Some lawyers are happier than others, right?
July 18, 2013 6:19 PM   Subscribe

What kinds of lawyers are happiest? Personality types, practice areas, employer types -- or any other relevant factors. Anecdotal evidence welcome, although certainly non-anecdotal information would be great, too.

I'm in the United States. I have been doing plaintiffs' side complex litigation for a few years, if it matters. And, yes, I am already aware of the "former lawyers" answer, but unless you can give it some more context than that, that's not a helpful answer right now.
posted by J. Wilson to Work & Money (29 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
The happiest lawyers are just the happiest people. Like anyone else they have found a situation that works for them. For me, that means a job where I like my colleagues and clients. For some it might be an area of law, an amount of money, whatever. Flexible hours are the second thing on my list. And money is third.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:29 PM on July 18, 2013

I know many lawyers, and the happiest are no longer working in law. Oh you mentioned that in your question, sorry. The happiest lawyer still in the field I know is my mother, who works in patents and trademarks - she is paid well, lives in a lovely non-main-city in Australia (Perth) and thoroughly enjoys her work and her life. She is also on the verge of retiring, so if you are in a different phase of your life this is probably not a useful answer. All the other lawyers I know are pretty much miserable, despite absolutely loving their work. The culture of the law firm is a happiness-killer, in general.
posted by goo at 6:38 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I wound up at a 30-lawyer litigation boutique while all my other classmates work biglaw. With the exception of one friend in her firm's lobbying group in DC, I am the happiest working lawyer I'm aware of in my law school class (2010). I really wanted a relaxed, close-knit, flexible working environment. They think I'm good, so they give me a lot of leeway. I just didn't go in today, but I worked a lot at home. I go to court a lot, second-chaired 3 trials, first-chaired 1.
I am very happy, even though I also bill more than most people I know.

I can't imagine how I would feel at a big firm. I think I would hate it. Right now I make the same as my law school classmates, but I think a disparity will creep up on me in the next few years. My answer might change then.
posted by anthropomorphic at 6:40 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lots of information on this question here. In my personal experience (interned at a DA's office, work in BigLaw) prosecutors are happy and big firm associates are miserable.
posted by ewiar at 6:44 PM on July 18, 2013

This is purely anecdotal, but I worked in a non-profit trade association related to media, and there were three lawyers in the office. I can't say for sure, but all three of them seemed happy. The office was small, with only 12 people in it, and it was fairly close-knit and friendly. Part of their job involved travel (sometimes international) which probably sweetened the deal.
posted by winterportage at 6:45 PM on July 18, 2013

Most happy lawyers I know either work for the government (good hours, fairly interesting work, only one client), work in a small specialized firm (flexibility, interesting work in quantity in an area you chose), or have moved to in-house general counsel roles where they do both lawyer things and managerial things (i.e., not so far down the ladder in a Fortune 500 firm's huge legal department that they're basically associates with better hours, but rather senior enough that they work closely with the management to make decisions about the business).

The happiest ones I know are generally in managerial roles in government, combining both the lawyer/managerial aspect and the good hours. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:47 PM on July 18, 2013 [5 favorites]

As to the area of law, title examination may be your answer. I can't answer as to every state, because property laws differ in their practical requirements, but here in Massachusetts the title examiners are often eccentrics who set their own hours and spend their time around dusty old books. It's a likeable situation, to me. They don't get paid as much, but there you are.

The personality type of a happy litigator is someone who is a lawyer in all areas of life, I have found -- someone who is never happier than when they are arguing, someone who requires little sleep and runs on their cerebrum. If you were that kind of person, odds are you wouldn't be introspective enough to ask this question.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:48 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I recently caught up with a good friend of mine from college who's a Constitutional lawyer. They (sorry, using clunky third person plural for some anonymity) actually described themselves as "the happiest lawyer we know." This is something that they've gunned for since freshman year, which kept them interested and motivated throughout college and law school. They apparently also loved every second of law school.

Another lawyer friend switched to an in-house position at a bank after becoming a parent, and while they're not as joyous about being a lawyer as my other friend, they're pretty happy about the hours and the work environment.
posted by peripathetic at 6:50 PM on July 18, 2013

I practiced in biglaw doing PE deals for 7 or eight years and that was dismal. I am now in house and I could definitely say any one of my colleagues could be the happiest lawyer I know. The work is interesting, but it's just like a regular office job: 9 to 5 ish, few weekends, no crazy deadlines. It's like night and day versus the firm. I don't know any litigators fwiw.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:50 PM on July 18, 2013

IANAL, but the chief counsel who sends me urgent e-mails at 2am her time asking me mundane questions that certainly could wait until the morning cannot be a happy lawyer. Such a grind can only make a very few people happy.

