I’m a happy person working in a profession that includes what some have called the most unhappy job in America. According to an article published on the Above The Law legal blog, the most unhappy job in America is associate attorney. To be fair, I’m not now, nor have I ever been, an associate attorney. An associate attorney is a lawyer who works in a law firm as an employee. The closest I’ve ever come is the almost two years I spent working as an assistant public defender immediately after law school. I loved the Public Defender’s Office. The work was intense, I was in court every single day, and my co-workers were great.
I really love being a lawyer despite what the researchers say. Sure, it’s a lot of difficult hard work. Being a self-employed lawyer is risky with lots of ups and downs. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking because I don’t always win and I argue from the heart. It always hurts when a judge or a jury rejects an argument that I’ve spent days researching and crafting. I’ve had to learn to pick myself up, shake off the damage, and keep going.
I’m not wealthy, and my income is very modest compared to most lawyers, but I don’t feel at all impoverished. Instead, I feel incredibly fortunate. I get to work at home a lot where I sit at my desk in shorts and a comfortable shirt with my dog at my feet and my cat occasionally interrupting me with a jog across my keyboard. I get to work with my wife, who challenges and supports me in every way. I chose my clients and the cases on which I want to work. I have complete control over the tools I use from the pens we buy for the office to the software we use. I even get to choose my working hours and I can take off as much time off as I’d like and can afford.
I don’t really understand being unhappy as a lawyer because I find what we do to be so incredibly interesting. Legal cases are stories, often imperfect, always fascinating, and always teaching us something about ourselves and the world in which we live. When I step into a courtroom on behalf of a client, I am privileged to tell my client’s story. Each case gives me an opportunity to change someone’s life, and sometimes I can even change the rules by which we all play. I’ve gotten to stand next to people who came to me feeling that no one was listening or cared and I’ve shown my clients that they have a voice and are worthy of respect. Sometimes I can even persuade people to care about someone they’d overlooked. My arguments don’t always work, but sometimes, when I’m in the right court, with the right facts, and the right argument, I get to change the world. To do that once in your life is amazing, but to get the opportunity to do that every single day, is a priceless gift to me.
According to the New York Times, another study indicates that the happiest lawyers are public interest lawyers, those at the lowest end of the lawyer pay scale. Public interest lawyers make only a fraction of the earnings of firm associates, and are paupers compared to firm partners, but they’re the happiest of all lawyers. Clearly, more money isn’t the key. The article speculates that the reason for this difference in happiness is:
“The problem with the more prestigious jobs, said Mr. Krieger, is that they do not provide feelings of competence, autonomy or connection to others — three pillars of self-determination theory, the psychological model of human happiness on which the study was based. Public-service jobs do.”
I think there is truth to this speculation. I love the opportunities for self-determination and autonomy that my work provides. Most valuable of all to me is the connection my work creates for me with my clients, other lawyers, the judges before whom I practice, and the community in which I live.
I didn’t consciously chose the pathway to happiness when I started my legal career. My life is really a product of happy circumstance combined with what I often see as a somewhat selfish tendency to choose experience over monetary benefit. I would rather scrape by in a job that I feel makes a difference, than do unfulfilling work that pays a lot of money. I am also aware that I’m very fortunate because I get to make that choice. So far, I’m happy with the outcome, so I guess I’ll just keep on doing what I’ve been doing.