While Study On Greater Happiness of Nonprofit Lawyers Raises Methodological Questions, It Still Has Useful Lessons

Its hard for some of us not to feel smug and self-satisfied when we see the following blog headline in the New York Times: Lawyers With Lowest Pay Report More Happiness.

And its hard not to come to the conclusion that the article implies that making the choice to be a nonprofit lawyer will lead to greater happiness.

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.

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.

There are numerous theories to explain the phenomenon, like the kind of work people have to do, the hours, the fear, etc.  This is a new one for me:

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.

I assume that the final line of that paste is meant to discourage NYT readers from adding to the comments!

I think it is important to point out the methodological issue.  It may be that happier people go into lower income legal jobs because they have less to prove.– and they stay happier  Indeed, it would be interesting to do a happiness assessement before law school, during law school, and during career, although even that has methodological weaknesses.

More valid might be a randomized study in which students at a law school were offered counseling on how to align personal goals and values with career direction, and then do the follow up for all who were offered it (it is invalid to compare those who accepted the offer with those who rejected it.)  Even with the offer comparison study, you still run the risk of “contamination,” if the law students talk to each other.  To avoid this, I think, you would have to compare some schools at which all were offered the help, with similar others at which none were.

In the end, however, I think the study can be of help with career direction choice.  If the lower income lawyers are happier, you are more likely to be happy if you join them, if only because the main choice you make is life is who to be with.  You might as well choose happy people to make you happy.

So there are sometimes solutions without randomized studies.



About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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