Associate Salaries, Biglaw, Law Professors, Money

Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness — At Least It Didn’t In 2007

You mean this groundbreaking Newtonian equation might be wrong?

One of the things I’ve learned in my time here at Above the Law is that most people are desperate to justify the decisions they’ve made, even if you can logically show them that they made the wrong call. People who go to terrible law schools argue endlessly that either their law school isn’t so terrible, or that they personally made a good call to go to a terrible school. People who are willing to take a massive pay cut to get the hell out of a soul-destroying Biglaw firm will still tell you that they “really valued” their time there. Obama voters look the other way while the “progressive” president allows robots to indiscriminately rain down death from the sky. Republicans act like they’re just supporting the “conservative fiscal policies” of the nutjob racists and homophobes they vote for.

Everybody wants to feel like every decision they made was the “right” one in some way. People like me who are willing to publicly admit that they’ve made some freaking awful decisions that haunt them to this day (like defaulting on my debts) are rare.

I don’t think we needed a whole study to make that point. I certainly don’t think we learn a lot by asking lawyers — generally employed lawyers — if they are “happy” with their decision to go to law school. What are they going to say? “Dear God, no. I hate my life. Please help me.”

But some law professors did ask that question, and SURPRISE, it turns out that going to an “elite” law school doesn’t automatically make you happier with your career decisions than going to a slightly less elite law school. Wow. In other super shocking news, marrying the hottest stripper in the club doesn’t make your marriage significantly more stable than marrying the second hottest stripper in the club….

The study was conducted by Bryant Garth from UC-Irvine Law, Joyce Sterling from the Strum College of Law in Denver, and sociology professor Ronit Dinovitzer from the University of Toronto. The study tracked 4,500 people who graduated law school in 2000 and asked them, in 2007, if they thought that law school was a good investment and whether they would go to law school again.

Let me repeat that in case you missed it: these people asked class of 2000 graduates if law school seemed like a good idea in 2007. Why don’t we go ask people who bought stocks in 1919 if they were happy being in the stock market in 1928? Jesus.

The professors say that they’ve also asked those people what they thought about their legal careers in 2012, but the results have not yet been processed. I’ll note that they could have just waited to publish their study until they had this relatively crucial data. But you know what, I’ll stipulate right now for the internet record that 2000 graduates will also think favorably of their law degrees in 2012. Graduating in 2000 turned out to be a pretty good deal. You were able to get in before the 9/11 recession, when law school cost much less, and if you hung on, your salary and job security exploded by the middle of the decade. When the recession hit, you were probably senior enough and experienced enough to survive it. Congratulations on all your success.

Maybe in a decade and a half, these guys will give us some relevant information, like I don’t know, about how class of 2010 law graduates feel about their decision.

Anyway… here are their findings, as summarized by the ABA Journal:

The average satisfaction was indeed highest—at 11.08—for grads at top 10 schools. But the scores weren’t that much lower for grads of lower ranked schools. The average was 10.11 for grads of schools ranked 11 to 20 and 10.64 for grads of third-tier law schools.

Another question was “how satisfied are you with your decision to become a lawyer?” According to the 2007 data, those who were least enthusiastic had the highest level or remaining debt—more than $100,000. “But the overall trend is that more than three-quarters of respondents, irrespective of debt, express extreme or moderate satisfaction with the decision to become a lawyer,” the study says.

Based on these and other findings, the authors make this claim in their abstract:

Thus, in contrast to the dominant story, most respondents irrespective of debt are extremely or moderately satisfied with their decision to become a lawyer. There is no indication in our data that these law graduates feel they made a mistake by choosing to go to law school.

There’s no indication in any data that I’ve seen that suggests people who bought a home in 2005 with no money down and a rapidly inflating mortgage felt they made a mistake by 2006.

The question is silly and the data set is largely irrelevant, but here’s another problem: who in the hell thinks that going to an “elite” law school makes you inherently happier with your decision than going to a non-elite law school? Even I don’t think that. It’s kind of an obviously stupid thought.

Here’s something that happens to a lot of people who go to elite law schools: they end up working at “elite” law firms. And those “elite” jobs tend to be the worst jobs on the planet. That’s why they pay so much! Biglaw firms pay you a ton because they’re asking you to forgo things that traditionally make people happy, like “weekends” or “sleep.” It makes total sense that a person going to a non-elite school who gets a non-elite job is just as “happy,” if not more so, than the person who makes more money but hasn’t seen their kids in three weeks.

If there’s a relevant point here, it’s not that schools have little to do with lawyer happiness, it’s that the amount of money you make in your job doesn’t have a lot to do with lawyer happiness. And saying “money doesn’t buy happiness” is not “in contrast” to whatever “dominant story” the authors think they are countering. Leave it to a bunch of professors to conduct a study that proves a maxim.

But I bet having a job has a great big freaking impact on whether or not somebody is happy with their decision to go to law school. Show me that study! Show me the study that says “unemployed people are just as happy as with their decision to go to law school as people who have had thriving, seven-year careers in the law,” and I won’t even care if your study neatly cuts off before the Great Recession. That would be an interesting counter-narrative.

One final note, and I say this just because I know we have a lot of Millennials reading who maybe didn’t hear this a lot when they were growing up: just because you are “happy” with your decision doesn’t mean you made the “right” decision. Okay. Understand that those are two different questions. I’m really goddamn happy when I’m out late drinking with my friends. That doesn’t mean it’s a good decision to stay out late drinking with my friends — in fact, it’s almost always the “wrong” decision, and I’m happy in spite of its obvious and sometimes provable wrongness. There’s a great article on Grantland about Derek Jeter’s defense — lots of people like Jeter and he’s won Gold Gloves and his jump throw sure looks cool. But we can empirically prove that he is a bad defender. Good defenders can plant their feet and throw.

Happiness studies are interesting. There’s nothing wrong with trying to make yourself happy. Just remember that math is math, whether you like it or not.

Are lawyers from top schools a lot happier about their career choice? Statistically the answer is no
[ABA Journal]
Buyers’ Remorse? An Empirical Assessment of the Desirability of a Legal Career [SSRN]

Earlier: Unhappiest Job in America? Take a Guess

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