What Do Lawyers Want?


Great question, right? How does that sound – Happy Lawyer?  

There are a lot of unhappy or marginally satisfied lawyers.  

It turns out that there is real scientific data pointing to what DOES make lawyers happy.  

And the data points to actionable steps to move from less than satisfied to satisfied. So if you are less than very satisfied, you are probably leaving some of the upside of your life on the table. 

It turns out that finding your upside is very doable and while it might require some very real change it doesn’t usually require stepping back from your current responsibilities or changing jobs.  


If you’re a lawyer, you probably know that many lawyers don’t recommend their career to their kids.  

Or you’ve asked lawyers what they “do”, meaning their specialty and they ironically reply “I help rich people get richer.”  

Or you can look to data, like Krill et al. [1] that established that there is a significantly problematic pattern of alcohol use by lawyers that is about twice that of the general population. And that about twice as many lawyers are at least mildly depressed compared to the general population.  Other data corroborates these findings as discussed in Krill et al. [1] or by Susan Daicoff [2].  

It’s surprising that a group of intelligent and generally accomplished professionals that have interesting work options would have less satisfaction and happiness relative to many other professions. 


For Once, You Know Who “They” Are 

Larry Krieger and Kennon Sheldon reported pioneering empirical research seeking to identify what 
correlates and contributes to the well-being and life satisfaction of lawyers [3]. They surveyed several thousand lawyers in four states and reported striking patterns that appeared repeatedly in the data. They explained why the data was statistically significant and reliable, and used treatments of the data that are well-accepted as being valid.  

Their approach is scientific and is “real” data. I am discussing their data and they are the “they” in this section. 

Nice to know who “they” are, for once.  

How did They Prove What They Proved AND Why Do I Want to Know How They Did It?  

Lawyers are trained skeptics so I want to make a couple of points about their process.  

The big takeaways are that if you are low in the x-factors they describe as being correlated to their measure of satisfied-and-feeling-good then you are likely to be low in satisfaction and feeling-good. And vice versa. That’s what the data shows. It’s qualitative data but it’s not fuzzy or ephemeral. It’s actionable.  

Conceptually, they put their survey on a scatter plot like this one in Fig. A: 

Fig. A is an example where there is plainly no correlation between whatever factor they are testing on the X-axis. Because no matter how much X the respondent has, it does not correlate to how much “Y” he or she has: the data is all over the place.  

The “satisfaction” and “well-being” are based on the respondents’ choices on a numerical scale. As they explain: “Although moods are experienced as transient, they have been found to persist over time in stable ways. Positive and negative affect are purely subjective, straightforward experiences of “feeling good” or “feeling bad” that many people would interpret as happiness or its opposite. Life satisfaction, on the other hand, includes a personal (subjective) evaluation of objective circumstances—such as one’s work, home, relationships, possessions, income, and leisure opportunities. The measure of life satisfaction employed in this study is validated by its use in previous social science research and is broader than the concept of career or job satisfaction often discussed regarding lawyers’ attitudes towards their work .” [3] at 563, citations omitted.  

Conceptually, the next thing you do is fit a line through the data to see if there is a correlation. I’ve seen my high school kids do this, so I know that even number-hating lawyers can do this.  

What I really want you to notice in Fig. B is that when there is a good fit, a low-x factor predicts a low y factor and vice versaIf you have a low “x” then we all know that you are likely to have a low level of well-being. We know this.  

Why did they add up “satisfaction” and “persistent mood”?  

One reason is that “Rather than addressing whether lawyers are happy, this study presents data pointing to which lawyers are more, and less, happy in the profession—and specifically why that appears to be true. This Article, then, is intended to provide practical guidance to lawyers, law students, and law teachers seeking to improve their own well-being or that of others—regardless of the level of well-being or ill-being in the profession as a whole.” [3] at 558, emphasis in original.  They make the point at 557-558 that there are OTHER studies that describe below than average well-being and mixed reports on job satisfaction for lawyers.  

