A Lawyer Happiness Quiz: Unsurprising Results that Should Spur Prospective Lawyers to Action

Two professors at UMKC recently published findings on lawyer happiness, which were helpfully summarized in The ABA Journal.  I haven’t reviewed the full findings or the methodology, and probably won’t since so many of the findings are fairly unsurprising—for example, lawyer satisfaction ranks in the top half of occupational satisfaction overall (there are a lot of occupations and, yes, lawyers are probably generally happier than roofers, which ranked at the bottom of all occupations (the only roofer I know well loves his job, so go figure)).  And, yes, autonomy matters, and people who’ve been doing the job for a long time are generally more satisfied with it (which helps explain the relatively lower satisfaction of large firm lawyers, since large firms are bottom-heavy and many new associates accept positions planning to stay for a few years, earn some money, pay off some loans, and move on).

The findings are still interesting for people considering a career in the law, and they indirectly support—and refine—something I’ve said before on this blog: the biggest factor in satisfaction is having realistic expectations going into the job.  And that, in turn, requires a realistic understanding of what people in the job you think you want actually do.

Now, what the study highlights is the tremendous variety of possible legal practices.  What it doesn’t highlight (simply because it’s beyond the scope of the study) is the range of careers that a top-tier law school and legal career can lead to, which is a flexibility that is more pronounced in legal education and the law than in many other fields.

Those are related points.  It’s not possible to have perfect foresight, of course, but from the moment you begin thinking about law school, it’s important to keep the end-game in mind, that is, think as much as you can from back to front (that’s a central feature of all of Advise-In’s consulting, even including its LSAT preparation program).  It’s good to have an idea of possible endings before you start writing the beginning of the story.

That’s why Advise-In Solutions emphasizes that law school is an investment in flexibility, and why the number and quality of your law school options is so important.  If you find that one career path is not satisfying, you want to be nimble enough to change course with minimal dislocation.

It’s also why, before you enter law school and while you’re in it, it’s good to gather as much information as you can about what lawyers (especially in your initial desired career path, if you have a preference) actually do.  Government lawyers simply have a different average day than private sector lawyers do, and each of those sectors has endless subdivisions as well—an elite New York large firm lawyer has a different daily life, generally, than one in Houston, and each has a different daily life than a solo practitioner.

Law school is a good opportunity to find comfort or discomfort in some practices.  For example, my first summer associate position convinced me that litigation was just not for me, while for others it’s clear that what I enjoyed—transactional work—is not the best fit for their personalities or lifestyle.  That’s why the reduction of “goodies” in summer associate programs is likely a long-term benefit for new lawyers; they’ll have a better opportunity to find out during summer programs what lawyers actually do (and it isn’t lunching at 3- and 4-star restaurants day after day).

However, opportunities in law school to find your best career path are limited (except if you want to be law professor, the lives of whom are modeled for you pretty much daily while you’re in law school).  Even the best clinical and summer associate programs are limited, if for no other reason than you have limited time to pursue more than a couple seriously.

It’s crucial, then, to seek out as many lawyers in as many different practice areas and forums as you can, and to similarly seek out people who were lawyers and are now doing something else.  Those conversations are invaluable in helping you understand the lay of the land, and what works best for certain kinds of personalities.  If you’re already in law school, a vastly underutilized resource is the alumni network, not just for finding jobs but also for determining what options are realistic for graduates of your law school and helping you navigate among them.  This presupposes that, of all law students, you’re probably most like alumni of your law school.

Most lawyers—current and former—are happy to relate stories of their practice and career paths, and are also pleased to tell you where they’ve found satisfaction and why.  That includes second and third jobs, as well as careers.  There’s simply no substitute, in plotting your own career path, for using those resources liberally.  The ABA Journal quiz results are interesting but nothing will help you be satisfied in a legal career—or other career that law school can help you enter—more than staying alert and flexible, and getting as much information as you can from people who are where you think you might want to be.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on October 21, 2010.

One Response to “A Lawyer Happiness Quiz: Unsurprising Results that Should Spur Prospective Lawyers to Action”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Martindale-Hubbell, Rick Fernandez. Rick Fernandez said: RT @mhtweets: In researching our first show, came across an interesting article on lawyers and happiness http://bit.ly/a5hjD9. […]

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