Find Satisfaction in the Law: Columns: Career Choice and Satisfaction in the Legal Profession

Career Choice and Satisfaction in the Legal Profession

By Mark L. Byers, Ph.D.

Career Planning and Adult Development Journal

Spring 1996, Volume 12, Number 1, Chapter 1

Career counselors whose clients include many attorneys need to be well informed about career choice and satisfaction in the legal profession. The world of the law student or practicing attorney is highly idiosyncratic; without background information such as that found in this journal, the non- specialist may lack the framework for understanding the concerns of lawyer clients. This article reviews the motives for choosing a life in the law and the pattern of satisfactions and discontents that pervade legal practice.

As one of the traditional professions, law attracts its adherents for reasons which resonate in the American psyche. A field employing an array of skills in a veritable decathlon of intellectual and interpersonal challenges, it attracts individuals with ambitious goals and a long history of achievement. Because the profession is linked to the exercise of power in society and the articulation of social ideals, it appeals to a mix of self aggrandizement and idealism. However, as conditions of practice have changed, these traditional satisfactions have been called into question and career aspirations affected at all levels.

No career assessment of attorneys is complete, therefore, without investigating the client's investment in the symbolic and actual rewards of the profession, and taking her bearings in the turbulent sea of professional change. This paper attempts an overview of lawyer career choice and job satisfaction, drawing upon clinical observation, recent survey data, and a bit of ex cathedra speculation.

Choosing the Law

In a small inset, the May 5, 1991 Wall Street Journal reported with ironic glee figures from a survey "revealing" that aspiring lawyers claim to be motivated by intellectual challenge while maintaining that others are driven by financial ambition. The Journal's glee and the subjects' responses both reflect an ambivalence which, since the time of de Tocqueville, has characterized our attitudes toward lawyers and the professions in general.

History has much to do with this ambivalence. Burton Bledstein (1974) suggests that in nineteenth century America, the professions throve as a counterbalance to new business elites, forming an intellectual and meritocratic aristocracy. Their knowledge was convertible to power in an era increasingly dependent on scientific and technical expertise for business expansion and social progress. Lawyers played a growing role in designing and codifying the complex social and economic policies which proliferated throughout the century. According to Bledstein, a watershed occurred in 1854, when the American production of lawyers exceeded the production of preachers, signaling a major shift in social values and in the locus of power in society.

As a consequence of these developments, professionals were privileged in many ways. Professionals were independent, because they were masters of their esoteric domain; they were few, because of the talent and arduous training required of them; they were powerful, because of the knowledge monopoly they possessed; they were dedicated, because they put that knowledge at the service of society; and they were uniquely fulfilled in their calling, because they were assumed to be following a passion. Moreover, they were far from poor, and often close to the rich.

Besides these generic attractions, what special flavor attached to the choice of law? It is no accident that the lawyers' occupational scale on the Strong Interest Inventory is located among the language and communication arts, where it is characterized as a verbal persuasive occupation. Law attracts people who are oriented to the manipulative rather than the expressive possibilities of language - to rhetoric rather than poetry. To control verbal logic and opinion, and by extension the behavior of others, is their particular skill and pleasure.

Lawyers' high internal evaluation of order and projection of this value onto the external world of behavior and institutions is more than an intellectual bent. It is an attempt to regulate and distribute power. Rules can be constructed and employed in a static, conservative way, to stabilize allocations of power, or in a more dynamic, re-distributive fashion to adjust imbalances in power which threaten individuals and institutions. The latter tendency leads to a love of justice. These approaches to the uses of power prevail across the political spectrum.

The intellectual challenge in this process is to master rules in relation to complex fact patterns, to understand their internal workings and to deploy them to accomplish specific objectives. Like scientists, who experience their mastery of nature through the ability to understand, predict, and control natural events, lawyers experience similar satisfactions in mastering the rules of man, which they may have had the further satisfaction of having constructed themselves!

