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Survey: Poor Lawyers Are the Happiest

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Want to be a happy lawyer? Even just a sober lawyer? Stop going after that BigLaw paycheck or partner track position and take up a low-in-pay public interest job.

No, really.

According to researchers who surveyed over 6,000 attorneys, lawyers in public-service jobs who made the least money reported the most happiness -- and less drunkenness. The results of that survey, published in the George Washington Law Review, show that markers of prestige such as making partner don't pay off with greater happiness or well-being, even though they might help you get rid of your loans a bit faster.

Stark Contrasts in Earnings and Enjoyment

When it comes to salaries, public interest attorneys and BigLaw associates live in totally different worlds. According to the National Association for Law Placement, lawyers in public interest fields, such as legal aid organizations, public defenders or nonprofits, can expect starting salaries in the low- to mid- $40,000 range. That's less than a year's tuition at most law schools.

Their highfaluting colleagues at major firms, by contrast, still often start with salaries of $160,000 or higher. Solo practitioners, small firm lawyers, in-house counsel and government attorneys fall somewhere in between the two.

Those lower-paid lawyers are much more likely to report being happy, according to a write up on the research in The New York Times. Despite the huge difference income, both the lowest and highest paid lawyers reported equal life satisfaction.

Should It Come as a Surprise?

It might not be surprising that public-interest lawyers report higher rates of happiness. After all, many enter the field because they want to pursue such work, whether it's defending the indigent, or advocating for civil rights. That sort of mission-based work is likely to leave do-good lawyers feeling satisfied, if not rich. Meanwhile, many of their law firm friends are incredibly overworked. In fact, many are willing to forgo pay for lower billable hour requirements.

Similarly, research of workers across professions has often found that salary is no indicator of happiness. In fact, a 2008 Gallup survey of almost half a million Americans found that day-to-day feelings happiness plateau for most people when they were making $75,000. Turns out, Biggie was right.

So hey, if you don't get that BigLaw, partner-track job, maybe it's time to consider yourself lucky -- or at least happy.

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