We Have a Verdict: Poor Lawyers are Happier

by Nicole Weber | May 20, 2015

  • My Vault

The streets of New York City are filled this week with men and women in caps and gowns, ready to receive their diplomas and perhaps ambivalent about plunging head-first into the real world. Graduation speakers around the country are giving the usual speech accented with their own personal flourishes: do what you love. The last such speech I heard in person was at Wharton’s MBA graduation in May 2012. Dr. Oz was the speaker. Say about him what you may, but his words about seeking fulfillment through passion, rather than financial reward, really stuck with me. What am I doing in BigLaw, I wondered?

I have since transitioned to a non-traditional JD career in which I am required to have a law degree, and in which I constantly draw upon my experiences in BigLaw and in law school. I make less money, but I am certainly happier than I was as an associate. For me, it was true that money did not buy happiness, but I still wonder… if I had just worked harder, stuck it out longer, would I eventually be satisfied with my career as a big firm lawyer AND have a larger paycheck? Did I give up too soon?

“Apparently not,” I concluded, when I read about a study published last week in the George Washington Law Review, which found that lawyers in public service positions reported higher satisfaction levels than the highest earning lawyers. As reported by the NY Times:

Researchers who surveyed 6,200 lawyers about their jobs and health found that the factors most frequently associated with success in the legal field, such as high income or a partner-track job at a prestigious firm, had almost zero correlation with happiness and well-being. However, lawyers in public-service jobs who made the least money, like public defenders or Legal Aid attorneys, were most likely to report being happy.

The article profiles GW Law professor Todd Peterson, himself a veteran of BigLaw who went on to pursue a more fulfilling career in academia and who runs a program at GW to help law students figure out “‘why they’re in law school and where they want to be.’” It’s a worthy pursuit, and one that will never become irrelevant so long as big firms are in business. No matter how many of my mentors told me along the way that a high-paying job (legal or otherwise) was not the key to happiness, I had to see for myself. Luckily I don’t regret what I learned and was able to harness my experience to do something that I enjoy, even if I don’t have fancy perks and a big paycheck. But others find themselves stuck on a long and unhappy road that they don’t know how to veer from. (The findings of the GW study echo a trend we observed in the results of last year’s Law Firm Associate Survey: compensation only contributes to attorneys’ satisfaction up to a point.)

I didn’t enjoy litigation on behalf of big companies—or litigation in general, for that matter—and as a result my overall sense of well-being suffered deeply. So I left law practice behind. I made major sacrifices in return. But much like those who choose to practice public interest law for a fraction of the salary they could make at a large firm, I feel invested in my work in a different, more palpable way.

Two of Dr. Oz’s tips for the Wharton Class of 2012 were, “Every day feel productive and challenged in a way tailor made for your unique desires and strengths” and “Whatever you choose, do it fully with a passion and child-like enthusiasm.” If you’re lucky enough to find these qualities in BigLaw or another very lucrative position, that’s great. But it looks like the rest of us will have to make some tough choices.  

Lawyers with Lowest Pay Report More Happiness
Does Money Buy Happiness in BigLaw?
Dr. Oz Offers Wharton School MBA Graduates “Top Ten Tips for Success and Happiness”

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Filed Under: Job Search | Law

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