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A Shinier, Happier Biglaw?

The idea of “happiness” is the basis of an ever-growing body of research. In fact, while economists traditionally measure a nation’s prosperity by looking at GDP, there is a growing movement for them to consider a different measure, something akin to “Gross National Happiness.” One of the best-known efforts to move away from a reliance on GDP as a measure of national welfare is the UN’s Human Development Index, which amalgamates three metrics: lifespan, educational attainment, and adjusted real income. Then there are dozens of much more subjective surveys of national happiness, many of which find Costa Rica to be the happiest country in the world. Others say it’s Norway. (Then there is this preposterous “Happy Planet Index,” which ranks the U.S. at number 113, between Madagascar and Nigeria.)

Of course happiness research is performed in more narrowly targeted ways, such as examining specific professions. Earlier this year, Forbes reported on a “Career Bliss” survey of 65,000 employees that ranked “law firm associate” as the unhappiest job in America. (See Joe’s take on that survey here.)

This week, over at In the Belly of the Beast, Steven Harper is asking “Are Lawyers Becoming Happier?” Harper takes a look at two recent studies that suggest the answer is “yes.”

First, there is a forthcoming academic paper, Buyers’ Remorse? An Empirical Assessment of the Desirability of a Lawyer Career, which analyzes data from NALP’s After the JD project, tracking about 4,500 lawyers from the class of 2000. The paper’s authors conclude that “evidence of buyer’s remorse [over getting a legal degree] is thin at best.” To cast doubt on this conclusion, Harper needs only to point out the study’s fundamental defect: it does not incorporate any data after the prelapsarian year of 2007. Aside from that, should anyone contemplating a legal career today draw any conclusions based on the experience of the class of 2000? Some questions answer themselves.

Next, Harper looks at the release of the 2013 Am Law Midlevel Associate Survey, which reported record high levels of associate satisfaction. Harper’s interpretation of this finding sounds about right: “Many members of the youngest generation of lawyers (and would-be lawyers) are so concerned about finding jobs that they are now equating satisfaction with getting and keeping one long enough to repay their staggering student loans.” Furthermore, we would direct readers to that survey’s methodology and let them judge for themselves. If you like what you see, you can buy the full results for the low, low price of $750.00.

Of course, we here at ATL do a fair amount of survey research ourselves, some of which could be categorized as “happiness research.” Among other things, the ATL Insider Survey asks respondents from law firms to rate their employers in terms of five categories: compensation, firm morale, culture and colleagues, training, and hours. What do our survey results have to say about current trends in Biglaw happiness?

For context, here are the overall mean ratings, on a scale of 1 to 10, by law firm associates for each of the five categories (the ratings from September 2012 are in parentheses):

Compensation 7.53 (7.44)
Hours 7.20 (6.75)
Firm Morale: 7.21 (6.81)
Training: 7.13 (7.01)
Culture & Colleagues 8.02 (8.12)

So across every category except Culture and Colleagues, ratings are up compared to last year. It’s difficult to know whether the Biglaw environment is brightening or whether the simple fact of having a job these days acts as a set of rose-colored glasses. Two of these categories above are arguable near proxies for the concept of “happiness”: Morale and Culture. It is interesting to see the discrepancy between the two. Culture gets the highest marks, while morale is neck and neck with the Biglaw associate bête noire of “hours.” It’s as if associates are telling us that, while the climate is good, the weather’s not so great.

Our survey contains another “happiness” proxy. Law firm lawyers are asked a “time machine” hypothetical: “If you could go back and do it over again, would you still choose to work for your firm?” Despite all the angst of most online discussions about law firm life, a remarkable 84% of respondents said yes, they would make the same decision and re-join their current firm. This is up slightly from 12 months ago. Responses to this question were consistently positive across all practice areas:

Corporate: 84% “Yes”
Litigation: 85%
Labor & Employment: 79%
IP: 86%
Antitrust/Regulatory: 82%
Bankruptcy: 79%
Tax: 85%

If we look at the results of this question in terms of specific firms, we find that there are six firms (for which we have sufficient responses) with a remarkable 100% “Yes” rate. Not a single associate respondent tells us that she regrets the decision to go to work for these six firms (with a representative quote):


[A] strong work/life balance culture demonstrated by the fact that we all take our vacation each year, and parents, male and female, take their parental leave, can easily work from home, and having a life outside of work is valued by the firm.

Jenner & Block

Pro bono practice is at the heart and soul of the firm’s culture. The law is more than a business; it is also a noble profession where the priority should be to help clients–rich or poor–to achieve their goals.

Paul Weiss

I’m a lateral from another BigLaw firm — the type of work the firm does (clients/deals) and the culture matters more than I could ever imagine.

Patterson Belknap

Spectacular place to work. A hidden gem among law firms. The only place left where you can do top quality work while enjoying a decent life work balance.

Pillsbury Winthrop

It is still possible to build a practice and forge a career at a law firm. Pillsbury gives associates real opportunities to market to clients, develop expertise, and develop a sustainable practice. The firm is also extremely open about finances and decisions. Finally – the people at Pillsbury are fantastic.

Sidley Austin

A truly considerate and collegial culture means that sharp elbows are not appreciated.

Congratulations to these firms. They’re all doing something very right in a tough environment.

Finally, if you haven’t yet done so, please take a couple of minutes and take the ATL Insider Survey here.

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