brutally honest portrait of the profession, warts and all, so that law students and young lawyers know what they’re getting into. As the old saying goes, if you expect the worst, you’ll never be disappointed.
But to balance out the doom and gloom, let’s talk about all the satisfied lawyers out there. And yes, they are out there, according to an interesting new paper by Professors Milan Markovic of Texas A&M Law and Gabriele Plickert of Cal Poly Pomona. From the abstract (emphasis added):
The 2008 economic recession had a seismic impact on the legal profession. This Article is the first to empirically assess whether the recession has made law an unsatisfying career.
Relying on survey data from over 11,000 active members of the State Bar of Texas, we find that only 13.5% of all attorneys and 11.5% of full-time attorneys are dissatisfied with their careers. Newer attorneys report greater career dissatisfaction than more experienced attorneys, yet they too are largely satisfied.
Nice to hear! Here’s a closer look at the survey results:
As the authors note:
[D]issatisfaction is somewhat higher among attorneys who began their careers after the 2008 recession (i.e., have been practicing for six years or less) than among attorneys who began practicing previously. Among the former, 17.8% are either very dissatisfied or dissatisfied with their careers.
Viewed from the other side, 56.8% of lawyers with six years or less of experience are satisfied or very satisfied, compared to 68.1% of lawyers with more than six years of experience. This could mean that the Great Recession made the legal profession less satisfying, but it could mean other things too (as the authors go on to discuss). For example, perhaps practice gets more satisfying as a lawyer gains experience. So if you’re an unhappy junior lawyer, keep open this possibility: “It gets better.”
Here are additional, interesting findings by Markovic and Plickert:
[E]ven though relatively few State Bar members work in non-related fields, those that do and began their careers after the recession are 162.8% more likely to be dissatisfied with their careers than their peers in private practice.
In other words, those “JD Advantage” jobs might not be very advantageous.
[E]mployment in an of counsel, associate, or ‘other’ non-partnership role also greatly increases dissatisfaction. Merely being employed as an of counsel increases one’s odds of career dissatisfaction by 186.7%.
It makes sense that partners are more satisfied with their careers that non-partners. Being a partner isn’t what it once was, but it still beats being an associate. It’s good to be king (or queen).
But the “of counsel” finding is interesting. To me, it suggests how lawyers often value status over money. Many counsel/of counsel (taxonomy and terminology will vary by firm) are quite well paid, and they don’t have the headaches of business development or firm governance that partners have. But because of their diminished status vis-a-vis partners, these lawyers tend to be more unhappy with their careers, big paychecks notwithstanding.
For associates, dissatisfaction is correlated with years of experience; controlling for other factors, the more experienced the associate, the higher the likelihood of career dissatisfaction.
Also interesting — and actually a reversal of the finding as to the lawyer population more generally, where more experience correlates with higher satisfaction.
It makes me wonder, given the solid state of the lateral market, why these unhappy senior associates stick it out. Are they hoping for a big boost in satisfaction upon making partner? Or is it more a case of “golden handcuffs,” where they hate their jobs but can’t afford to leave?
Markovic and Plickert’s research shows that when it comes to satisfaction, money does matter. And on that subject:
[S]ubstantial evidence exists that attorneys who began practicing after the recession are earning less than their predecessors did, even without adjusting for inflation. According to State Bar data, the median income of all full-time lawyers with 0-2 or 3-6 years of experience was $91,765 and $106,681 in 2009. In 2015, median incomes were $70,000 and $98,000 for lawyers with the same experience.
Depressing, but maybe not surprising. Other research, not focused on law specifically, shows that graduating in a recession can significantly reduce earnings, at least early in a worker’s career.
[D]ebt does have an effect on career dissatisfaction, but only for attorneys who have been practicing for more than six years. For these attorneys, having remaining law school debt increases the likelihood of dissatisfaction by 23.8%.
Wow, really? One might expect debt to reduce the career satisfaction of all attorneys. But the authors have an explanation:
One possibility is that the debt financing of higher education – and post-graduate education in particular – has become so ubiquitous that newer lawyers do not consider it unusual or especially daunting to carry substantial debt.
Truth. See, e.g., Kerriann Stout, How I Overcame My Paralyzing Fear Of My Law School Loans (learning to live with almost $220,000 in law school student loan debt).
Markovic and Plickert’s research focuses on the legal profession’s past and present. What about the future? Here are their thoughts:
Whether the legal profession will maintain its relatively low level of career dissatisfaction depends on two main factors: First, whether attorneys that entered the legal profession after the economic recession will eventually be able to earn incomes equivalent to those earned by attorneys who began their careers earlier, and second, whether they will have the same opportunities to advance that their predecessors did or whether they will be forced to remain in less satisfying associate, of counsel, and other such positions. These trends are likely to determine if law will continue to be a satisfying career not only in the new normal, but beyond.
Indeed. So while it’s nice to know about all the happy lawyers out there, if we want to maintain these high satisfaction levels, then we must all do our part to promote values like civility, collegiality, and diversity in the legal profession.
(These are just selected highlights from some very interesting research. You can download the full paper here.)
- Where Have All Of The Happy Lawyers Gone?
- New Grads Bound For Biglaw: Do You Know What You’re Getting Into?
David Lat is the founder and managing editor of Above the Law and the author of Supreme Ambitions: A Novel. He previously worked as a federal prosecutor in Newark, New Jersey; a litigation associate at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; and a law clerk to Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. You can connect with David on Twitter (@DavidLat), LinkedIn, and Facebook, and you can reach him by email at [email protected].