I recently read some correspondence between a famous chief executive and his general counsel that if were sent to me would have resulted in an immediate and terse letter of resignation. Oddly enough people who are well paid are also expected to jump through any hoop and suffer any insult and this cannot make anyone happy. That CEO's shit rolled downhill to the entire legal department and I never met a bigger bunch of angry, stress-out losers in my life.

The happiest lawyer I know is a freelancer who writes patent applications in her garden and never takes on more work than she needs to get by. For her being a patent attorney is the best job on Earth.
posted by three blind mice at 6:59 PM on July 18, 2013

I work at a mid-sized law firm (as a finance guy) and have a few general observations. First off, the bigger the firm typically the bigger the workload/pressure and hence lower overall satisfaction. Most attorneys that I know that work in smaller/mid-sized firms tend to be happier but that is just from my personal experience. Secondly, the area of practice makes a huge difference. Some people find transactional law or tax to be interesting others would rather be tortured than deal with it. Finding an area of law that the individual finds interesting/rewarding is essential to having a satisfying professional career. Good luck!
posted by gibbsjd77 at 7:05 PM on July 18, 2013

My grandmother was fond of saying that there were no happy places, only happy people. While I think that is true to a point, some places can make it harder to be happy than others.

I take from your question that you've also just been practicing a few years. That is a common time for lawyers to think, "what am I doing here?" The newness and honeymoon have worn off and it's a time where a lot of people leave their first legal job or leave the practice all together. You may not have found your practice area yet.

I have been litigating for about ten years. While it is called "work" for a reason, I enjoy it on the whole. I have reached the point where I have achieved considerable expertise in a few niche practice areas to the point where other lawyers call me for advice. I find that gratifying. I am at a firm on the medium/large border and really like the group of people that I work with. I do not think that BIGLAW would be a good place for me to be - I do not see a lot of happy people there. I have been told I am a bit "off" in that I enjoy taking depositions. I spent all day today deposing the exposing party's expert and had a very good time of it. YMMV.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:17 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Happy lawyers...I know a whole bunch and every one of them has something in common...a relationship with another real person that they value and will and do put above their work. Not that we don't love the law but the law is still not a real live person who can love back. After years as an attorney, I still love the challenge but I left biglaw and the government gig quickly when it was a choice of going home to my family or staying till 1 in the morning. I am AV rated, made all the money I needed and have a quite lovely life.
posted by OhSusannah at 7:34 PM on July 18, 2013

I used to work for an immigration lawyer. The immigration lawyers I knew/met all seem to be pretty happy people. I also briefly worked with an adoption lawyer who also loved what she did.

The process may be arduous, but they get to help people's dreams come true. That's pretty cool.
posted by phunniemee at 7:51 PM on July 18, 2013

The happiest lawyers I know are truly passionate about what they are doing. This doesn't necessarily mean that they're helping the poor and downtrodden - but that they get real satisfaction from providing good service to all types of clients (law is a service industry, after all), or they like the intellectual stimulation of complex issues and legal arguments etc, or they like the rush of working night and day to get transactions through (as awful as that may sound to some, there is a real adrenaline kick).

I also reckon that they are really efficient and productive in all areas of their lives, so they can maximize their (all-too-short) non-working hours. By this I mean that they have the energy and motivation to fit in work, gym or some kind of exercise, other hobbies and social activities, family time and all the usual household chores, because they're just going/doing all the time. Whereas if you need your down time, ie your energy level only allows for work, the absolutely necessary chores, and *either* exercise *or* socializing, you'll tend to be unhappy.

Practice areas - I doubt that this can be generalized, because what will make *you* happy will depend on your personality. Things to think about (and this may also affect what employer type you'll like) - do you like talking to people? Reading long documents? Drafting deeds? Appearing in court? Do you like doing lots of different things (but probably at a lower level of complexity) or do you want to be an expert in a more specialized area (then you'll get more high level work, but probably only in that area)?