It is important to recognize the intense issues of competence and power bound up in this exercise of intellect. It is no surprise that the modal Myers Briggs Type Indicator preference for lawyers is either I(E)STJ or I(E)NTJ - profiles of "tough-minded, bottom-line decision makers and conceptual, complex problem solvers" (Richards and Bell, 1992). Like many intellectuals, lawyers do not always realize the subjective emotional drives invested in what seems to them the impersonal exercise of reason, although they will sometimes recognize that the law is with them "a passion." The psychologist James Hillman (Von Franz & Hillman, 1986) has noted that the technical language of law appropriates feeling related words and gives them technical, semi-objective denotations. Even so, words such as "consideration" and "obligation" retain their emotional connotations, even when used as legal terms. Thus, even at the linguistic level, strong feelings can permeate the choice and practice of law. Not the least of these are the cravings for power and impulses toward altruism which have determined some of humankind's oldest career conflicts.

If we turn to the survey data, we see that career choice in the law reflects the traditional image and character of the profession, while many of the reasons for job dissatisfaction reflect a deteriorating work environment which threatens to undermine the traditional promises of reward and satisfaction.

A National Survey of Career Satisfaction/Dissatisfaction (ABA, 1990), conducted by the American Bar Association Young Lawyers' Division, remains one of the most comprehensive and methodologically sound studies on this subject. Testing a representative sample of over 3,000 attorneys and examining longitudinal changes in lawyer's attitudes toward their work between 1984 and 1990, it provides an excellent sociological context for understanding both career choice and dissatisfaction among individual lawyers. (A 1995 Career Satisfaction survey by the YLD is based upon a smaller, less representative sample which does not easily allow longitudinal comparisons. In general, it confirms the changes first noted in the 1990 survey. Consequently, the present paper will rely mostly on the earlier study.) Respondents to the 1990 survey reported the following motives for choosing the law:

Table 1

Reasons for Choosing Law

        Intellectual Challenge                        40%
        Social Service                                17%
        No Attractive Alternative                     14%
        Financial Opportunity                         11%
        Role Model                                     7%
        Family Pressure                                4%
        Escape Economic Background                     3%

Although a survey at this level does not capture all of the nuanced motivations discussed above, it does display their broad outlines, at least if one squints a little. The most commonly cited single reason for choosing a legal career is predictable to anyone working with law students: intellectual satisfaction. Social service and economic reward - "doing good and doing well" - are virtually tied for second place. Interestingly, what might be called extrinsic motivations - no other attractive or practical alternatives and family pressure - constitute the third most common cluster of motivations.

My experience with law students and practicing attorneys who fall into this category is that they aspire to, or are afraid to fall below, the social status promised by the professions, but lack more positive, intrinsic interests such as intellectual engagement or service which might give them focus. Rather, they are attracted to the traditional rewards of a profession they perceive as vaguely consistent with their academic attainments and socio- economic aspirations.

Another major study of the motivation to study law was recently conducted in the course of a larger study by the Law School Admissions Council (Wightman, 1995), which reported on 29,000 of the entering class of 1991, the largest wave of applicants in the history of legal education. Entering students were asked questions about their future employment preferences. The following preferred settings summary is taken from the exhaustive tables of their results:

Table 2

Entering Students' Preferred Jobs Setting

Mid-size Firms          18.77%          Gov.Agencies            4.75%
Large Firms             14.47%          Academic                2.76%
Judicial Clerkships     12.13%          Solo Practice           2.55%
Business                 9.60%          Legislative Office      2.53%
Public Interest          9.25%          Public Defenders        1.57%
Prosecutors              7.90%          Other                   2.32%
Small Firms              7.60%          Missing                 3.79%

These settings fall roughly into three primary groups: 1) Those occupied with complex, private economic institutions and the regulations pertaining to their interactions (large and medium size law firms); 2) those dealing with complex political institutions and with public service (public interest, legislative, federal, state, and local government agencies); 3) those which provide an outlet for autonomous and/or entrepreneurial activity in business or in legal practice (business, small firms, and solo practice).

In trying to view these clusters in the light of the traditional attractions of the law cited above, or the career choice factors cited in the ABA study, we see the combination of altruism and self-interest at play. The drive for high status and social influence may move people toward the economic and political institutions, while the drive for autonomy and financial gain may push them toward the smaller, more entrepreneurial settings. In public interest advocacy and in smaller, non-profit institutions, one may also see a combination of the desire for influence (in the form of social change) coupled with independent, entrepreneurial motivations, a kind of counter-cultural blend of the other two groups' interests and motivations.

