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What makes lawyers happy?

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A happy life as a lawyer is much less about grades, affluence and prestige than about finding work that is interesting, engaging, personally meaningful and is focused on providing needed help to others.

This is what the data from a recent major research project in the United States showed. Law Professor Lawrence Krieger and psychology Professor Kennon Sheldon analysed data from 6,226 lawyers in four states. The data was obtained through surveys run with the co-operation of the state bar associations.

Data was analysed to determine which factors predicted well-being and the extent of their apparent impacts.

The results

This showed that psychological factors were far more important for the well-being of lawyers than various external factors, such as income and law school class rank. The four factors that had the most beneficial correlation with well-being were:

  • autonomy (including authenticity);
  • relatedness;
  • competence; and
  • internal motivation.

Kreiger and Sheldon placed these four in their “tier 1” category of factors having primary importance for lawyer well-being.

The first three of these, they said, had such a large correlation with well-being, to the extent “that it may not be possible to attain thriving without relative satisfaction of all of these needs”.

In terms of competence, an interesting point emerged from the data. Although “prestige” lawyers (those with high pays from large firms) had substantially higher law school grades than any other group, they reported significantly lower satisfaction of the competence need than the group with the lowest grades and pay, the “service” lawyers.

“This suggests a core dissonance between ‘competence’ as measured in law school (largely by grade performance) and a lawyer’s ability to feel competent in actual practice,” the researchers said.

Indeed, the data continued to indicate a “quite limited value” of grades and prestige for well-being.

Choosing work for internally-motivated reasons – that is for enjoyment, interest or meaning within subjects’ belief systems – was also “very highly predictive of well-being”.

The “tier 2” category comprised two factors:

  • autonomy-supportive supervision; and
  • intrinsic values.

Autonomy-supportive supervision of attorneys in the workplace (provision of understanding, respect, and choices, as opposed to control) strongly predicted well-being.

“Autonomy support also appeared to increase the critical experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, suggesting itself as an effective intervention for promoting well-being,” the researchers said.

“Seen from the contrary perspective, this also suggests that controlling supervisors who are not trained to be supportive will exert a number of avoidable negative effects on their employees and their organisational morale and efficiency.”

Intrinsic values (for self-improvement, intimacy, and altruism/community), as compared to extrinsic values (for affluence, power, or recognition), had the next highest correlation.

The “tier 3” category comprised four external factors: income, law school debt, class rank and law review membership.

These four constituted a “distinctly subordinate” tier of apparent benefits for well-being.

Class rank, perhaps the most emphasised and stress-inducing factor in law school, correlated rather weakly with well-being, while law review membership had a zero correlation.

“These results suggest a core reorientation of priorities, to de-emphasize grades, credentials, and money as foundations of happiness in the legal profession,” the researchers said. Important secondary analysis further supported this conclusion.

For example, “prestige” job lawyers, with the highest grades and income of all groups analysed, were not as happy as the “service” lawyers, the group with the lowest pay and law school grades.

Although income increased very strongly with law firm size, well-being decreased at the same time.

Higher law school ranking was associated with increased income but only negligibly with well-being.

Surprisingly, the researchers said, well-being did not vary significantly with the absolute number of hours worked.

However, the data concerning billable hours was “telling”. As billable hours increased, income increased, but important psychological predictors of well-being decreased: autonomy satisfaction, internal motivation and relatedness satisfaction. In fact, billable hours were the “strongest negative predictor” of well-being studied, despite a positive association with increased income.

An increase in billable hours was also accompanied by increased alcohol use.

Some other results from the survey were:

  • subjects reporting regular exercise had greater well-being than others;
  • the number of vacation days correlated moderately with aggregate well-being;
  • subjects engaging in prayer when affiliated with a religious group were slightly happier than others, while there was no relationship between well-being and practising tai chi, yoga, unaffiliated prayer, meditation or mindfulness; and
  • as city or town population decreased, there was very slightly increased well-being.

“The correlation strength of vacation days and exercise with well-being are noteworthy, because they equal and in some cases greatly exceed the effect size for well-being of increasing income, decreasing debt, better grades, law review participation or law school ranking.”

The survey showed that improved well-being leads to improved productivity, ethics and professionalism.

Chart showing the relationship between a numbers of factors and the lawyer's sense of wellbeing

Happier lawyers more productive

“The current data demonstrates that lawyers who are more engaged by interest and meaning in their work are much more likely to be happy than others. Such engagement also makes high productivity more likely.

“Conversely, previous research indicates that motivation based on external factors such as increased financial incentives can actually result in decreased performance and productivity, likely by displacing (‘crowding out’) more salutary internal motivation for work.

“These facts, coupled with the current data showing a very large correlation of internal motivation with well-being, support the conclusion that increased well-being and productivity will tend to associate with each other, mediated in large part by the extent of workers’ sense of autonomy and internal (versus external) motivation.”


Although the survey did not seek to measure professionalism or ethics, it did measure psychological factors that were virtually certain to be important sources of ethical and professional behaviour for lawyers.

Those factors also included the strongest predictors of well-being.

That suggested that “one powerful approach to raise the level of professional behaviour among lawyers is to teach law students and lawyers to maximise their own happiness”.

The survey data contradicts beliefs that prestige, income, and other external benefits can adequately compensate a lawyer who has not secured autonomy, integrity, meaningful/close relationships, and interest and meaning in her work.

The data therefore suggests fundamental changes in the belief system shared by many law students, lawyers, and their teachers and employers. In particular, the shared understanding of “success” needs to be amended so that talented students and lawyers more regularly avoid self-defeating behaviours in the pursuit of success.

Are lawyers different?

All this raises a very interesting question. Are lawyers different from other people with regard to their happiness and satisfaction?

“Simply stated, there is nothing in these data to suggest that attorneys differ from non-attorneys with regard to their prerequisites for feeling good and feeling satisfied with life,” the researchers say.

“Thus it would appear that lawyers, and their teachers and employers, should banish any notions that law-trained people are somehow special in this important regard. In order to thrive we need the same authenticity, autonomy, close relationships, supportive teaching and supervision, altruistic values, and focus on self-understanding and growth that promotes thriving in others.”

The survey, What Makes Lawyers Happy? Transcending the Anecdotes with Data from 6200 Lawyers, is published as Florida State University Public Law Research Paper No 667.

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