Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What Makes Lawyers Happy?

Lawrence S. Krieger (Florida State University, College of Law) & Kennon M. Sheldon (University of Missouri (Columbia), Department of Psychological Sciences), What Makes Lawyers Happy? Transcending the Anecdotes with Data from 6200 Lawyers:

Attorney well-being and depression are topics of great concern, but there has been no theory-driven empirical research to guide lawyers and law students seeking well-being. This article reports a unique study establishing a hierarchy of five tiers of factors for lawyer well-being, including choices in law school, legal career, and personal life, and psychological needs and motivations established by Self-Determination Theory. Data from several thousand lawyers in four states show striking patterns, repeatedly indicating that common priorities on law school campuses and among lawyers are confused or misplaced. Factors typically afforded most attention and concern, those relating to prestige and money (income, law school debt, class rank, law review, and USNWR law school ranking) showed zero to small correlations with lawyer well-being. Conversely, factors marginalized in law school and seen in previous research to erode in law students (psychological needs and motivation) were the very strongest predictors of lawyer happiness and satisfaction. Lawyers were grouped by practice type and setting to further test these findings. The group with the lowest incomes and grades in law school, public service lawyers, had stronger autonomy and purpose and were happier than those in the most prestigious positions and with the highest grades and incomes. Additional measures raised concerns: subjects did not broadly agree that judge and lawyer behavior is professional, nor that the legal process reaches fair outcomes. Specific explanations and recommendations for lawyers, law teachers, and legal employers are drawn from the data, and direct implications for attorney productivity and professionalism are explained.


Chart 2

Law Review Rankings, Law School | Permalink


I haven't read the study in full by any means, but right away, two things stand out to me that bias the study's findings:

1. The study is of attorneys, meaning that none of the tens of thousands of law school graduates over the years who failed to break into the profession would be included. This would create no small amount of survivorship bias.

2. The mean age of the attorneys in the survey is nearly 47 years old (page 34), meaning that they almost certainly attended law school when the financial cost of doing so was far less demanding than it is at present. Law school tuition has increased at least a few hundred percent over inflation over the last two decades, while the 25th, median, 75th, and even 90th percentile inflation-adjusted wages for attorneys have been stagnant or declining - a point I take directly from a chart in Simkovic's Million Dollar Degree Study.

3. I would also posit that the current existence of income-based repayment schemes, as endangered as they may be at present or become in the future, creates a sort of Reality Distortion Field for graduates who can presently borrow one zillion dollars in federal GradPLUS loans.

In so many words, then, this may be a fine study for what makes Gen X or younger Boomer lawyers happy, but I do not think it is very revealing about the state of mind for law school graduates from the last ten years or so. The mid-career lawyer who graduated from George Washington when it cost $20k/year is going to have very different views on student loans and salaries than the recent GW grad who attended when it cost $80k/year and currently works for that school for $15/hour.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Mar 18, 2014 2:09:53 PM