Indeed, attempts to neatly categorize factors behind these choices runs into the inevitable complexity of all human motivation. Preferences for and allocation to these different settings are further shaped by at least three other factors: 1) perception of intellectual complexity and challenge; 2) social/political values; and 3) socio-economic class and perceptions of ease of access to power elites. Predictably, all of these factors are mutually determined. The attraction to large- and medium-sized firm practice rests not only on an interest in status and influence, but upon a widely-held perception that the intellectual complexity and challenge of work in those settings is superior to any other. (The economic rewards are self-evident.) The findings of Heinz and Laumann (1982) on the status variables assigned to various legal specialties by attorneys in the Chicago bar show that the legal problems of corporations and political institutions are considered more intellectually challenging than the problems of individuals, especially indigents and individual plaintiffs. It is very difficult to elucidate the relationship between the intellectual status of legal problems, the status of those possessing the problems and the psychology and status of those who solve the problems.

All lawyers may hope their mastery of complex rules and systems confers social power, but their preferred uses of power reflect different values and definitions of professional service. Thus, some educators and practitioners protest the distinction between "public interest" careers and private practice which, in their view, plays a vital role in the public's welfare. Others draw a sharp distinction between serving those who have economic power and those who seek to use political power to hold economic power in check. Many of the issues in career counseling of attorneys involve explicit or tacit values crises centering on these distinctions (Fox, 1995).

Socio-economic status, race and gender also affect the choice of law, law schools, and subsequent careers. The LSAC study (Wightman, 1995) illustrates how class and family finances affect choice of law school and career. To cite only one finding: white male students whose fathers have a college education but no professional degrees are most likely to prefer private practice careers in large firms.

Such findings remind us that, if career choice means "implementing a self- concept," (Super & Crites, 1962), then the integration of one's class, ethnicity, and gender (including sexual preference) with professional role must be part of that process. This alchemy of career choice is not always freely accomplished and sometimes is driven by forces beyond the individual's control. Here is a rich field of conflict and contradiction underlying the career choices of lawyers who find their jobs at variance with their identity. It could be said that their souls have an auto-immune reaction to their work.

We have seen that a psycho-social interplay between personality, power, status, service, and intellectual challenge frames the career dilemmas of attorneys. Conflicts and trade-offs originating with the individual's occupational choice are played out in a multitude of settings, perpetuating tensions as old as the profession itself. When we further take into account recent changes in the status of the professions, the economics of legal practice and cultural changes at large, we are in a position to reflect on the current causes of satisfaction and dissatisfaction among lawyers.

Causes of Satisfaction/Dissatisfaction Among Lawyers

As we shall see, some career satisfaction relates to disappointments concerning the intellectual and economic aspirations cited in the LSAC study, but also important are findings regarding life style and work environment issues which threaten to undermine traditional professional ideals. This is true for lawyers at all stages of practice, including senior attorneys, who see their professional world view at risk.

The 1990 ABA Survey of Career Satisfaction/Dissatisfaction is once again the best vantage point from which to consider these issues. The study asked, who is dissatisfied, and why are they dissatisfied?

General Shifts in Satisfaction: The majority of attorneys (approximately 75%), reported satisfaction in their work. The remaining 25% reported that they were neutral to very dissatisfied; moreover, since 1984 there was a 20% reduction in those saying that they were very satisfied. These percentages were almost duplicated in the 1995 Career Satisfaction survey, suggesting the reduction in satisfaction was stable through the 1990s. General satisfaction not withstanding, the 1990 study concluded that "increases in hours worked and resulting decrease in personal time have become a major problem, that the status and acceptance of women in general... has not improved, that the legal profession has in recent years become a less pleasant place to work, and that, as a result of all these changes, dissatisfaction has increased" (p. 51).

