I am glad to see that more critical thinking is being applied to the question of lawyer unhappiness. I have long been skeptical about the widespread and dire conclusion that the lawyer sky is falling. Discussion is what is needed; it continues in the blogosphere.
Robert Ambrogi at Legal Blog Watch:
Are lawyers unhappy? From a scholarly perspective, one might think the question is right up there with, "Do dogs bite?" and "Is grass green?" But thanks to Jeffrey M. Lipshaw at Legal Profession Blog, we learn that legal scholars are examining the evidence -- and coming to different conclusions.
Lipshaw addresses the depression causation question (or, to maintain the poultry theme, the chicken and egg question):
As my wife, an MPH, advised this morning, there's no way you can tell . . . whether depression-inclined people self-select to be lawyers, or being a lawyer causes or exacerbates depression. Given depression's biochemical etiology, I'd be inclined to think the seeds are there to begin with, but we may never know.
(I am curious to know how depression - and satisfaction - statistics are gathered; self-reporting can be misleading.)
Lipshaw links to an article from Harvard Law Bulletin describing the study "After the JD" that begins,
Lawyers are happier in their careers than is generally believed—in the first few years out of law school, anyway.
Adam Aronson criticizes that study in his comment to the Ambrogi post.
Lipshaw also mentions
John P. Heinz, Kathleen E. Hull, and Ava H. Harter, "Lawyers and their Discontents: Findings from a Survey of the Chicago Bar," 74 Indiana Law Journal 735 (1999), which found that lawyers were no unhappier than any other profession or job.
Much more discussion on the topic can be found in the comments to John Steele's post at Legal Ethics Forum.
That Chicago Bar study also is described in an Northwestern Law bulletin article "Professor's New Book Discovers Big Changes in Character of Legal Professions." The article includes the happiness finding.
So, lawyers -- including those poorly paid at the bottom of the hierarchy and those competing fiercely in the highly structured mega-firms at the top -- are unhappy, right? Contrary to that well established notion, which has received so much attention in recent years, the answer is “no.”
“One of the most striking findings is the generally high level of satisfaction reported by all categories of lawyers, a result that is clearly at variance with the common wisdom,” Heinz says.
In somewhat of a paradox, women report the same degree of overall job satisfaction as do men despite being less satisfied with most specific aspects of their work. Over time, most people find their way to satisfactory jobs. If they are unhappy, they leave.
I hope this discussion about the state of lawyer happiness continues and grows. The relative lack of discussion in the past is one of the reasons Julie Fleming Brown and I formed the Secret Society of Happy Lawyers. Julie's Secret Society post. My Secret Society posts.
On another topic, perhaps related and perhaps not, John P. Heinz quoted above is co-author of the
book Urban Lawyers: the New Social Structure of the Bar which analyzed the Chicago study. After reading the book, I kept thinking about what the authors said about the divide in the legal profession. From the article:
In their first big look at Chicago's legal profession, Heinz and University of Chicago Professor Edward O. Laumann found that lawyers serving corporate clients and those working for individuals and small businesses inhabited two distinct hemispheres. The lawyers from the two hemispheres seldom, if ever, crossed the equator, the researchers concluded from their 1975 survey of Chicago lawyers.
The new book, “Urban Lawyers,” is based on another American Bar Foundation survey conducted in 1994/95, 20 years later. The book concludes that the divide between the two sets of lawyers continues to widen--to an extent that the two-hemispheres metaphor doesn't even work any more.
The two parts are distinguished by substantial differences in socioeconomic and ethno-religious backgrounds, education credentials, social networks, prestige and incomes.
“In 1975, the two-hemispheres metaphor was appropriate, because the two sets of lawyers were roughly the same size,” says Heinz.
“But by the mid-1990s the corporate area of practice had become more than twice as big as the personal and small business sector of Chicago lawyers. And the difference between those making the most and the least money is striking. Income for those doing corporate work at the big firms is going like gangbusters, while it is declining for those in solo practice.”
The book looked not only at the Chicago bar as is pointed out in the article.
The “Urban Lawyers” researchers not only compare the 1975 and 1995 data to illustrate the dramatic transformation of the Chicago bar that took place at the end of the 20th century, they also draw on leading research that offers a sweeping look at the legal profession as a whole, going back to “the golden age” associated with stable partnerships with lifetime tenure.
Have you read Urban Lawyers? If so, I would appreciate knowing your thoughts about the book.
Note (added September 24, 2007, 5:05 PM Mountain): For an excellent graphic representation of the division of the profession mentioned above, be sure to see Rob Millard's America's Two Legal Professions.
Note (added October 30, 2007, 9:06 AM Mountain): Abovethelaw.com reports that satisfaction may be common, even pervasive, in Biglaw associates in the post Everything You Know (About Biglaw Associates) Is Wrong.
Note (added January 6, 2008, 1:50 PM Mountain): Looks like Vickie Pynchon in this new year will be adding blogs posts to the discussion of lawyer happiness. See her promise here where she also links to "The Falling-Down Professions," at this moment the most e-mailed article in The New York Times. The topic of the article? "For lawyers and doctors, gold-embossed diplomas are no longer so golden."
Note (added May 7, 2008, 12:20 PM Mountain): Robert Aambrogi again at Legal Blog Watch: Depression Among Lawyers: Chicken or Egg?
Note (added December 26, 2008, 12:20 PM Mountain): Still more on lawyer happiness: "Happy Lawyers" is Not an Oxymoron (The IP ADR Blog).