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Meaningful Work Boosts Happiness, Even for Lawyers

New research finds the lawyers who are most satisfied with their lives are those in public-service jobs.
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(Photo: Stanislav Tiplyashin/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Stanislav Tiplyashin/Shutterstock)

High-powered, high-status lawyers are less happy, and drink more heavily, than their counterparts whose jobs focus on public service.

That’s the conclusion of a new study, which analyzes a survey of nearly 6,000 American attorneys.

“It appears the downsides of performing these high-paying jobs overcame the benefits of high income,” Kennon Sheldon of the University of Missouri and Lawrence Krieger of Florida State University write in the Journal of Positive Psychology.

The researchers describe a survey distributed to members of the Bar Associations of four diverse states—two in the Southern United States, one in the north-central region, and another in the northeast. Participants were presented with a list of 27 legal jobs and asked to indicate the one that best describes their current work.

"Service jobs likely provide workers with a sense of making a difference in the lives of needful others, bringing about justice, and experiencing a work community that shares these idealistic values."

Sheldon and Krieger divided these up into three categories. “Money” jobs included corporate law, tort or malpractice litigation, tax law, and estate planning. “Service” jobs included public prosecutor or public defender, in-house legal advisors at agencies or non-profits, and those who provide legal services for the poor. The remaining jobs were simply categorized as “other.”

The 5,974 attorneys then completed a series of surveys measuring their typical emotional states and overall life satisfaction. They were also asked how much, and how often, they drink.

The researchers found significantly higher levels of overall well-being and life satisfaction in lawyers with service-oriented jobs. On the other side of the equation, lawyers in the high-stress, high-income realm drank much more often, and significantly more heavily, than those in the other two categories.

“Service jobs likely provide workers with a sense of making a difference in the lives of needful others, bringing about justice, and experiencing a work community that shares these idealistic values,” the researchers write.

In contrast, they add, “money jobs typically require working very long hours, require constant focus on compensation (exemplified by ‘billable hours’) ... and involve regular interaction with others experiencing the same pressures.”

Importantly, on most of the well-being scales, those in the “other” category actually scored the worst—lower than their colleagues in the “money” jobs, and far lower than those in the “service” jobs. Apparently these lawyers don’t get the emotional benefits of feeling they’re doing something valuable, but also don’t enjoy the perks of a high-income, high-status lifestyle.

Sheldon and Krieger concede it’s possible that people who are intrinsically happier are more likely to move into more service-oriented jobs. But they express strong doubts about that hypothesis, noting that top-tier legal jobs are usually offered only to the top 10 to 15 percent of a law-school class. There’s no evidence that those high achievers are also the least happy students.

“While the current data are not conclusive,” they write, “they strongly suggest that people choosing work for extrinsic reasons, especially for higher earnings, may suffer to an extent as a result of that choice.”

Law students and other pre-professionals face a tough choice “between two versions of the American dream,” the researchers conclude, “one emphasizing wealth and status, and the other, service and personal development.” This research suggests that while the former is tempting, the latter produces lasting happiness.