The Surprising Master Key to Happiness and Satisfaction According to the Lawyer Research
As humans, we all seek happiness every day, and considering the level of intelligence, power, and affluence of lawyers, generally, we really “should” be happy. Still, concerns persist about lawyer distress and related issues, some of them extremely troubling. With recent definitive findings that confirm the problems we share and also point to specific causes and cures, this is absolutely the right time to roll up our sleeves and solve this persistent riddle. Hats off to Florida Bar President Michael Higer for challenging us to collectively figure out our shared issues and take firm steps to do something about them.
After leaving 10 years of enjoyable (and yes, sometimes stressful) litigation practice to teach law, I secured the help of renowned research psychologist Ken Sheldon to investigate the issues of law student and lawyer well-being. Our most recent study included more than 6,200 lawyers and judges1 in four diverse states. We designed the study to illuminate the core sources of lawyer well-being, and, thereby, to show us the most direct paths to prevent or mitigate attorney distress, depression, or lack of satisfaction in life and work. The patterns that emerged in the findings are hopeful and helpful. They point the way clearly toward increased well-being for any of us, regardless of our current level of happiness.2
Based on a body of previous research, the first instinct Dr. Sheldon and I had for investigating the lawyer riddle was simple: We suspected that the common vision of professional success might undermine, rather than promote, happiness and satisfaction. We, therefore, sought to measure the impact3 on lawyer happiness of common success factors (for example, those providing money, status, recognition, or power). The patterns in the resulting data were stark and sufficiently surprising that they gained national attention.4 To an extent well beyond what we expected, we could not determine which lawyers in the study were happy or satisfied lawyers based on their higher earnings, more coveted legal positions, partnerships in a medium or large firm, graduation from more elite law schools, participation on a law review, higher grades in law school, and the like.5 Numerous findings pointed to the same result; I offer two as examples. First, we found that the most successful segment of this large sample, about 1,000 lawyers in the most prestigious positions, were actually less happy than the approximately 1,000 lawyers in much less-coveted public service positions. This was true despite the fact the “prestige” lawyers also had the highest pay and the best law school grades of any lawyer group. Second and perhaps more surprising, junior partners in medium to large firms were neither happier nor more satisfied than senior associates, despite the partners’ 70 percent greater pay and their huge increase in security and status.6
In sharp contrast to the inability of “success” to define the happy lawyers, certain personal and interpersonal factors that we included in the study very strongly predicted which lawyers were happy or depressed among our thousands of subjects. These factors are explained briefly below.
Authenticity was the single factor in the study that most strongly predicted happiness and satisfaction in our lawyers and judges. The correlation of lawyer well-being with this factor was 0.66 (or 66 percent), meaning that for every increase in a lawyer’s sense of being authentic or true to himself or herself, happiness and life satisfaction increased by two-thirds of that amount. (For a sense of the comparative insignificance of “success,” by contrast, the correlations of the success factors with happiness ranged from zero to a maximum of 19 percent.)
Since so many of us are concerned about a lack of professionalism among lawyers, it should be encouraging to note that this authenticity factor is synonymous with integrity, the absolute bedrock of professional and ethical behavior. This explains in part why happier lawyers are less stressful to deal with or work against — their actions are consistent with their beliefs and the truth as they know it7; and why your results when dealing with them are generally better. It also means that as we choose to develop greater authenticity as a path to happiness in life and work, we can expect to become more professional, ethical, and effective as well.8
Relatedness to Others
The need to feel genuinely connected to others was nearly as important for the happiness of our lawyers as was their authenticity, with a well-being correlation of 65 percent. Thus, whether we acknowledge it or not, our sense of genuine connection with others is critical to well-being. This finding further underscores the importance of personal authenticity, because a lawyer who is not honest with himself or herself and others cannot feel intimately connected to others — relationships will feel distant, strained, or superficial.
Competence and Internal Motivation for Work
Competence and internal motivation are the next exceptionally strong predictors of attorney happiness (correlations respectively are 63 percent and 55 percent). They both focus primarily on work and correlate strongly with each other. Internal motivation reveals the extent to which a lawyer’s work expresses his or her authentic self — either because the work supports his or her values (and, thus, provides meaning), or because it is inherently interesting and enjoyable. Beyond its powerful contribution to well-being, internal motivation also promotes competence because it generates focus and persistence in work.
Understanding Your Master Keys for Happiness and Satisfaction
You now have the first critical takeaway from this study. Regardless of lawyers’ apparent level of “success,” the only exceptionally strong predictors of happiness among these thousands of subjects were their sense of authenticity, relatedness to others, and internal motivation/competence in work. Once you realize this, you realize that you must seek these experiences regularly if you expect to have a joyful and meaningful life as a lawyer.
There is a further master key embedded in these findings that simplifies our search for happiness even more. All of these factors share a common thread, a single quality that serves to guide us. They indicate that, in order to thrive and not suffer, we lawyers (like others) need to experience a constant sense of connectedness in our lives. This includes feeling genuinely connected to ourselves (authenticity), to other people (relatedness), and to our work (internal motivation and competence). contrast, when we lose our life purpose, or ignore or violate our values or conscience, we suffer. If we feel isolated or distant from others, we suffer; and if our work feels separate or detached because it does not provide us meaning, interest, or enjoyment, we suffer.
