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What Makes Lawyers Happy? Money, Honey

Vivia Chen LAW.COM

Why all the hand-wringing about the low morale of lawyers?

It turns out lawyers aren’t so miserable, particularly if they’re sitting pretty as equity partners raking in the dough.

Partners are a surprisingly content lot, according to Major Lindsey & Africa’s partner compensation survey: Among respondents, 78 percent classified themselves as very satisfied, moderately satisfied or slightly satisfied when their compensation is taken into consideration. Only 15 percent put themselves in the dissatisfied category, and 7 percent were neutral. (What’s with the neutral thing? Are they numb?)

And you know all that talk about how lawyers are overworked and depressed and how they would gladly sacrifice their worldly riches for more freedom? Hah! Fewer of them are expressing that longing: Only 50 percent say they’d trade money for other benefits such as more time off, greater flexibility or cut in billable hours—a 12 percent drop since 2016.

I hate to say lawyers are driven by filthy lucre, but you have to wonder. It seems the more they’re making, the happier they are and the less they care about what normal folks call quality-of-life issues. (Yes, I do recognize the contingent of lawyers who struggle with mental health and substance abuse problems made worse by Big Law demands.)

But as for what the MLA study shows, here’s the takeaway:

  1. Lawyers making the most money ($1.5 million+) show the highest satisfaction (46 percent are very satisfied, and 40 percent moderately to slightly satisfied), while those making the least (under $300,000) are the most glum (45 percent dissatisfaction rate).
  2. Lawyers with the highest billable hours (2,401+ hours) showed the highest satisfaction rate (35 percent in the very satisfied group).
  3. Lawyers with more seniority—who presumably earned more—were less inclined to trade compensation for nonmonetary benefits (53 percent in the 20+ years group had no desire to forfeit money for other things).
  4. A majority of equity partners (52 percent) were unwilling to trade compensation for nonmonetary benefits.
  5. Among major cities, New York had the highest percentage of partners (61 percent) who would not make the trade-off.

That lawyers making lots of moolah are happier is a no-brainer, but what’s crazy is that those billing insane hours (more than 2,400!) tend to be the most satisfied. And why would the legal sweatshop capital of the world—New York—boast the highest percentage of partners who wouldn’t trade money for a more sane lifestyle?

Jeff Lowe, the author of the study, says he was surprised by the results, too. “I would have thought that the higher-paid partners would want to make the trade-off because they’ve attain success and can afford to.” I know I’m oversimplifying, but this study does make me think money is addictive, and that the more you have, the more you want.

But Lowe thinks I’m being way too cynical. “I think they really like what they do.” He adds that the overall rate of satisfaction, both factoring in compensation and taking it out, is not that far apart—78 percent versus 70 percent, respectively. “It’s largely positive news,” Lowe sums up.

So here’s the recap: Lawyers who’ve attained partnership are largely content, but the most content among them are ones who make big bucks and put in insane hours.

In my book, that makes them both weird and greedy.

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