Money Can’t Buy (Lawyers) Happiness

Everyone has heard the expression “money can’t buy you happiness” before. Evidently, when it comes to being a lawyer, there’s more than a shred of truth to that saying.

In a recent article published by the New York Times, “Lawyers With Lowest Pay Report More Happiness,” it was shown that lawyers and law students alike are focused on the wrong reward– money…at least if they want to be happy.

Of the nearly 6,200 lawyers studied, the research found nearly no correlation between high-income, parter-track type roles and health and happiness. The opposite was true for lower-paid, public service type jobs (i.e. public defenders). Not only was there a correlation, but a positive one. For those that have a working knowledge of our profession, this may not come as a huge surprise. From what I can tell, big firm jobs are often high stress, uber demanding, and very competitive. That’s hardly a formula for happiness by anyone’s measure, including the New York Times’. But I think there’s a more fundamental problem, one which the article touches upon. It can be stated in two ways. The New York Times couches it as becoming disillusioned as an associate at a private firm. I think too many people go to law school for the wrong reasons. Either way, there’s some common ground.

My law school was filled with people who could not even tell you why they went to law school; and if they did, it was a knee-jerk, well-rehearsed “I want to become a litigator.” I understand the former; I’ll never understand the latter. A “litigator” is what, exactly? It’s not quite a trial lawyer, hardly ever an appellate attorney, but it’s somewhere near both. Perhaps in theory, but in practice, it’s a research, writing, drafting, re-drafting, re-drafting, re-drafting machine that lives on the fringe of civil litigation.

Law school is three years of rigorous schooling, and that’s just if you’re trying to make it through, let alone the top grades. Law school can also cripple you with student loan debt just to complete it. With high stress, long hours, and (for most) high debt, it’s not hard to see why happiness is elusive. Imagine if you also suffered from a gross misconception about what “life as a litigation associate” will be like. (To this point, I think most law schools are to blame. They over promote undesirable positions to people who, for the most part, have yet to figure out what they love about the law.)

I know I’m fortunate to be a lawyer. What’s more? Not only am I happy, but I am excited each and every day to go to work. And it seems like all of my former colleagues at the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office felt similarly. So perhaps the New York Times is on to something. Sure, we had stress, long hours, and (for most) high debt, but happiness was prevalent–money was not.

Now that I run my own practice, I suppose time will tell whether my (hopefully) increased earnings will have an impact on my happiness. But in the end, I didn’t become a lawyer to become wealthy, so if I do, it’s a bonus (pun intended). I became a criminal defense lawyer for a lot of reasons: I have a problem with authority, love intellectual battles, thrive under pressure, live for competition, and derive great joy from fighting for my clients. But truly, it’s because deep down inside I knew that fighting for justice breeds happiness, even though it often comes with a side-dish of disappointment (in terms of results).

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