Krieger is at it again. In conjunction with his colleague, Kennon Sheldon, Krieger published a brand new, comprehensive study of lawyer and law student happiness last month called “What makes lawyers happy? Transcending the anecdotes with data from 6,200 lawyers.” Given the current epidemic of unhappy and often unhealthy lawyers, this information is timely.
The study examined lawyer well-being through a look at five variables: choices in law school, legal career, and personal life, as well as psychological needs and motivations established by self-determination theory, a widely used approach towards human motivation focusing on autonomy, competence, authenticity, and relations to others. With data gathered from thousands of lawyers, the findings illuminated the fact that lawyer and law student priorities were often “confused or misplaced.” Money and prestige, factors typically given the greatest weight, were marginally correlative with lawyer happiness and satisfaction. On the other hand, psychological needs and motivation, which are factors given short shrift in law school, strongly predicted ultimate lawyer happiness and satisfaction.
One fascinating aspect involved examining the experiences of higher-earning lawyers in positions viewed as prestigious versus those working in public service-type jobs who typically earned less. Comparing these two specific groups, the study’s authors found that both reported equal life satisfaction despite the disparity in income and objective career status. Further, the prestige group typically had a lower sense of well-being and higher alcohol use than their public service counterparts. In one particularly illuminating finding, the authors found that while the prestige lawyers had significantly higher law school grades, they reported a significantly lower state of belief in their competence. The study’s authors made particular note of this “core dissonance between ‘competence’ as measured in law school (largely by grade performance), and a lawyer’s ability to feel competent in actual law practice.” Their findings also led to the conclusion that “greater affluence has little effect on whether lawyers feel happy from day-to-day.”
From the striking data collected, the authors conclude that to live a happy life as a lawyer, people don’t need to focus so much on income, grades or prestige. Instead, the data showed that “finding work that is interesting, engaging, personally meaningful, and is focused on providing needed help to others” leads to the greatest opportunity for fulfilment in law practice.
The authors also examined specific secondary variables to assess their relative impact on happiness. In the area of work-related factors, the number of vacation days taken and pro bono work hours correlated most with feelings of well-being while required billable hours had the most dampening effect. As the study’s authors put it, “as billable hours go up, income goes up and happiness goes down.”
Other factors that affected individuals’ sense of well-being included the negative impact of alcohol use and the positive impact of marriage or being in a committed relationship. Having children also increased feelings of happiness, as did regular physical exercise. Surprisingly, religious affiliation and relaxation practices such as mindfulness and yoga had a negligible impact. Other demographic indicators that had little impact included gender and racial or ethnic group. Older lawyers, however, were moderately happier than their younger colleagues.
One final area related to whether legal professionals are different from members of the general population on the subject of happiness and satisfaction. Many believe lawyers think differently and, therefore, have different motivations and priorities compared to others. The study’s authors compared their data to similar studies of non-lawyers and their conclusion is unequivocal: “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. . . . 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.”
In other words, lawyers are people, too. In order to live fulfilling, happy lives, they need to honour who they are and the values they carry. This excellent study confirms that authentic adherence to internal needs and motivations trumps external social constructs about what people need to be happy. Being who we are — authentically — is all we need.
Doron Gold is a registered social worker who’s also a former practising lawyer. He works with lawyers and law students in his role as a staff clinician and presenter with the Member Assistance Program as well as with members of the general public in his private psychotherapy practice. He’s available at dorongold.com.