The study documented variations in dissatisfaction by job setting, size of firm, type of position, as well as by gender, but was emphatic about uniformities underlying these variations. Since the mid-1990s dissatisfaction had spread up the ranks to senior associates and partners, and variance in dissatisfaction between types of firms had decreased, signaling more pervasive dissatisfaction. What were the causes? Major Causes of Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction: Both the 1984 and 1990 studies established that the single most important cause of lawyers' job satisfaction is intellectual challenge, which is entirely consistent with the reported dominance of intellectual challenge in the initial choice of law as a career and with the fact that intellectual challenge remains the most highly gratified expectation in the field. The following were the factors reported most important in lawyers' overall feeling about their jobs:

Table 3

Important Job Factors
                                1984    1990
Intellectual Challenge           30%     21%
Time for Self/Family             10%     15%
Control Over Work                12%     14%
Substantive Area of Work         11%     11%
Financial Reward                 12%      9%
Job Pressures/Work Atmosphere     6%      8%

Here we see that in addition to Intellectual Challenge, Control over Work and Financial Reward were the top satisfaction factors in 1984, but that in 1990 Control Over Work had been superseded by Time for Self and Family. Work setting and gender, among other factors, must be taken into account here. For instance, the 1995 YLD study found the need for more personal and family time as an incentive for changing jobs to be stronger in larger firms than in other settings, while in small firm practice financial considerations weighed heavily. Again, despite the influx of women in the profession by 1990, women reported greater dissatisfaction at all levels of private practice, and in 1995 they were still more likely than men to leave employers for reasons of time pressures and race and gender bias.

Increase in Negative Work Environment: The authors of the 1990 survey were at pains to explain that gender, setting, size of employer or rank within a firm are not in themselves statistically significant in determining dissatisfaction. Rather, the data reflected the extent to which "countervailing factors are present in the various settings/positions" and for each gender (p. 54). The 1990 analysis showed conclusively that dissatisfaction is a function of the work environment - the decrease in satisfaction levels is due to the fact that negative work factors have increased and other positive factors have decreased....The satisfactory presence of intellectual challenge is no longer an overriding factor."

The following shows the increases in negative experiences in private practice between 1984 and 1990, in terms of percentages reporting that certain descriptors did not apply to their work environments. (It is recognized that private practice is hardly the whole world of law, but events in that area drive the perceptions and career decisions of many in the profession.)

Table 4

Increases in Negative Experiences

                                        1984            1990
Not Much Time for Self                   46%             54%
Not Much Time for Family                 35%             44%
Advancement Not Determined
        by Quality of Work               14%             30%
Political Intrigue and Backbiting        18%             28%
Not Good Opportunity to Advance          18%             24%
Not Good Opportunity for
        Professional Development         11%             18%
No Warm and Personal Atmosphere           9%             12%
No Collegial Respect from Superiors       3%              9%

Most of these negative factors arise from the seemingly relentless pressure for increased productivity in private practice (in the form of billable hours) and competitive market forces which push the profession inexorably toward a business model. Indeed, in the 1995 survey, 30 60% of young lawyers, especially those in large firms, were still complaining about work/family pressures and increasing problems in professional advancement (p.14). These figures seem to reflect an increasing anxiety about the opportunity to share in the traditional prosperity and rewards of the profession and a concern that personal costs may not be worth the effort. Consider the increasing disparity between income in the private and public sectors and the growing costs of a legal education, and the constraints on career choice and job satisfaction loom large. Because of increasing competition within the profession and the resulting demands for more productivity and specialization, many lawyers no longer feel either independent, influential, well-rewarded, serviceable to their employers or society or even able to pursue their original intellectual passion for the law.

Implications for Vocational Assessment With Lawyers

The negative work factors described above fall under one heading: loss of control. Individual clients feel that they have lost control of the career to which they aspire and to which they feel entitled. The negative factors describe work demands and organizational constraints that interfere with personal life while impeding professional advancement. Most individual clients will present with the attitude that they have been and are investing too much for too little in return. More specifically, they are either frustrated in the "right" setting, or frustrated in attempts to get into the right setting.

The two kinds of clients present similar and contrasting issues. The first kind of client is apt to be an internalizer; they often have competency concerns and wonder if they have lost their touch or have failed to live up to an idealized image. (This is particularly so if they have not "made partner.") Periodically, when they can no longer stand the self-doubt, they become angry with the "abrogated contract" in their employment situation and focus on the working conditions. They want clarification: Is the problem in themselves, the organization, their specialty, or with the choice of law itself? The second kind of client is an externalizer - struggling against outer constraints, feeling that the problem is a matter of credentials, qualifications, and job information.

