How to develop a generation of happier lawyers

We have heard much recently of the economic storm clouds that have brought with them layoffs, rescinded offers and even bankruptcy. It makes one wonder — is anyone hiring now?

The answer is yes. In fact, the vast majority of current law students will get jobs within six months of graduation.

But the years of over-exuberance and ever-increasing starting salaries are at an end. Over the past 10 years, first-year associate salaries at the largest firms rose from $90,000 to an untenable $160,000. And while salaries are expected to remain constant this year, we can expect fewer law students to land these coveted positions.

But this is not necessarily bad news. There could be a silver lining to the bursting of this salary bubble.  

For too long now, law students have fallen into the trap of accepting the highest-paying jobs at the most prestigious law firms, regardless of whether it would lead to true happiness and career satisfaction.

Studies make it clear that higher salaries do not lead to happiness. Gross National Happiness, a book by Arthur Brooks, cites a study that found that even though the average American salary increased from $25,000 in 1972 (adjusted for inflation) to $38,000 in 2004, the percent of people who said they were “very happy” only increased by one percent.

Brooks points out that most people fool themselves into thinking they need higher salaries, and so they choose jobs that pay more, but have nothing to do with their passions.

“That’s the tragedy of materialism,” Brooks has said. “It holds us back from our most creative nature — to create value, to serve others.”

And this is exactly what has happened to so many law school graduates in recent years. They have pursued the higher salary assuming it would place them on the fast track to happiness.

This is not to say that every lawyer at the nation’s highest paying firms is pursuing the almighty dollar at the expense of their own happiness. There are many attorneys who are excited and inspired by the work they perform at the big firms.

But for every success story, there are three or four stories about the law grad who pursued a practice area or employer because of salary, security or prestige.  As a result, in two to five years, these once promising, bright defenders of justice burned out of the law firm world, many leaving law altogether. Unhappiness abounded and “attrition” became the buzzword and Achilles heel of the industry.

There is a parable that explains this:

A law dean visited three young alumni at a major law firm. He first met with a recent graduate who said he was unhappy and hoped to leave the legal profession soon.

“What are you doing?” the dean asked.

“They have me doing depositions and mind-numbing research for this mammoth case that won’t end,” the disgruntled associate said.

He then met with the second young associate, who was also unhappy but willing to stick it out a few more years. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“I am earning $160,000 a year to pay off my loans,” he replied.

Finally, he met with the third alum who was happy in his job and profession. “What are you doing?,” he asked.

“I am helping to free an innocent man who has been falsely imprisoned for the past ten years. And I am getting paid $120,000 a year to do this, and am learning valuable experience in depositions and research.”

Happiness is not found in the fleeting things that economic storm clouds can blow to and fro with ease. It is found in service to others, work driven by passion and vision, and a balanced life where meaningful relationships are nurtured with time.

Now that the blinding power of over-exuberance has dimmed, law schools have the opportunity to focus their best and brightest graduates on where they will truly find long-lasting fulfillment. This in turn will lead to a generation of happier lawyers, and a greater commitment to making the world a better place.

The good news is that the new generation of law students is already more inclined to pursue a life focused more on service to others. We call them Generation Generosity, and we are committed to providing this new generation with the types of stories that will help educate and inspire them to pursue their dreams.

We have upcoming stories on the best law firms for pro bono, how much you really need to earn, and the law schools that best represent Generation G, to name a few.

Whether you are a law student, faculty member or administrator, we invite you to join us in our mission and to share your thoughts and ideas.


By Jack Crittenden, Editor-in-Chief