The Surprising Findings: What Actually Makes Lawyers Happy?

I spent the first 11 years of my legal career as a government litigator in a variety of demanding positions. I enjoyed all of the work. I often noticed that lawyers I encountered did not seem to be as happy as our relative intelligence, power, and income would suggest. It struck me that many highly successful lawyers were not particularly happy as a group. I wondered whether the achievements we typically define as “success” do not bring happiness.

This was a question of importance because at times I received offers to pursue more traditionally successful career tracks that offered greater compensation and more prestige than my government work. When I began teaching law school, I had the opportunity to investigate this question and engaged a respected psychologist to help. The study looked at these questions: Does the achievement of career success as we commonly define it lead most lawyers to happiness? If not, what does? Based on previous research, we expected the first answer to be “no,” that “success” would not be very important for happiness. We did not think that gaining rewards and status, including entry into prestigious schools, high law school grades, other honors and credentials, or partnership in a law firm, would reliably identify the happy lawyers. We also hypothesized that more subjective, personal, and relational factors would be the real markers of thriving, happy lawyers.

The resulting study of 6,200 lawyers and judges in four states confirmed all of these hypotheses, so consistently that the conclusions are clear. The happiness of thousands of lawyers varied strongly only with personal factors such as their attitudes, integrity, relationships, and purposes and goals in life. The usual markers of “success” in our society and profession—those external, competitive factors of grades, money, and prestige—were essentially ineffective for producing happy lawyers. The results were sufficiently surprising that the New York Times report of this study was featured in the national news and was the most shared article in the Times for two days.

In a nutshell, much of what has been driving so many of us, what we strive for with most of our energy, worry about at length, and which has been forming our dreams for our children and other loved ones, does not actually produce happiness. This is an important realization to reflect on, though it certainly does not mean that we should avoid or renounce success and the comforts and benefits that it can bring. It does mean that there are several more important factors in life that should not be sacrificed for success as commonly understood.

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