Key elements of lawyers’ professional & personal satisfaction (i.e., happiness) identified

OWL FACE FreeGeorge Washington Law Review has published “the first theory-guided empirical research seeking to identify the correlates and contributors to the well-being and life satisfaction of lawyers.” A New York Times blog boiled it down: “Lawyers With Lowest Pay Report More Happiness.”

In short, a lot of lawyers were surveyed in a scientific way. The ones with the prestigious jobs and the high incomes reported lower senses of well-being and satisfaction than less “successful” peers in public service roles. Outrageously, making law review was reported to have ZERO correlation with happiness in later life.

Three elements in professional life were most closely identified with life-satisfaction. They are a sense of competence, a sense of autonomy and a sense of connectedness to others. The study says that for many lawyers (most, I suppose), careers in larger law firms do not deliver these.

Competence, autonomy and connectedness, are the pillars of Self-Determination Theory, a field of study among psychologists for more than 40 years. This new study is the first to test lawyers as a group. Turns out, lawyers test the same as everybody else. They are happiest in settings where they experience competence, autonomy and connectedness. (Disappointingly, we are no different from “non-lawyers.”)

The three factors themselves are worth attention. Notice how they line up with (i) the core principles of legal ethics, (ii) commonly encountered values of many law firms, (iii) often-identified 21st Century social skills, (iv) the capabilities of 21st Century technology, (v) attributes of Millennials in the workplace, and – mirabile dictu – (vi) observations that might be made about North Carolina lawyers practicing in the 19th Century.

This causes me to hold up these elements as “design principles” for next-generation law firms. That is, they might be taken as elements to be fostered in the law firms we will need in the aftermath of the Great Unbundling of legal services now under way. They also suggest directions for thinking about lawyer retirements.

In future posts perhaps, I will pound out the correspondences between the elements of self-determination, and key aspects of the new professional and social culture that is struggling to be born.

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