Lawyers With Lowest Pay Report More Happiness

April 15, 2015 / DOUGLAS QUENQUA via NYT

Of the many rewards associated with becoming a lawyer — wealth, status, stimulating work — day-to-day happiness has never been high on the list. Perhaps, a new study suggests, that is because lawyers and law students are focusing on the wrong rewards.

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.

Todd D. Peterson, a law professor at George Washington University, works to help students avoid unsatisfying careers.Credit Vanessa Vick for The New York Times
Todd D. Peterson, a law professor at George Washington University, works to help students avoid unsatisfying careers.Credit Vanessa Vick for The New York Times

Lawyers in public-service jobs also drank less alcohol than their higher-income peers. And, despite the large gap in affluence, the two groups reported about equal overall satisfaction with their lives.

Making partner, the ultimate gold ring at many firms, does not appear to pay off in greater happiness, either. Junior partners reported well-being that was identical to that of senior associates, who were paid 62 percent less, according to the study, which was published this week in the George Washington Law Review.

“Law students are famous for busting their buns to make high grades, sometimes at the expense of health and relationships, thinking, ‘Later I’ll be happy, because the American dream will be mine,’ ” said Lawrence S. Krieger, a law professor at Florida State University and an author of the study. “Nice, except it doesn’t work.”

The problem with the more prestigious jobs, said Mr. Krieger, is that they do not provide feelings of competence, autonomy or connection to others — three pillars of self-determination theory, the psychological model of human happiness on which the study was based. Public-service jobs do.

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Helen Clemens, a George Washington University law student, says many students who intend to work in public service feel pressure to pursue jobs at big firms.

Helen Clemens, a George Washington University law student, says many students who intend to work in public service feel pressure to pursue jobs at big firms.Credit Vanessa Vick for The New York Times

Struggles with mental health have long plagued the legal profession. A landmark Johns Hopkins study in 1990 found that lawyers were 3.6 times as likely as non-lawyers to suffer from depression, putting them at greater risk than people in any other occupation. In December, Yale Law School released a study that said 70 percent of its students were affected by mental health issues.

Other research has linked the legal profession to higher rates ofsubstance abuse. In some cases, these struggles have made the news: In a recent six-month stretch in Florida, three Broward County judges were arrested on charges of driving under the influence.

From 1999 to 2007, lawyers were 54 percent more likely to commit suicide than people in other professions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in 2014, CNN reported that 15 Kentucky lawyers had committed suicide since 2010.

Why lawyers are susceptible to such dangers is a matter of debate, although unhappiness with the work itself — long hours toiling for demanding clients — is often cited as a possible cause, particularly for people who entered law school with dreams of high-stakes, cinematic courtroom battles.

“I thought I wanted to be a litigator for reasons that showed a misunderstanding of what litigators do,” said Todd D. Peterson, a law professor at George Washington University who left his job as a partner at a Washington law firm after becoming disillusioned. “The job was unfulfilling to me because I didn’t find it meaningful.” Today, Mr. Peterson is at the forefront of a movement to help law students avoid the mistakes he made.

Others say the job requires an unhealthy degree of cynicism. “Research shows that an optimistic outlook is good for your mental health,” said Patricia Spataro, director of the New York State Lawyer Assistance Program, a resource for attorneys with mental health concerns. “But lawyers are trained to always look for the worst-case scenario. They benefit more from being pessimistic, and that takes a toll.”

And then there is the public hostility. “People just seem to hate lawyers,” Ms. Spataro said. “There are thousands of prominent websites for lawyer jokes. That’s just horrific.” Case in point: Many of the more than 3,000 comments on the CNN article about lawyer suicides applauded the trend. The comments are no longer visible in the link to the online article.

For Larry Zimmerman, a now-retired lawyer from Albany, jumping from a position in the New York State attorney general’s office to a lucrative job in private practice worsened his problems with alcohol.

“Suddenly I was dealing with some very significant money and very demanding clients and high stakes,” he said. “I enjoyed what I was doing, and I was good at it, but I was terrified almost all the time.” Before he sought help, Mr. Zimmerman said, he was drinking a pint of vodka a day and relying on junior lawyers to do most of his work.

To help people like Mr. Zimmerman, most state bar associations or court systems have assistance programs that can refer lawyers to counseling or rehabilitation services. More recently, the work of people like Mr. Krieger has inspired law schools to develop programs that might head off such problems.

In 2012, Mr. Peterson instituted a voluntary program at George Washington University that aims to help law students make better decisions about what kind of law, if any, they want to practice. Students in the program meet with practicing lawyers to learn about their day-to-day lives. The program also has a mental health component, providing techniques for handling stress and remaining positive.

“We’re helping students figure out why they’re in law school and where they want to be,” Mr. Peterson said. “So instead of just working to get the best possible grades so they can send out 500 résumés in their third year and hope that some law firm hires them, they are learning about themselves and why one part of the law might be more appealing to them than another.”

But the pressure to be hired by a big-name firm is so strongly ingrained in law school culture, one George Washington University student said, that even those who enroll with the intention of performing public service often find themselves redirected.

“It’s a very real pressure in law school,” Helen Clemens, a law student, said. “It comes from all kinds of avenues, but mostly I would say it just comes from the people surrounding you. If everyone is talking about leaders from our school who have gotten jobs at a really prestigious firm, the assumption is that we all should be trying to work at a similar place.”

In 2013, the University of New Mexico Law School overhauled a mandatory freshman course to more closely resemble the George Washington University program. “A lot of people go to law school because they don’t know what to do with their lives,” said Nathalie Martin, an associate dean there. “We’re trying to direct them to a field we think they would enjoy.”

Law schools at Vanderbilt University, the University of Texas and the University of Colorado also have professional development programs that focus on student well-being.

By helping students refine their goals, teachers like Mr. Peterson hope to reverse the tide of unhappiness among lawyers. But he acknowledges that it will not be simple.

“There are certainly some folks here at the law school whose initial impression was that the program was kind of touchy-feely,” he said, “and there are students who think even an hour away from reading for their courses they’re going to be graded in is too much.”

“But I think people understand that we need to do something for our students,” he added, “that we have a moral obligation to help them deal with all of these issues.”

A version of this article appears in print on 05/14/2015, on page A19 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Public Defender Beats Partner on Happiness Scale for Lawyers, Study Finds.