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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, a new study suggests, that is because lawyers and law students are focusing on the wrong rewards.
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. However, lawyers in public-service jobs who made the least money, like public defenders or Legal Aid attorneys, were most likely to report being happy.
Lawyers in public-service jobs also drank less alcohol than their higher-income peers. And, despite the large gap in affluence, the two groups reported about equal overall satisfaction with their lives.
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.
“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,’ ” said Lawrence S. Krieger, a law professor at Florida State University and an author of the study. “Nice, except it doesn’t work.”
The problem with the more prestigious jobs, said Mr. Krieger, is that they do not provide feelings of competence, autonomy or connection to others — three pillars of self-determination theory, the psychological model of human happiness on which the study was based. Public-service jobs do.
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