What Makes Lawyers Happy?: A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success

74 Pages Posted: 22 Feb 2014 Last revised: 13 May 2015

See all articles by Lawrence S. Krieger

Lawrence S. Krieger

Florida State University College of Law

Kennon M. Sheldon

University of Missouri at Columbia - Department of Psychological Sciences

Date Written: May 12, 2015


This is the first theory-guided empirical research seeking to identify the correlates and contributors to the well-being and life satisfaction of lawyers. Data from several thousand lawyers in four states provide insights about diverse factors from law school and one's legal career and personal life. Striking patterns appear repeatedly in the data and raise serious questions about the common priorities on law school campuses and among lawyers. External factors, which are often given the most attention and concern among law students and lawyers (factors oriented towards money and status — such as earnings, partnership in a law firm, law school debt, class rank, law review membership, and U.S. News & World Report's law school rankings), showed nil to small associations with lawyer well-being. Conversely, the kinds of internal and psychological factors shown in previous research to erode in law school appear in these data to be the most important contributors to lawyers’ happiness and satisfaction. These factors constitute the first two of five tiers of well-being factors identified in the data, followed by choices regarding family and personal life. The external money and status factors constitute the fourth tier, and demographic differences were least important.

Data on lawyers in different practice types and settings demonstrate the applied importance of the contrasting internal and external factors. Attorneys in large firms and other prestigious positions were not as happy as public service attorneys, despite the far better grades and pay of the former group; and junior partners in law firms were no happier than senior associates, despite the greatly enhanced pay and status of the partners. Overall, the data also demonstrate that lawyers are very much like other people, notwithstanding their specialized cognitive training and the common perception that lawyers are different from others in fundamental ways.

Additional measures raised concerns. Subjects did not broadly agree that the behavior of judges and lawyers is professional, or that the legal process reaches fair outcomes; and subjects reported quite unrealistic earnings expectations for their careers when they entered law school. Implications for improving lawyer performance and professionalism, and recommendations for law teachers and legal employers, are drawn from the data.

Suggested Citation

Krieger, Lawrence S. and Sheldon, Kennon M., What Makes Lawyers Happy?: A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success (May 12, 2015). 83 George Washington Law Review 554 (2015); FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 667. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2398989 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2398989

Lawrence S. Krieger (Contact Author)

Florida State University College of Law ( email )

425 W. Jefferson Street
Tallahassee, FL 32306
United States
850-644-7262 (Phone)
850-644-5487 (Fax)

Kennon M. Sheldon

University of Missouri at Columbia - Department of Psychological Sciences ( email )

112 McAlester
Columbia, MO 65211
United States

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