Another reason is that “satisfaction” and “persistent mood” can “diverge for an individual—a person could often feel sad or “down” but also recognize her many positive life circumstances (job, family, finances, etc.); another whose life circumstances are impoverished could feel quite good.” [3] at 563, citations omitted. Secondly, they refer to studies in non-lawyer cohorts that validate this approach and they know what to look for; one question they had was whether predictors for other populations were applicable to lawyers.  [3] at 564-565. I eventually realized from other research that they were using well-known and tested research tools but were pioneering such approaches by carefully applying them to lawyers and diligently taking a whole-picture approach instead of just focusing on job satisfaction.  


Here are some key results, from Fig. 1, Krieger and Sheldon:  

The first thing that might jump out at you is that the top 5 factors have a correlation from “good” to “very strong”.  

Also bear in mind that if you have a low level of, e.g., “autonomy” then you are likely to have a low level of subjective well-being, and vice versa.  

It’s the internal stuff that matters, hands-down 

The lawyers with the most well-being were those that experienced high levels of autonomy-authenticity, relatedness, competence, internal motivation, and autonomy support. And the ones with the least well-being had low levels of the same. It turns out that’s also true for the general population and lawyers are not different in that way. Elsewhere, there is research on the lawyer personality that describes how lawyers are selected for, and trained for, traits that cut against various of these internal factors.  

Money talks, but it’s not a good predictor for well-being  

Income had only a weak correlation! Class rank at law school graduation barely correlated. And being on law reviewed had absolutely no correlation. We know from separate research that income is a pain point up to a certain level. Jebb et al. [4] is an example of a report on how much money talks to well-being; what I infer from Jebb et al. is that money is likely a factor for many lawyers, but Krieger and Sheldon are telling us it has only a small correlation to well-being in the profession.  

Judges “win”. “Service” beats “Prestige.”  

It’s surprising that the “service” lawyers were better off than the “prestige” lawyers. The overall “well-being” ranked lawyers by role from high to low as: judges, service, prestige, and “other.” [3] at 593. T 

Service” includes non-profit and “prestige” includes the usual suspects. Judges included hearing officers. They describe these categories at 588-589. “ 

So if you weren’t on law review and law school kicked your booty but you landed a decent service job, you probably “won” compared to your buddies that took that big-dollar role. 

And you should go to happy hour with your prestige buddies because they drink more than you, [3] at 593, and have the coin to buy you a round. Or give it up for a year – you might be surprised how awesome that is.  

In the meantime, ditch the idea of “winning” compared to other people: see Fig. 1.  

The “other category” scored lowest. Bear in mind that being in “other” is not what strongly predicted “well-being” because it’s the internal factors that were controlling. “Other” includes solo attorneys, and I know many that are quite happy. 

Looking deeper into some corners of the data, I infer that I am dead-on with my pithy advice to aspiring lawyers: “There are a lot of crappy law jobs in the world; don’t end up with one of those because it stinks to have to dig your way out.” If you have one of those, you still have choices and can get to a great place. It’s just that your path to get there is going to deviate from a cookie-cutter approach.  



Autonomy is the need to direct your own life and work. It includes having control over what you do, when you do it, who you do it with, and having choices. Authenticity is encompassed in autonomy, see [3] at 574. At its root, authenticity is being able to act consistently to express your best self and be consistent with your most important values.  

I wonder if that seems fluffy to you? 

I think we know what “control” means. What about “direct” your own life?  There are table-stakes criteria like integrity that we all share. And there are priorities in our life, like “family.” There are fears and habits of thinking. But what are your values that really underlie your decision-making and speak to what your unique personality deems critical? What values are predictive of your long-term satisfaction with decisions you make?  


Relatedness means relatedness to others. And a sense of belonging at work or home and connection with others. In the shelter-in-place days, most of us experienced that a lack of even a customary amount of human contact had surprising effects on our productivity, mood, or stress levels. 

Authenticity speaks to relatedness. The ability to make a real connection, at an appropriate level, is what makes you effective as a manger and is necessary if you are going to move from being a manger to a leader. We need trust to get real cooperation from anyone, it is the foundation of any teamwork or organization. See Brene Brown’s famous Ted Talk [5] for more insight.  


You have to be and feel competent at your job. And it surely helps your career! 

It’s interesting that Krieger and Sheldon reported “[A]lthough the ‘prestige’ lawyers had substantially higher law school grades than any other group, they reported significantly lower satisfaction of the competence need (p < .01) than the group with the lowest grades and pay, the ‘service’ lawyers. This suggests a core dissonance between ‘competence’ as measured in law school (largely by grade performance) and a lawyer’s ability to feel competent in actual law practice.”  

