January 01, 2015

Unhappy Attorneys and the Expectations-Reality Gap

Recapturing the nobility that should accompany the lawyer’s role requires serious consideration of why so many attorneys are unhappy and what can be done about it.

Steven J. Harper

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Many attorneys admit to the ultimate regret in choosing a career: They’re sorry they became lawyers. For each of them, it’s a personal tragedy. When such sentiments pervade an entire profession, it’s a societal disaster. Recapturing the nobility that should always accompany the lawyer’s role in a civilized world requires serious consideration of why so many attorneys are unhappy and what can be done about it.

First, let’s try denial. After all, unhappy attorneys aren’t new. Back in 1923 Archibald MacLeish explained the conflicting emotions that still burden many attorneys today:

The law is crowded—interesting—full of despair. It offers its own rewards, but none other. As a game, there is nothing to match it. Even living is a poor second. But as a philosophy, as a training for such eternity as the next hour offers, it is nowhere—a mockery of human ambitions.

Only a few years after graduating from Harvard, MacLeish abandoned a successful but unsatisfying legal career in a prominent Boston law firm to pursue his literary ambitions.

Perhaps discontent is just more visible today. Social media and the Internet—yes, Above the Law, I’m looking at those vitriolic online “comments”—have amplified the negative voices. Maybe the ease with which anyone can publicize a complaint simply makes attorney dissatisfaction seem more intense and ubiquitous than it was in MacLeish’s time. Things aren’t worse; they’re more publicized.

Denying the existence of widespread unhappiness permits rationalizing the malcontents as outliers who merit no special concern from the rest of us. We can all relax and move on to more pressing matters, such as law schools producing too many graduates with too much educational debt or big law firms using metrics that enhance partner profits while undermining personal well-being and institutional stability. Wait a minute. If attorney unhappiness is, in fact, more widespread today, could those law school and big firm trends be contributing factors? We’ll return to that question.

Ultimately, facts undermine the denial strategy. The precise scope of the problem—attorneys’ regret at having gone to law school—is unclear. But a basic point is incontestable: Many lawyers admit to dissatisfying careers. The most recent and supposedly optimistic analysis comes from three professors who analyzed the After the JD study group of 4,500 attorneys who graduated in 2000. Ronit Dinovitzer, Bryant G. Garth & Joyce S. Sterling, Buyers’ Remorse? An Empirical Assessment of the Desirability of a Lawyer Career, 63 J. Legal. Educ. 211 (Nov. 2013). “[T]he overall trend,” they found, “is that more than three-quarters of respondents, irrespective of debt, express extreme or moderate satisfaction with the decision to become a lawyer.” Id. at 12.

Even if their estimate is accurate, a 75 percent positive outcome—a C in my classroom—is no reason to boast. It leaves hundreds of thousands in the ranks of the dissatisfied. If you’re wondering how that compares with other occupations, the answer is that grading on a curve won’t help us. Attorneys are among the leaders in contests that no one wants to win: incidence of depression, alcoholism, substance abuse, and overall career dissatisfaction.

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