As future lawyers, about to embark on a legal career, there is concern that we may be focusing on the wrong rewards…


The New York Times article, Lawyers with the Lowest Pay Report more Happiness, written by Douglas Quenqua, suggests that individuals entering the profession are concerned with wealth, status and stimulating work. However, recent research has found that high income and partnership track positions have no correlation with a lawyer’s happiness and well-being. In fact, lawyers in public service positions reported greater happiness. This research study was based on a psychological model of human happiness called “self-determination theory”. The model is based on competence, autonomy and connection to others.

Young Associates in Trouble, a research paper by David Zaring and William Henderson, concludes that most new lawyers are attracted to working for large, prestigious law firms despite their reputation as difficult places to work. The research conducted by Zaring and Henderson suggests that compensation, partnership and resume value are among the reasons these leading firms remain a fixture for new graduates. The authors accept that some young lawyers may see their experience working at an elite firm and the prestige associated with these institutions as a jumping off point into a more enjoyable career path. However, the author’s data indicates that individuals who remain with large firms over the long term do not show higher satisfaction in partnership than they do as junior associates. This is due to a work-life balance that does not necessarily change as the employee moves up the hierarchy.

An explanation for the unhappiness exhibited by young lawyers may begin at law school. Here, students are pushed towards mainstream, elite firms. Large firm marketing, “OCI’s”, and competition among colleagues may be to blame for this.

The articles above suggest that law students do not appreciate what they are signing up for when entering a new firm. Better information from school career centers, depicting “firm life” in large and small firms and urban to rural centers could solve this problem. My view is that there is a general lack of alternatives to big name firms. Schools do not provide students with the necessary explanation of alternatives to firm employment and students lack the knowledge of replacement options.

We have all been told that the profession is changing rapidly and how this may affect our employment opportunities in the near future. It is time for graduates to turn their mind to careers that fall outside of the institutionalized model. Pursuing innovative legal careers may be a solution to the happiness and work life balance young lawyers seek, without sacrificing both lucrative and stimulating work. By taking the approach that change means opportunity, the transformation of the legal landscape should be viewed with excitement rather than fear.