If you're unhappy, try to identify what about the job is making you unhappy. That will be more useful in helping you figure out what *you* might like to do than other people's anecdotes of what works for them. I'm happy to be a sounding board if you want to memail me (but can only provide an Australian perspective). Good luck!
posted by pianissimo at 7:54 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

in house at a bank. comp isn't great (relative to biglaw!), but very flexible and, well, bankers hours. with a spouse and kids that's a pretty good deal. and ya get to do fairly complex stuff while outsourcing doc prep etal to clients' attorneys.
posted by jpe at 7:54 PM on July 18, 2013

My ex is really happy as an appellate public defender, because he's deeply committed to the work morally and politically, but also because he works for a state agency (this is in Illinois) that allows him to keep reliably regular hours. So he gets job satisfaction and a good work/life balance.
posted by scody at 8:09 PM on July 18, 2013

The happiest lawyers I know are ones who had reasonable expectations of the profession when they went in to it and chose paths that match their lifestyle needs. Among them are lawyers who spent too much on their legal educations and will likely never pay off that debt, as well as lawyers who knew better than to go to any law school that wasn't covering a substantial part of the cost.

I know happy partner-track big law lawyers; happy career government lawyers; happy crusading public interest do-gooders; happy academics; happy career clerks; happy running-their-own-small-firm lawyers. Even happy lawyers, who--like me--kept fucking up their career choices and did not manage to find a good fit in the profession until they were too old to have a brilliant career but nonetheless enjoy the work they ended up with without quite leaving the profession.

All of them, as noted above, have lives outside their jobs and have relationships that give meaning to those lives.

I know miserable lawyers in all those positions, too. They are ones with shitty, angry, petty bosses. They are ones in practice areas or law firms with business practices that honestly conflict with their moral compass. They are ones who do not have healthy home lives, or who are so trapped by the economics of their debt-income ratio that they cannot leave unhealthy work relationships. They are ones who thought being lawyers would be like the movies said or like being back in their favorite easy-A political science undergrad class. They are often ones who had never had a real professional job before going into law school and did not realize that all jobs have drudgery, even the ones that are exactly what you wanted.

The miserable lawyers I know who became happy lawyers had to work really hard and be a little more miserable for a little while before figuring out how to become happy lawyers. Some had to take on onerous pro bono schedules to figure out what practice areas suited them. Some had to network their asses off to earn a favor to get recommended for an opportunity. Some had to sit down with career counselors. Some had to sacrifice partner track to nurture a relationship, a hobby, or a pro bono commitment that wasn't earning career points at work. Some had to come to terms with skewed expectations of their career. Having good friends, strong family or a supportive partner helps with all this.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:17 PM on July 18, 2013 [6 favorites]

Not an attorney but have tons of lawyer friends.

The tax and patent attorneys I know are "happiest" in that they have fairly stable, fairly boring work that nonetheless will last forever even if there are occasional spikes of ridiculous hours. The prosecutors and public defenders that really enjoy their work also tend to have embraced the "mission" mindset, like "I am helping clear the streets of evil"/"I am protecting the innocent against the crushing power of the state."

The guys and girls in family law tend to be absolutely miserable because you go into that field thinking you're going to be saving children from abusive parents or whatever and it turns out both parents are terrible and the foster family is also terrible and there is no good option. Or you wind up working the endless stream of divorces where both people are terrible and drag it out for years out of spite.

Anyone in biglaw is pretty much miserable because the brass ring of partnership and big compensation is outweighed by the fact that you will not have a life outside the firm, ever, because in the current crunch you are totally totally replacable, so they will grind you into grist and you can't jump ship because student loans.

More miserable are the special snowflakes who went to law school to be an International Law Panda That Drafts Legislation At The UN because there are like five of those jobs and they can hire way more qualified people than you.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:18 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd say the answer of 'the ones with the most realistic expectations'' is a pretty good generalized answer. I know happy and unhappy lawyers of all stripes. A lot of it is determining the 3 or so things that are most important to you. For me it's intellectually challenging work, autonomy, and a somewhat flexible schedule. For others it's money, prestige, and money. It's possible your 3 things don't exist together inside the practice of law. For example, as a first year attorney it's nearly impossible to combine biglaw money with reasonable hours and autonomy.