What this result suggests to me is that doing complex work can gnaw at your sense of competence because you can’t control what’s happening as fully as you wish, so getting rid of that gnawing feeling is helpful as you continue to dig in to master your subject area.  

Internal Motivation 

Krieger and Sheldon measured the extent to which motivation for work was internal (for interest, enjoyment, and meaning), rather than external (for money, status, or prestige, or imposed by others). Internal motivation is experienced as autonomous, originating within one’s self rather than externally. Interest, enjoyment, and meaning strongly correlated to well-being. 

Often, a deep dive into your core values can reveal where there is alignment between your work and what drives you. With that sharp clarity, you can often find your internal motivation or tweak how you serve clients to bring that to a more front and center position.  

Autonomy Support 

Having autonomy support means “the extent to which the person in authority (1) acknowledges the perspectives or preferences of the other; (2) provides meaningful choices to the other; and (3) when asserting control rather than providing choices, explains to the other the reasons why that is necessary.“ [4] at 582.  

The fact that this factor was so important highlights that “controlling supervisors who are not trained to be supportive will exert a number of avoidable negative effects on their employees and on organizational morale and efficiency.” [4] at 584. This factor is low-hanging fruit in a lot of work relationships and is often flagged as a problem by complaints of “micro-management.”  


Lawyers have challenges that many other professions simply don’t have to face. We have real deadlines and our work doesn’t just slide into next week. Clients are very demanding. We have a lot of conflict in our legal work and are often in a silo in our day-to-day practice. Lawyers tend to be skeptical about working on skills that don’t involve a strictly analytical approach. They are busy and need return on investment.  

The data is “in” and it’s “real.” We hear from a lot of lawyers that are feeling really stressed, busy, and feel like their clients and work are taking over their lives. Their work follows them home and interferes with enjoying life and investing in other things that are important to them. And they don’t even get to all their work priorities, like developing new business. The external stressors are real and they are not going away. A favorite in-house corporate counsel word is “overwhelm” because there are so many lurking problems and they simply can’t give them the attention that is needed. Occasionally waking up in the middle of the night thinking about a client matter is not unusual.  

It’s not your job that’s frustrating your life.  It’s not your clients. It’s you.  

If you’ve gotten this far in this article, you probably appreciate that optimizing your life to maximize your workplace productivity is going to fall short of getting to a place where you feel really great about who you are, what you are doing, and how you manage the other things that are important to you. There’s some irony here because investing in your happiness leads to bigger and more interesting professional results in your longer term.

There’s a lot of science and experience around well-being. Autonomy, Authenticity, Relatedness, Competence, and Internal Motivation are the results of thoughtful choices and well-being practices and are not so much something that you can work on directly.

And if you look into the science end of things you’ll discover that productivity is enhanced by moving away from stress-responses or forcing yourself to do things because the brain is wired to suppress certain higher cognitive functions under stress/force and promote them when it has some confidence it’s status or safety isn’t being threatened. And you can develop habits to keep yourself in the high-productivity condition.  

Some approaches will work for you, and some won’t. So nobody can tell you exactly what to do. But you can invest in continuously developing internal competencies that will increase your well-being and performance. And you can have consistent practices that help you influence the people around you so that everyone is better off. Go at your own pace.  

Of course we would love to hear from you. Reach out to us with your comments, experiences, or questions.  


[1] The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, Krill, Johnson, and Albert, J Addict Med 2016;10: 46–52. 

[2] Susan Daicoff. Lawyer, Know Thyself: A Review Of Empirical Research On Attorney Attributes Bearing on Professionalism, The American University Law Review (1997) 46:1337-1427, at 807.  

[3] Lawrence S. Krieger and Kennon M. Sheldon, What Makes Lawyers Happy? A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success, 83 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 554 (2015).

[4] Jebb, Andrew & Tay, Louis & Diener, Ed & Oishi, Shigehiro. (2018). Happiness, Income Satiation, and Turning Points Around the World. Nature Human Behavior. 2. 33–38. 10.1038/s41562-017-0277-0. 

[5] Brene Brown, TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability .

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