I joined RSG consulting recently, a research and consulting company for management in law industries, and I talked with Reena SenGupta, the founder and director, about the blue side of being a lawyer. According to her article in Financial Times (FT), a partner at a top U.K. or U.S. lawfirm earns on average more than 500,000 pounds ($940,000). Newly qualified solicitors can earn as much as 50,000 pounds in their early 20s. Despite such lucrative prospects, cumulative research over the past 10 years indicates that lawyers are among professionals most likely to suffer from stress, depression, and alcohol abuse. These facts leave one with an interesting but important puzzle: if status, reputation, material rewards, and brighten prospects cannot offer happiness, what would?
“It is pretty hard to tell what does bring happiness; poverty and wealth have both failed.”
Why Does Money Not Help
According to Myers‘ study in 2000, increases in national income do not lead to an increase in national-level subjective well-being in wealthy nations (U.S. in his study). This suggests that wealth might matter more in deprived places where even basic physical needs are challenged. In wealthier places where these basic needs are satisfied, increased wealth would no longer lead to increasing power and make one better off than his/her neighbor. As a result, people tend to look for metrics other than money to reach satisfaction. According to social comparison theory, I determine my level of happiness based on how different my situation is from my friends and close acquaintances. This might also explain the case of unhappiness in U.K. and U.S. lawyers. When lawyers compare themselves with others from similar backgrounds, they do not differ much in terms of their wealth, glamour, or prestige. Hence they depend on other higher-level attributes for deriving happiness.
What Makes Lawyers Blue?
Based on SenGupta’s article in FT, I propose one main organizational factor that may lead to lawyers’ unhappiness – lack of control.
SenGupta said in FT, “…many lawyers experience less job satisfaction through a loss of control both at the partner and associate levels….” Under the tense competition in the industry, law firms tend to shift their objectives from providing quality service to surviving in the industry. With increasingly harsh billing targets, both partners and associates are required to do jobs with no choices in order to meet these targets. Associates are even given minor responsibilities that deviate from practicing law, which is often a source of stress and depression.
Moreover, when lawyers are busy striving to expand their business, they may gradually neglect their personal, true meaning in their work. Peter Warr once proposed that work itself can be an opportunity to fulfill our drives for curiosity and skills development as well as a sense of identity and purpose; work itself could be a source of happiness and satisfaction. However, this may be hard to find in law.
Autonomy, Meaning of Work, and Happiness
An employee’s control over work, or job autonomy, can be defined as “the degree to which the job provides substantial freedom, independence, and discretion to the employee in scheduling the work and in determining the process to be used in carrying it out” (Hackman & Oldham, 1980, p.79). In line with Hackman and Oldham, both researchers and practitioners recognized the significance of autonomy as the central characteristic of work that shapes workers’ attitudes, motivation, behavior, and happiness. For example, Peterson, Maier, and Seligman (1975) argued more than 30 years ago that loss in control at work reduces one’s ability to cope with stressors, decreases overall activity and problem-solving attempts, and results in learned helplessness and negative well-being.
According to Dr. Larry Richard of Hildebrandt, lawyers are perceived to be characterized by high levels of autonomy, skepticism, and urgency among college-educated individuals, which is not actually the case. With this discrepancy between ideal and reality, it is therefore not surprising that lawyers are still dissatisfied with their work even with great material rewards and high social status.
In order to increase lawyers’ satisfaction and happiness, it would be important to make organizational changes that would offer lawyers the change to achieve a sense of autonomy and meaning. Lawyers should have considerable autonomy or decisional discretion about how to fulfill their work functions, rather than being constrained by detailed directives. With this sense of autonomy, it is believed that lawyers would be satisfied and feel happy about their work.
Moreover, lawyers themselves can make some changes. Lawyers can learn to appreciate and find meanings in their work. When lawyers are carrying out their responsibilities, it is often better for them not to think solely about meeting billing targets, but also about their original missions and beliefs in choosing law. This would help lawyers realize the opportunities for advancement, achievement, recognition and fulfillment in their work. Only with the sense that one is contributing and bringing his/her skills into full play one would experience genuine happiness.
Lastly, as Robert Foster Bennett once said, “A desire to be in charge of our own lives, a need for control, is born in each of us. It is essential to our mental health, and our success, that we take control.” Should this be seen as a call for control and autonomy at workplace, and also for achieving happy and meaningful life?
- To learn more about the challenges faced by 21st century law firms as well as their governance, management, strategy, the following recent publication would be strongly recommended: Managing the Modern Law Firm: New Challenges, New Perspectives edited by Professor Laura Empson.
- To learn more about happiness and meaning at workplace, exploring why some people at work are happier or unhappier than others, another recent publication would be highly recommended: authored by Professor Peter Warr.
Empson, L. (2007). Managing the Modern Law Firm: New Challenges, New Perspectives. Oxford University Press.
Hackman, J. R., & Oldham, G. R. (1980). Work Redesign (Organization Development). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Mayer, J. D., Caruso, D. & Salovey, P. (2000). Selecting a measure of emotional intelligence: The case for ability scales. In R. Bar-On & J. D. A. Parker (Eds.), The Handbook of Emotional Intelligence : Theory, Development, Assessment, and Application at Home, School and in the Workplace (pp. 320-342). New York: Jossey-Bass.
Myers, D. (1993). The Pursuit of Happiness: Discovering the Pathway to Fulfillment, Well-Being, and Enduring Personal Joy. New York: Harper Paperbacks.
Peterson, C., Maier, S. & Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control. New York: Freeman.
Warr, P. (1999). Well-being and the workplace. In E. Kahneman, E. Diener and N. Schwartz (eds), Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (pp.393-412). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Warr, P. (2007). Work, Happiness, and Unhappiness. Lawrence Erlbaum.
H. Lowndes Maury, Lawyer, Butte, MT courtesy of Butte-Silver Bow Public Library