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What makes lawyers happy?

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What makes lawyers happy?

Senior Editor

What makes lawyers happy?

It’s not so much prestige and money, the big house and the six-figure salary, as it is having meaningful, personally engaging work.

That’s why public service lawyers are generally happier and more satisfied than highly paid lawyers in large law firms. And judges — who have the best of both worlds — are the happiest lawyers of all.

As billable hours go up, income goes up, and happiness goes down.

Larry Krieger The more vacation days a lawyer takes — relaxation that truly tunes out work — the happier they will be. And well-being is higher for married lawyers with children.

So says the latest study conducted by Larry Krieger, a clinical professor at Florida State University College of Law, and Kennon M. Sheldon, a professor at the Department of Psychological Science at the University of Missouri.

Venturing beyond anecdotes, they set out to answer the question — What makes lawyers happy? — by crunching data gathered from 6,200 diverse lawyers in four states.

They established a hierarchy of five tiers of factors for lawyer well-being, including choices in law school, legal career, and personal life, and psychological needs and motivations established by Self-Determination Theory, described as “a comprehensive theory of human motivation that has been prominent in the psychological literature for more than 40 years. Tenets of SDT include that all human beings have basic psychological needs: to feel competent/effective, autonomous/authentic, and related/connected with others.”

Krieger said he’s wanted to do the study for a decade, to fill a void of “no theory-driven empirical study investigating the experiences, attitudes, and motivations of practicing lawyers, or how those factors relate to attorney emotional health or well-being.”

With all of his primary hypotheses proven, what was his biggest surprise?

“Honestly, how robustly they were proven,” Krieger answered.

“I expected the results, but was shocked by the drastic difference between the external ‘American dream’ factors (money, school rank, grades, law review, prestige job) and the things that really mattered for well-being: integrity, relationships, felt competence, internally motivated work, and a supportive supervisor. The differences were not just clear; they were huge.”

While law school grades, honors, and potential career income have little or no bearing on lawyer well-being, Krieger said his findings are not just about law schools and lawyers.

“This is the ‘American dream’ we all grew up with as a companion. Those who subscribe most fully to it appear to suffer the most frequently, unfortunately, because it simply does not work, for lawyers or anyone else, in large numbers,” Krieger said.

“The American dream, as it started out was about freedom and the chance to earn a good living, for downtrodden people from elsewhere. It still works for them, to the point of making a decent income and having freedom.

“Beyond that, more is only slightly better, as this and other studies have shown, and focusing on more material things at the expense of relationships, integrity, self-expressive choices, passion in one’s work, or helping others, is, simply, a recipe for depression.”

For both law school teachers and legal employers, the study’s findings point to the need to shift from an emphasis on competition and status to “tangible benefits to support, collaboration, interest, and personal purpose. The result will likely be happier, more highly functioning students and employees, and therefore more highly functioning schools and work places.”

Many law school deans of student affairs are getting the message, Krieger said, as they are on the front lines of dealing with depressed or troubled students, and they need support from their deans to provide the information.

“There are many, many individual law teachers also involved. We have a list serve hosted by FSU law for a national conversation, and roughly 500 law school administrators and deans are subscribed to it,” Krieger said.

“The other side of the equation is the law practice side. Analogous to the student affairs deans, the lawyer assistance program directors deal directly with the troubled lawyers, and thus many of them have promoted this information,” Krieger said.

Depressed lawyers who drink too much or abuse drugs are well known to Michael Cohen, executive director of Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc.,

While he said the study did not discover anything “earth-shattering,” its value is that it “quantified what we all know: Money in itself won’t bring happiness and satisfaction.”

“This is what Larry and I have been preaching to law students for 20 years,” Cohen said. “Most students enter law school with some degree of altruism. They grew up believing in helping people and helping society. And they see how quickly it gets dashed when they get into law school and the law firm environment. That law firm culture and prestige, that environment is tremendously damaging to a lot of motivation that gets students into law schools in the first place.”

That damaged motivation can lead to substance abuse and health issues, Cohen said.

The very qualities that bring happiness and well-being can be eroded by the competitiveness of law schools that rank students by their grades, put a premium on law review experience and honors, teach how to dispassionately analyze issues, as well as students’ unrealistic expectations about what they will earn as lawyers.

The study documents that data “consistently indicate that a happy life as a lawyer is much less about grades, affluence, and prestige than about finding work that is interesting, engaging, personally meaningful, and is focused on providing needed help to others. The data therefore indicate that the tendency of law students and young lawyers to place prestige or financial concerns before their desires ‘to make a difference’ or serve the good of others will undermine their ongoing happiness in life. This is a clear direction for increased education of law students and young lawyers. ‘If one isn’t happy, what is the point?’”

A useful strategy at the law school level, the study said, “would be to approach the task of teaching legal analysis with humility, clearly conveying to students that, while this skill will enable them to dispassionately analyze and argue legal issues while ignoring their own instincts, values, moral, and sense of caring for others, such a skill must be narrowly confined to those analytical situations. This is not a superior way of thinking that can be employed in personal life or even to most work situations, without suffering psychological consequences.”

Debra Moss Curtis, a professor at Nova University’s Shepard Broad Law Center, said she read the study and has circulated it to members of The Florida Bar’s Vision 2016 Legal Education Committee she chairs.

“We have finished our year one tasks of establishing competencies and will be discussing this work, along with others, as we move into our year two plan of how we believe legal education can meet the competencies that we believe new lawyers should have,” Curtis said.

John Berry, director of the Bar’s Legal Division, said, “My takeaway is that this is a great addition to Larry’s groundbreaking research, which confirms law schools, the profession, and we as individual lawyers must put much more emphasis upon the human dynamic of personal and interpersonal abilities.

“He confirms, like all human beings, if we ignore our human needs of autonomy and finding intrinsic values, rather than external, we will pay a price with more depression. Our clients will pay the price of our reduced overall emotional strength.”

Berry recalled the words of Former Delaware Chief Justice Norman Veasey, who chaired the ABA’s Ethics 2000 Commission: “Our profession is in search of its heart and soul.”

“Larry’s research confirmed the importance of that search,” Berry said.

Happiness, Krieger said, “is the universal search. The people who acknowledge that they want it, they can work toward it with success, generally. Those who are so caught up in achievements or being busy that they don’t want to look at their level of happiness, there is not much one can do until they become more self-aware. It’s a risk, because one might find one is unhappy, and no one wants to know that.”

But, Krieger insists, it’s never too late to find happiness.

“Want to find happiness today? Go find someone who is less fortunate than you and give them some help. Smile at a stranger or a co-worker, offer to help in a way that they would appreciate, and see how you feel. It’s really pretty simple, but we have to be willing to get back to basics, along with our high intelligence and sophistication.”

& #x201c;What Makes Lawyers Happy? Transcending the Anecdotes With Data From 6,200 Lawyers” is scheduled to be printed in a forthcoming issue of the George Washington University Law Review and can be downloaded now at

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