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Making Partner Isn’t Everything
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Summary: Happiness is not a factor that is often used when describing the legal profession, especially those that work grueling hours at prestigious law firms.

Law students often have the rewards such as wealth, stimulating work, and status on their minds when preparing to be an attorney. Happiness often fails to be something many worry about, but a recent study published in the George Washington Law Review of 6,200 lawyers shows that attorneys and law students are focused on the wrong perks of the career.


Lawyers in public service jobs that make less money than those at prestigious firms reported being the happiest. Those attorneys that made the higher incomes often associated with a partner-track job made no connection between happiness and success as an attorney.

The survey also found that public service attorneys drank less alcohol than other peers that make a higher-income. Both reported an equal overall satisfaction with their lives even though the public service attorneys made substantially less.

Senior associates reported the same level of well-being as junior partners even though they receive 62 percent less income. Clearly making partner does not equal happiness.

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The study focused on the three components of the self-determination theory: autonomy, competence, and connection to others. Jobs at the prestigious firms lack these components, whereas public service jobs don’t. The link between the rates of depression in the legal profession and job satisfaction are not hard to believe. In 1990, a John Hopkins study found that lawyers were 3.6 times as likely as non-lawyers to have depression. This past December, Yale Law School reported that 70 percent of their students that responded to a survey were affected by mental health issues. The higher rates extend to substance abuse as well.

Law schools are starting to understand the problem and are trying to fix it at the start. Programs that pair students with practicing lawyers have been enacted to give students the opportunity to see what different specialties and places to practice are actually like. Their hope is to help students be better prepared for the real world and have more direction on where they place greater importance – happiness or a fancy job.





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