Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Are Lowest Paid Lawyers Also the Happiest?

moneyWe all know that money can’t buy love, but who knew that not making a lot of it might just buy happiness?

A new study shows that attorneys who earn lower salaries – which include a preponderance of public service employment like public defenders and Legal Aid – are most likely to report being happy.

An extra bonus: they also drink less alcohol.

“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,” reports the New York Times. “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.”

Is The American Dream a Nightmare?

“Law students are famous for busting their buns to make high grades, sometimes at the expense of health and relationships, thinking, ‘Later I’ll be happy, because the American dream will be mine,’” says a Florida State University law professor and co-author of the study. “Nice, except it doesn’t work.”

Here’s proof of that fact:

  • A Johns Hopkins survey in the 1990s found that lawyers were 3.6 times as likely to suffer from depression as non-lawyers.
  • Seventy percent of law students responding to a Yale University questionnaire reported mental health issues.
  • Lawyers are 54 percent more likely to commit suicide than other professionals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Lawyers have high rates of substance abuse, rehab stays and DWIs.
  • And they have higher rates of stress-related illnesses.

Three Pillars of Happiness

High-profile law jobs pay well and burnish a resume. But they are also stressful and competitive. And they don’t always provide the three ingredients psychologists say are essential to happiness: feelings of competence, autonomy and connection to others.

Lower-paying, public-service jobs do a better job in this regard.

From the Times article: “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 that is because lawyers and law students are focusing on the wrong rewards. Why lawyers are susceptible to such dangers is a matter of debate, although unhappiness with the work itself — long hours toiling for demanding clients — is often cited as a possible cause, particularly for people who entered law school with dreams of high-stakes, cinematic courtroom battles.”

Todd Peterson is a George Washington University law professor who started out with a high-powered Washington law firm before becoming disillusioned. He says before taking the job he didn’t clearly understand what life in biglaw would be like:

“I thought I wanted to be a litigator for reasons that showed a misunderstanding of what litigators do. The job was unfulfilling to me because I didn’t find it meaningful.” Today, Mr. Peterson is at the forefront of a movement to help law students avoid the mistakes he made.

But it’s an uphill climb, because law students face intense competition to land a plum job at a big-name firm.

“It’s a very real pressure in law school,” law student Helen Clemens says in the Times article. “It comes from all kinds of avenues, but mostly I would say it just comes from the people surrounding you. If everyone is talking about leaders from our school who have gotten jobs at a really prestigious firm, the assumption is that we all should be trying to work at a similar place.”

Cynicism Breeds Misery

Some law schools are trying to change this. They’re adding a mental health component to their career counseling. They’re pairing students with practicing attorneys to provide a realistic view of life beyond the ivy-covered walls. Most importantly, they’re assisting students in making smart decisions about what kind of law – if any – they want to practice.

“We’re helping students figure out why they’re in law school and where they want to be,” Mr. Peterson said.

Source: New York Times

Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney who has practiced North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact him at


About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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