Some lawyers are happy. Don’t take it on faith; the New York times says so. Of course, other lawyers are not.
One Interesting statistic from the study the story relies on is that associates at high end corporate firms are no happier than their less elite classmates. I was not surprised by this news because once I went on a human rights tour of Central America with several bright young lawyers doing volunteer political asylum work. All of them were from top San Francisco law firms, and not one of them seemed especially happy in his or her work.
Why aren’t young lawyers holding the most sought after jobs happier in their work? The authors of the study suggest the reason is that the day to day experience of working at a big firm does not score high on the three “pillars of self-determination”– competence, autonomy, and connection to others.
I take “competence” to refer to the sense that you are a master of your craft. In big firms, associates work long hours at essential but often routine tasks; they don’t make the key strategic decisions which mark a master lawyer. They also lack “autonomy” because they are performing tasks assigned by their bureaucratic superiors. And while they may have good relations with other associates and the partner who directs them, there is little room for meaningful connection with clients.
I would add a fourth “pillar”—authenticity, the desire that your career reflect your values. Lawyers speak for others, not themselves. Sometimes a lawyer finds himself or herself on the “wrong” side of a case from the perspective of personal ideology. The lawyer still zealously represents his or her client; the adversary system, not the lawyers, decides which side will win. But what if you feel you are always on the “wrong” side”? The study suggests that legal service lawyers and public defenders report a satisfaction bonus from the fact that they believe in what they are doing.
And, of course, we should never forget that these four “pillars” must stand on a stable financial base. Lawyers who have an ideological bias towards the “have-nots” must realize that the “haves” are better able to pay legal fees, a fact that determines the clients the firms represent and the salaries they pay. So where to work, especially at the beginning of a law career, is not an easy problem to solve, especially if you are graduating with mountains of loan debt into an inhospitable job market.
But I think the study’s suggestion that the hardest job to get is not necessarily the right one to choose is a valuable one. And it’s also true that law school culture may not be giving you the best signals. The story quotes a student on this point: “If everyone is talking about leaders from our school who have gotten jobs at a really prestigious firm, the assumption is we all should be trying to work at a similar place.”
Getting the “right” first job is a difficult issue to figure out, but maybe legal education itself gives us some tips on how to proceed. Pay close attention to facts and be a critical thinker. As the story suggests, get more information about what lawyers actually do once they are hired. Probably a recruiting interview is not a very objective picture of daily work life. Secondly, disabuse yourself of “fuzzy” thinking about your career. Certainly consider pay and prestige, but don’t forget competence, autonomy, connectivity, authenticity, and the need to have some time for family, friends, and yourself.
I once had a student who told me she had just accepted a job with a large firm specializing in personal injury defense. They had made it clear to her that she would be defending tobacco companies. She clearly had reservations about the work, but took the job because she liked the money, prestige, and experience she would gain. When I ran into her a few years later, she didn’t seem to regret her decision, but she did mention that she had moved on to another job.
The road to being the lawyer you want to be is a long and sometimes twisting one. You may find out that not getting that interview with the mega-firm was the first lucky break on your journey.