[WordPress has reminded me that it’s my blog’s anniversary! I set it up on June 9, 2012, and my first true post was on June 10th. It’s hard to believe that four years has gone by so fast. Happy Birthday, The Misfortune of Knowing! Okay, back to the post:]
In my comments on Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, I discussed Sugar’s graduation speech to a class of writers, a group tired of being told that “being an English major prepares you for law school.” Instead of that typical advice, she said:
You’re going to be all right. And  not because you majored in English or didn’t and not because you plan to apply to law school or don’t, but because all right is almost always where we eventually land, even if we fuck up entirely along the way. […]
You have to do what you have to do. There is absolutely nothing wrong with law school, but don’t go unless you want to be a lawyer.
That’s right: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with law school, but don’t go unless you want to be a lawyer.”
The conventional wisdom is that lawyers are a particularly unhappy group of people, even though satisfaction surveys actually indicate that many lawyers are pleased with their careers. However, some are not. Of the unhappy lawyers, how many are people who never really wanted to be lawyers in the first place? How many had an unrealistic impression of what “being a lawyer” really means?
As I said in my post on Strayed’s advice:
No two lawyers are alike. The only thing a law degree does [in the United States] is give us is the ability to sit for a 2-3 day-long bar exam in the state(s) of our choice. Then, if we pass, we can say we’re lawyers, members of a profession that is so diverse that the term is almost meaningless, like if every oncologist, dentist, immunologist, and veterinarian was called “doctor” without any further delineation.
Imagine a person who went to law school because they wanted to be like To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch (pre-Go Set a Watchman, presumably). How happy is that person when they find themselves representing Wall Street upon graduation? They’re making more money than the real-life Atticus Finch-types are, but job satisfaction and money aren’t necessarily correlated.
I thought about this topic when I read Clare Ashton’s That Certain Something, a novel I included in my Diverse Books Tag. This cute romantic comedy (which takes place in the UK) raises a couple of issues, including:
- When it comes to relationships, do you prioritize love or money?
- How about when you choose a job?
With both romantic relationships and occupations, it seems that prioritizing money rarely results in happiness.
When it comes to careers, many people don’t have the luxury of choosing a job. Options are limited in our current economic climate, even for lawyers from prestigious law schools. However, it seems like the lawyers with the greatest number of career opportunities–the ones who went to top 10 law schools–are among the least happy lawyers.
That is, if they joined “Big Law,” the large private law firms that typically represent huge companies in transactions and litigation.
The ones who went into public interest law (as I did) tend to be happier at least in part because the work is meaningful. It’s easy to love your job when you care about the work you do, even if the pay barely covers law school debt.
With Big Law, as Professor Organ noted in What Do We Know About the Satisfaction/Dissatisfaction of Lawyers? A Meta-Analysis of Research on Lawyer Satisfaction and Well-Being (PDF), some of the lawyers’ dissatisfaction stems from how hard it is to see “how they are contributing to the common good” (because, quite frankly, they’re usually not).
I also suspect that there comes a point when these lawyers look around their swanky 19th floor offices at 10 PM and think, “Is this all there is? Is this why I went to law school?” They can afford a very comfortable lifestyle, but they don’t have the personal time to actually live it.
Money definitely isn’t everything.