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What Makes Lawyers Happy? – And How Can You Help?


Money can’t buy me love. – Paul McCartney

As a corollary to psychologist McCartney’s insight, money can’t buy lawyers (much) happiness.

That’s one of the key findings of Lawrence Krieger and Kennon Sheldon’s impressive study, What Makes Lawyers Happy?: A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success.

This post includes excerpts from this article, sans footnotes, but with page references and original emphases.

Krieger and Sheldon define happiness as “subjective well-being,” using established measures for this variable.  Their research is based on “self-determination theory” (SDT), a concept similar to that in DR theory.  Psychological research on SDT going back several decades shows that “all human beings have certain basic psychological needs—to feel competent/effective, autonomous/authentic, and related/connected with others.” (564).

This findings in this study are consistent with prior research on SDT.

[Prior r]esearch has established that intrinsic values and internal motivations are more predictive of well-being than their extrinsic and external counterparts.  Another important construct of SDT is the effect of supportive (versus controlling) supervisors, teachers, or mentors.  Research has shown that providing autonomy support to subordinates enhances their ability to perform maximally, fulfill their psychological needs, and experience well-being.  (565).

The components of perceived autonomy support include the extent to which the person in authority (1) acknowledges the perspectives or preferences of the other;  (2) provides meaningful choices to the other;  and (3) when asserting control rather than providing choices, explains to the other the reasons why that is necessary.   (582)

Here’s the essence of the study:

[T]he current data show that the psychological factors [related to subjective well-being] seen to erode during law school are the very factors most important for the well-being of lawyers. Conversely, the data reported here also indicate that the factors most emphasized in law schools—grades, honors, and potential career income, have nil to modest bearing on lawyer well-being.  (560)

For a more detailed summary of the primary findings, see pp. 576-85, especially figure 2, which graphically illustrates them. See also pp. 617-20.

The study also analyzes numerous other variables that one might assume would affect lawyers’ happiness but which generally had little or no correlation.

The Takeaway for Law School Faculty

Krieger and Sheldon give advice that probably validates the approach of most readers of this blog.  I think it’s worth quoting at length:

For teachers and employers, the findings repeatedly suggest the need for a systematic effort to recast perceptions of “success” in law school and the profession, by shifting institutional emphases from competition, status, and tangible benefits to support, collaboration, interest, and personal purpose.

The research suggests particularly important responsibilities for law teachers.  They impact students early in the formation of professional attitudes and identities, and that impact is apparently negative for many students, particularly with regard to the kinds of internal psychological factors found here to be the primary correlates of lawyer well-being.

First, educating law students about these findings should decrease anxiety, stress, and excessive competition, because grades, honors, and the other zero-sum competitive factors measured in the study had limited to nil associations with well-being.  By contrast, none of the factors found to bear strongly on well-being involve limited resources;  all are products of a student’s or lawyer’s individual choices.

A second important strategy for law teachers would be to approach the task of teaching legal analysis with humility, clearly conveying to students that, although this skill will enable them to dispassionately analyze and argue legal issues while setting aside their own instincts, values, morals, and sense of caring for others, such a skill must be narrowly confined to those analytical situations.  This is not a superior way of thinking that can be employed in personal life, or even in most work situations, without suffering psychological consequences.   (624)

One specific cost-effective strategy supported by the data for application in both school and work settings is the provision of autonomy-supportive, rather than controlling, teaching, mentoring, and work supervision.  This practice can be learned and, as stated, has been shown to promote broad improvements in well-being, motivation, and performance.  (625)

Although this article is relatively long, it is well worth reading by faculty and students alike.  Since your students may not get this message elsewhere in their law school experience, you might take the initiative to pass it along to them.


John Lande

John Lande is the Isidor Loeb Professor Emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Law and former director of its LLM Program in Dispute Resolution.  He received his J.D. from Hastings College of Law and Ph.D in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He began mediating professionally in 1982 in California.… MORE >

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