Home All Glamour, Prestige, Money: Why Are Lawyers Still Unhappy?

Glamour, Prestige, Money: Why Are Lawyers Still Unhappy?

written by Timothy T.C. So 27 December 2007

Timothy So, Msc, es candidato al Doctorado de Psicología en el Departamento de Psiquiatría de la Universidad de Cambridge. Es Investigador Asociado del Cambridge University's Well-being Institute y Psicólogo Ocupacional. Timothy también es responsable de los sitios del PPND tanto en chino tradicional como en el simplificado. Biografía completa.

Sus artículos anteriores en inglés están aquí. Y también puedes encontrar sus otros artículos traducidos al español aquí.

“It is pretty hard to tell what does bring happiness; poverty and wealth have both failed.”
Kin Hubbard

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?

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?



Further Reading:

  • 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

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Editor S.M. 30 December 2007 - 12:30 am

From TIMOTHY SO to the readers:

It’s now Christmas, an occasion for us to share our love sincerely. Here, I would particularly like to thank my family especially my parents who loved and blessed me unconditionally no matter where I am and what I do. I also wish my gratitude to reach my teachers and fellows from SJA, from CUHK and from Aston who have made remarkable notes on my development. Lastly, to all my friends and people who love me – it is hard to express my appreciations in words but it will always be in my heart. THANK YOU! Wish you all Merry Christmas and a happy and fruitful year in 2008.

Kathryn Britton 31 December 2007 - 9:50 am


A friend of mine who was working for a big law firm once told me that he had lots and lots of money — but no time to spend it. So maybe money without leisure brings little happiness.

And probably money with too much leisure has its own problems of lack of structure and meaning.

Do you think perhaps we have ideas of money that are too one-dimensional?


Timothy 2 January 2008 - 8:40 am

Kathryn –

Thanks for your sharing!

Many of us often forget one basic concept in Economics that money is a tool of exchange in society, and it means nothing without being used. Some of us involve ourselves in the game of pursuing money, seeing mounting up money as a goal or a kind of achievement.

I think you are very right that money with too much leisure could be just worse as money without leisure โ€“ lacking goals and meanings in life would be miserable. This fits perfectly with one of Chinese wisdom teachings on ???? (the doctrine of the mean), which is to strike for balance on everything and avoid being extreme. If one spends his/her life blindly runs after money but got no time to spend, he/she would be wretched, as what Shakespeare wrote in his play “Measure for Measure”, “If thou art rich, thou’rt poor; for, like an ass whose back with ingots bows, thou bear’s thy heavy riches but a journey, and death unloads thee”. I really look forward to seeing more positive psychology research on the topic of spending money and happiness. It is more than interesting but very meaningful to every one of us.

Once again, thanks for your feedback and comments. Have a happy and fruitful new year!!

Ps. Kathryn, your article about giving gifts is great, all of us (all translators of the Chinese site) love your piece. It comes just in time in the festive seasons of Xmas and New Year, and offers us guidance and wider concerns on sending present to our beloved ones, thank you!

Kathryn Britton 2 January 2008 - 12:19 pm


Just to play dueling quotations, here’s one of my favorites on the subject:

True riches mean not revenues;
Care clings to wealth; the thirst for more
Grows as our fortunes grow. I stretch my store
by narrowing my wants.

We are not poor
While naught we seek. Happiest to whom
high heaven
Enough–no more–with sparing hand
Has given.

Horace, Ode 3.16
Translated by Stephen Edward de Vere

Thank you for the gift of your comment about my Giving Gifts article.

Write again soon.


Timothy 4 January 2008 - 5:23 am

Kathryn –

Thanks! Yours is just lovely! I remember another quote from my dad when I was really young (I forgot its source), is like ‘the real measure of your wealth is how much you’d be worth if you lost all your money.’

This always pops up in my mind, reminding me to pursue my dream which is to do something meaningful rather than solely for money ๐Ÿ™‚

Look forward to your next article!



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