From a deeper perspective, these findings might suggest that The Beatles had it right when they told us that all we need is love. Perhaps our need for this web of connectedness in our life and work is indeed a pervasive expression of the force of love, broadly understood. If so, the data on lawyers goes further than The Beatles, by indicating that it is not enough to “have” love. For a life of ongoing happiness and satisfaction, the love we have needs to connect us with ourselves (for example, through self-understanding, acceptance, or growth); with others (through genuine closeness); and with work (through experiences of meaning and joy).
What can you do to feel more intimately connected to your work, yourself, and others, and thereby experience more fulfillment? Some of the most accessible and powerful methods include meditation, mindfulness, self-reflection or journaling, and designed movement or exercise. These all develop self-awareness, mental clarity, and energy, and hence your capacity to connect in these diverse ways. Some of these methods are addressed in companion articles in this issue; please read them thoughtfully.
I describe in another publication simple and direct methods for increasing your experience of connectedness in each critical area of life and work.9 F or a strong start toward enhancing this crucial sense of connectedness, I recommend here one effective and direct practice: Ask yourself at the end of each day: 1) “Today, did I feel well-connected with myself — my conscience, my genuine values, and my beliefs?”; 2) “Did I feel close to other people in my life and work today?”; 3) “Did I feel inner purpose and some joy in my work today?” asking these questions, you will become aware of critical points where you may be cut off from the most important sources of happiness.
From another perspective, you could ask yourself if there is any part of life where you feel “stuck,” whether in a conflicted situation within yourself, a difficult relationship, a job that is a poor match for your needs and preferences, a lack of needed rest or recreation, etc. If you feel uncomfortable in any of these critical areas, be sure to be honest with yourself by making some notes or journaling briefly about it. And don’t keep it to yourself. Find a friend, counselor, or other person you can trust with whom to discuss the important things in your life. Whatever steps you personally choose, let’s use our new and deeper understanding to solve the riddle of lawyer happiness without delay.
1 L.S. Krieger and K.M. Sheldon, What Makes Lawyers Happy? A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success, 83
Geo. Wash. Law Rev. 554 (2015). The study may be downloaded from SSRN.com, “What Makes Lawyers Happy? or the George Washington Law Review website.
2 Changing behavior consistent with these findings will likely help any of us. However, if you or others you know feel consistently “down” or regularly experience sadness or other negative emotions, lack of sleep or appetite, loss of interest in work or life pursuits, or other symptoms of depression or anxiety, it is most important to consult a mental-health or medical professional. Do not delay or hesitate to seek professional help! Lawyers commonly hide or mask their problems, so be vigilant and ask for help if you are struggling or even wondering what is wrong.
3 Studies with such large samples virtually always investigate correlations among variables of interest, and this study is no exception. Hence causation cannot be proven directly by these data. However, the nature of the factors considered, coupled with previous longitudinal studies of many of the same factors, strongly suggest causation when indicated in this article and the study report.
4 Douglas Quenqua, Lawyers with Lowest Pay Report Most Happiness, N.Y. Times, May 12, 2015 . The Times report was the most shared article in the newspaper for two days. There are also several thousand downloads of this study on the Social Science Research Network; see note 1.
5 Id. If you are also surprised to learn that success does not substantially contribute to happiness, read the full study for greater understanding.
6 These and related findings are found at Krieger, What Makes Lawyers Happy? A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success, 83
Geo. Wash. Law Rev. at 590-93 (2015). It appears these success factors are largely independent variables, with little relationship to well-being. They can certainly be worthy goals, provided they do not displace the pursuit of the stronger sources of well-being explained here.
7 The term generally used in the literature is “autonomy.” However, the measure more accurately indicates authenticity or integrity since the survey asks lawyers the extent to which their behaviors reflect their “true self” and “true values.”
8 W e are all familiar with the frustration and wasted effort when working with unprofessional lawyers. Research has shown that lawyers who are more cooperative, honest, and trustworthy are far more effective in practice. For empirical confirmation, see A.K. Schneider & N. Mills, What Family Lawyers Are Really Doing When They Negotiate, 44 Fam. Ct. Rev. 612 (2006) ; A.K. Schneider , Shattering Negotiation Myths: Empirical Evidence on the Effectiveness of Negotiation Style, 7 Harv. Negot. L. Rev. 143 (2002).
9 I recommend specific, time-efficient steps you can take to promote each key factor for well-being in Steward Levine (ed.), Why the Happiest Lawyer Is Also the Best Lawyer You Can Be, The Best Lawyer You Can Be (ABA, forthcoming Spring 2018).
Lawrence Krieger teaches law at Florida State University and was a government litigator for a decade, including as chief trial counsel for the Florida departments of Securities and Finance. He is a frequent speaker and author of leading research on lawyer and law student well-being, and is one of 25 law professors featured in the 2013 Harvard Press book, What the Best Law Teachers Do . He founded the Humanizing Legal Education Association and was founding chair of the Section on Balance in Legal Education (Association of American Law Schools).