Unhappy Lawyers and Unmet Legal Needs

April 27th, 2014 / By

Lawrence Krieger and Kennon Sheldon recently posted an important paper about the factors associated with lawyer happiness. The paper includes a number of intriguing findings–I recommend it to all members of the legal profession. I focus here on a worrisome finding that Krieger and Sheldon discuss only briefly: The majority of lawyers, those who provide legal services to middle-income individuals, are the unhappiest.

These general practitioners, family lawyers, and others of their ilk are less satisfied than both those who work in prestige positions (serving primarily corporations) and those who work for the public interest (including government). Yet these “lawyers in the middle” make up the bulk of our profession–and are essential to address unmet legal needs. What are we going to about this?

Four Groups of Lawyers

To gather data for their study, Krieger and Sheldon surveyed bar members in four geographically diverse states. They divided the respondents into four groups:

Prestige lawyers are those who (a) work in law firms of 100 lawyers or more, or (b) practice tort/malpractice law; corporate, commercial, or transactional law; international business/commercial transactions; securities or partnership law; and tax, estate planning, or patent/copyright law. Krieger and Sheldon identified 1434 prestige lawyers in their sample.

Service lawyers work as public defenders, criminal prosecutors, other government lawyers, legal aid lawyers, or in-house counsel for a nonprofit organization. 1091 sample members fell in this category.

Judges include both judges and hearing officers. This group accounted for 141 sample members.

Other lawyers work in “general practice, family law, private criminal defense, and many [other areas] not typically associated with either very high earnings or primary public service.” This group constituted the largest slice of the sample, with 2852 members.

[Note that Krieger and Sheldon excluded “teachers, bar administrators, mediators/arbitrators, and clerks or support staff for judges or lawyers” from these groupings, so they could focus exclusively on more traditional practitioners. The “other” lawyers group, therefore, does not include attorneys in these positions.]

Who’s the Happiest?

Judges reported higher well-being than any other group studied by Krieger and Sheldon. Service lawyers were the next happiest, despite their low incomes. Prestige lawyers ranked third, and “other lawyers” brought up the rear.

Krieger and Sheldon focus on the difference between prestige and service lawyers: although the former earn more, the latter report greater well-being. To my mind, though, the more important result involves the “other” lawyers–those in general practice. These lawyers constitute the single greatest group of practicing lawyers; they also serve the needs for which Americans have the greatest unmet demand. Yet these are the unhappiest lawyers. This is a critical problem, one that legal education has ignored for too long.

The Invisible Majority

As I read Krieger and Sheldon’s very thoughtful study, I realized how much of our law school culture revolves around the prestige/service dichotomy. Both before and during law school, law students imagine that they will choose between high-paying prestige positions and modest-paying (but personally satisfying) service ones.

Our law school culture tacitly supports this dichotomy. Students quickly learn about the prestige positions and yearn for both their status and compensation. Prestige employers are well represented on campus, in the media, and in student gossip.

Schools counter the dominance of “prestige law” with talk of service careers. We sponsor public interest fellowships, job fairs, and other service programs. Faculty and career counselors encourage students to weigh the personal satisfactions of a service career against the monetary rewards of a “prestige” one.

At most law schools, however, a majority of graduates will work in neither of these fields: the dichotomy is a false one for them. Instead, they will become “other” lawyers serving the needs of small businesses and moderate-income individuals. The fact that service lawyers are happier, while prestige lawyers are wealthier, is irrelevant to them. They, according to Krieger and Sheldon’s study, will experience neither the high incomes of prestige lawyers nor the well-being of service ones.

Out of the Shadows

Is the plight of general-practice lawyers inevitable? I don’t know. Some of them manage very stressful work for clients of modest means. Family law tops that list; many lawyers shudder at the prospect of handling divorce or child custody cases, although courthouses teem with people seeking lawyers to represent them in those matters.

It may not be possible to give these “other” lawyers the high salaries of prestige lawyers or the civic satisfaction of service ones. But we might improve their well-being by recognizing the importance of their work. Rather than relegating them to the shadows of “other” lawyers, as law schools currently do, let’s celebrate the work of these every day lawyers.

Many of our graduates will handle divorce and child custody cases. They will represent criminal defendants for pay. They will handle small personal injury and commercial disputes. None of this is glamorous; much of it is stressful and modestly paid. But this is what lawyers do. This is what brings justice to most Americans.

Let’s embrace this legal work in our law school curricula. Let’s feature it in our placement programs. Let’s help our “other” graduates find satisfaction in their practices. I know some general practitioners who find substantial psychic rewards in their work. Although we don’t recognize them as “public service” lawyers, they are the professionals who help people through the traumatic days of a divorce, criminal charge, custody dispute, or probate contest.

We can do more to prepare these lawyers, celebrate their work, support their well-being, and offer their services to more of the clients who need them.


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