Are Lawyers Becoming Happier?
For example, Professor Jerome Organ of the University of St Thomas School of Law recently published a compilation of 28 surveys taken between 1984 and 2007. Rates of satisfied attorneys ranged from a low of 59 percent (South Carolina in 2008) to a high of 93 percent (Minnesota in 1987). The latest national study on Organ's list (ABA/NALP in 2007) reported a satisfaction rate of 76 percent. (He excluded the ABA's reported 55 percent satisfaction rate in 2007 because it "was not a random sample of attorneys" ( n. 144).
The Am Law Survey
Meanwhile, Am Law's annual Midlevel Associates Survey of third-, fourth- and fifth-year associates reported record-high levels of associate satisfaction. Are their lives improving?
Anecdotal evidence of another possibility comes from an observed shift in attitudes among students in my undergraduate and law classes over the past several years. Many members of the youngest generation of lawyers (and would-be lawyers) are so concerned about finding jobs that they are now equating satisfaction with getting and keeping one long enough to repay their staggering student loans. That might explain why the same Am Law survey found that only 10 percent of men and 6.5 percent of women saw themselves as equity partners at their current firms in five years.
Even so, inquiries that I receive from law firm managing partners provide more anecdotal proof that some firms have decided to value associate morale. The question is whether firm leaders will have the courage to push positive change into the very heart of the prevailing big law firm business model.
On that front, the news is less encouraging. In March 2013, Forbes reported on a "Career Bliss" survey of 65,000 employees that ranked "law firm associate" first on the list of "Unhappiest Jobs in America." Likewise, in a recent Altman Weil Flash Survey, 40 percent of managing partners reported that partner morale at their firms in 2013 was lower than at the beginning of 2008 (pre-recession).
In the end, Dinovitzer et al. seem encouraged that "the overall trend is that more than three-quarters of respondents, irrespective of debt, express extreme or moderate satisfaction with the decision to become a lawyer."
That's supposed to be good news. But there are more than 1.2 million attorneys in the United States. Even a 75 percent to 80 percent satisfaction rate leaves more than 200,000 lawyers with what sure looks like buyer's remorse.
The profession can do better than a "C."
Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author of The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books, April 2013), and other books. He retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis in 2008, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.