September 20, 2018

Are Lawyers Unhappy? (Part 4)

rhodesEditor’s note: This is Part 4 of a series. For Part 1, click here; for Part 2, click here; and for Part 3, click here.

Formal research and media features have tried to identify just who’s happy in the law and who’s not. Some findings are more credible and useful than others. For example, if you graduated from the University of Virginia Law School in 1987, there’s an 81% probability you were happy in the law twenty years later. Good for UV graduates, but what about the rest of us?

Lawyers in solo and small firm practice consistently rank among the happiest, as do those who work for non-profits or in government. Lawyers over 50 are also generally sanguine, and so are most women lawyers, although the latter also leave law firms at twice the rate of their male colleagues. Racial minorities are among the happiest lawyers of all – that is, unless they’re female mid-level associates in large firms.

Speaking of large firms, both formal research and anecdotal observation agree that’s where lawyers are unhappiest, especially those new to the practice. One source estimated turnover among all large firm associates at 20% in any given year, and another found that 37% of new hires leave in the first three years. These percentages are even higher for associates who went to top-tier law schools – the kinds of graduates large firms like to hire.

Early career disillusionment seems unavoidable, since it can take awhile to find a practice area and setting that work for you. Maybe so, but that’s still a lot of turnover. It’s not suprising that one attorney and law professor declared, in a book darkly entitled The Destruction of Young Lawyers,  that “Lawyers are pathologically unhappy.”

My personal observation is that large firms don’t have a corner on new lawyer disillusionment. In my firm, I told associates that their phones would start ringing with inquiries from headhunters in their third year. They were surprised when it happened. I wasn’t clairvoyant, it’s just that I’d gotten those calls myself.

Conventional wisdom puts the dollar cost of all that turnover at 1.5 – 2.0 times annual salary, but one commentator called this an “overly conservative” estimate “because the pool of candidates is more limited, the requirements for relative expertise is higher, and the possibility of damage to or loss of client relationships is very real.”

Beyond the dollar costs, what about the costs that defy conventional metrics – e.g., the human cost when that many of our best and brightest are miserable? That’s where the focus turns from the global to the individual. Happiness is worth celebrating wherever we find it, but that doesn’t help much if you’re in one of the supposedly happy categories and you’re not feeling so cheery yourself.

To be continued…

After 20+ years in private practice, Kevin Rhodes recently gave himself the title “Change Guru” to describe his work helping individuals and organizations to make transformative changes. He leads lead workshops on that topic for a variety of audiences, including the CBA’s Job Search and Career Transitions Support Group. Check out his website at

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  1. Hey Kevin, I was thinking about change in the context of law practice – in a state of major flux by just about any measure. I read an article in the ABA Journal about biglaw and its impending shrinkage as foretold by commentators. Do we see a trend here? Who is responsible for the human cost of misery? It seems like the folks who have the most education ought to be better equipped than many others at figuring out when to change horses or make certain life adjustments. But you know what they say about common sense. . . .

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