I've also found happy lawyers to be the ones that set boundaries and do things like take vacations. If you block off a week and put yourself out of cell service, the peace of mind is going to be worth any grief you may get at the office, so long as you set expectations appropriately. "Alaska. No service. See you in a week. John knows what is happening with my files."
posted by craven_morhead at 8:53 PM on July 18, 2013

While there are many types of unhappy lawyers, there are three basic types of happy lawyers:

1. The ones who went into law for reasons other than money (public defenders, prosecutors, legal services, etc.)

2. The ones who went into law for money and are making bank.

3. Non-practicing lawyers.
posted by Gringos Without Borders at 3:10 AM on July 19, 2013

I work in a large hospital with a good size legal department. They all seem happy and seem to enjoy their jobs which range from real estate, malpractice, contracts etc. The pay is certainly less than a law firm, but the hours are more like typical business hours allowing them to have outside lives. I don't think there are insane deadlines for the most part either (for major trial type things we employ a major law firm). One has triplets and one has twins, so I think it attracts women who would like a balance in life.
posted by maxg94 at 5:02 AM on July 19, 2013

I'm not a lawyer, but I know a ton of them.

Most of the happy lawyers I know are the ones I work with in Corporate America. I am sure the work is mind numbing, reading and writing contracts. But they have a good salary and benefits and they have regular hours. The work isn't terribly vital, it's not all that challenging, but it can be interesting, or at least easy. Plenty of time to enjoy their families, and to have outside interests.

It really depends on how you see your life. Do you want to be a lawyer because you have a passion for the law, or do you just want to use that skill-set in your work, and to build your life around something other than your work.

I think at around 30 people make that career decision. Am I going to go for the CEO thing, or am I going to settle here in middle management? Or, Am I going to go for Partner or is it time to get out of Biglaw and get a life? Once you settle on what it is you want from being a lawyer, the rest of the decisions are easy.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:08 AM on July 19, 2013

While I agree with crush-onastick in general, the work-life balance in private practice (not just biglaw necessarily, though that's certainly the worst of it) is so bad right now that it skews things in favor of other work environments. So my non-scientific rankings would be as follows:

First place goes to permanent law clerks. Second place goes to other lawyers who work for the government (ADAs, public defenders, lawyers at federal agencies AUSAs, etc.). Following in a very close third place are lawyers who work for nonprofits, including clinical professors.

Because #1 and #3 are in especially short supply at the moment, I would start with #2 if I were in your position right now. Which I very well may be in a few years.
posted by Carmelita Spats at 6:50 AM on July 19, 2013

the happiest in terms of work life balance I've known are in house counsel types, but those jobs are really hard to get. They're often much more low key than the big firms.

The happiest in terms of "dammit, this is what I was born to do" are the public interest lawyers. They are all SO MUCH HAPPIER than they were at firms. I'm proud I know them.
posted by sweetkid at 8:01 AM on July 19, 2013

I'm a government lawyer, and I'm reasonably happy. The work isn't fascinating, but it makes a difference in peoples' lives, and I make as much money as I need to live the life-style I want. (Though, of course, still far less than BigLaw). The work environment is also very laid-back, and the hours are tremendously flexible - I can work my 8.5-hour day any time in a 12-hour period, and I work from home two days a week. Friends joke that I really should become a dad, because I already have the perfect job for it.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 9:00 AM on July 19, 2013

Until the current sequester, which threatens to destroy my office, I was pretty much the happiest lawyer I knew. I was an appellate federal public defender for several years and recently switched to trial work. I know an uncommon number of happy federal public defenders. Here are the factors that I think may be at work: not having to bill, meaningful work, interesting cutting-edge making law type work, not being someone's briefcase carrier, the understanding that you have a life outside of work, colleagues who are not trying to crush your head as they step over you to make partner. It was a great ride while it lasted.
posted by *s at 10:03 AM on July 19, 2013

I know some government agency lawyers who seem very happy. They make high five or low six figures and work 40 hour weeks. They enforce their agency laws and regulations but rarely if ever go to court. It's a tradeoff for them - fewer hours for less (but still good) money.
posted by cnc at 10:50 AM on July 19, 2013

My happiest lawyer friend is a litigator who just finds the entire process amusing. He's very dedicated, but he loves interacting with all sorts of different people. He works for a medium sized firm and is "of counsel" since he specifically told them he didn't want the pressure of being made a partner.

Other happy lawyers I know:

-Friend who works as a corporate attorney. The corporation pays very well and they have very flexible hours and he can work from home most days.

-Friend who works for a BigLaw firm as their head counsel of pro-bono. She gets the BigLaw pay, but gets to help needy people.

-Friend who heads a non-profit. Pay is low, but she loves her work.
posted by parakeetdog at 12:25 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older Is that an autograph?   |   School me on RSS. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.