What makes a happy lawyer? No, this isn’t the start of an anti-lawyer joke. It’s actually the title of a recent research paper that looked into just that question: what is the best predictor of happiness among lawyers?
To find out, a law professor and a psychologist got together and asked 6,200 lawyers about how happy they were. What they found was that it wasn’t the prestigious lawyers, or those who did the best, or even those who made the most money who were the happiest. It was actually those who had the lowest incomes and the lowest grades in law school—most of whom were public service lawyers.
Not only did public service lawyers drink less than their big-wig contemporaries (a measure that was inversely correlated with happiness), they also valued their work more and were motivated less by money and more by how important they felt their work was. The more pro-bono hours somebody worked, the happier they were. The more billable hours they worked, the less happy they were.
The research then asked whether there was something particular about lawyers when it comes to what they’re looking for in life. “Lawyers,” the researchers write, “whether by nature or through training, may respond differently than other people to psychological and external factors that typically generate happiness.” But when they compared what made lawyers happy with what made the rest of the world happy, they found no real difference. “Thus it would appear that lawyers, and their teachers and employers, should banish any notions that law-trained people are somehow special in this important regard,” they write.
So, at the end of the day, the study suggests that law students might want to reevaluate their choices. It’s not grades or money that will make them happier after law school, but rather how good they feel about their work.