Both kinds of client need to have their presenting problem put in context and their reality testing checked out. Younger lawyers in particular are like frogs at the bottom of a well: Their perspective is distinctly limited. The normative data presented in this paper should help them at least locate themselves in the current spectrum of dissatisfactions Both kinds of client need to figure out what truly is within their control, and where the greatest control is apt to be found, given their goals in the profession. This process requires that they enlarge their understanding of why they are in the law, and of what lawyers do in the widest reaches of the profession.

In discussions with these clients, it is helpful to move back and forth between their current, concrete frustrations on the job and earlier situations, comparing and contrasting them, always looking for the basic, motivational thread that ties these experiences together. Lawyers think in terms of frustration rather than disappointment because they think strategically. However, behind the frustrations are feelings of loss as they sense the dissipation of life dreams. In any case, their most recent choices are most readily recollected and regretted, while the more distant and more fundamental choices are often lost or repressed.

Eventually, you and they may arrive at a mutual understanding of what they hoped to achieve, consciously or unconsciously, through their choice of law. Then client and counselor are able to assess the realism of goals which, if they are not realizable, may be replaced with functional equivalents which promise some likelihood of success.

For example, law teaching jobs are increasingly difficult to obtain, even with apparently high qualifications. A client whose interest in teaching is primarily intellectual, may wish to consider consulting; if their interest is more mixed with the service ethic, they may wish to consider organizational training, say in the area of employment discrimination. Both jobs permit at least some of the basic satisfactions of teaching.

Increasingly, achieving control over one or the other of the traditional satisfactions of the legal profession requires trade-offs between them. The complete "package deal" is harder to find, and comes with fewer guarantees. It has been said, for instance, that if one is looking for the security and satisfaction of the old-time law firm, one must look in the corporate departments of the larger corporations. (If you are a woman, this search may also lead to more equitable conditions for advancement.) To do so, however, one may have to give up outmoded beliefs about the inferior status of in- house counsel. Unfortunately, no sooner has one done so, than the new found attractions of in-house counsel begin to evaporate as experienced in-house lawyers are seen going into consulting to escape the vagaries of downsizing.

The kind of continuous self-assessment and rapid fire adjustment to evolving markets necessary to survive in such an environment is in some ways out of character for those attracted to the secure image of the profession. For others, as for the lawyers who found an expanded role in the institutional and economic changes at the turn of the century, adapt ability can become part of their professional outlook and creativity. In either case, it is imperative that all lawyers understand what is absolutely nonnegotiable and vital in their vision of the profession, and make their choices mindfully.


  1. ABA Young Lawyers' Division (1995). Career satisfaction. Chicago: ABA
  2. ABA Young Lawyers' Division (1990). The state of the legal profession - 1990. Chicago: ABA
  3. Bledstein, B. (1976) The culture of professionalism. New York: Norton.
  4. Fox, R. (1995). Careers in public interest law. Chicago: ABA
  5. Harmon, L. W., Hansen, J-I. C., Borgen, F. H., & Hammer, A. L. (1994). Strong Interest Inventory, applications and technical guide. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
  6. Heinz, J. P., & Laumann, E. (1982). Chicago lawyers: The social structure of the bar. New York: Russell Sage Foundation and American Bar Association.
  7. Myers, I. B. ( 1993). Introduction to type. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
  8. Richards, L,. & Bell, S. J. (1992). Anatomy of lawyer personality and long term satisfaction, in Full disclosure: Do you really want to be a lawyer? Princeton, NJ: Peterson's Guides.
  9. Super, D., & Crites J. (1962). Appraising vocational fitness. New York: Harper and Row.
  10. Von Franz, M., & Hillman, J. (1986). Lectures on Jung's typology. Dallas, TX: Spring Books.
  11. Wightman, L. (1995). Legal education at the close of the twentieth century. Descriptions and analyses of students, financing, and professional expectations and attitudes.. Newtown, PA: Law School Admission Council.

About the Author
Mark L. Byers, Ph.D., is Director of Harvard Law School Office of Student Life Counseling and partner in the Center for Professional Development of the Law, Cambridge, MA. He may be contacted at 305 Pound Hall, Harvard Law School, 1563 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138. His phone is (617) 495-2967.

Reprinted with permission. Career Planning and Adult Development Journal is a publication of Career Planning; and Adult Development Network,4965 Sierra Road, San Jose, CA 95132. Backprints are $7.50 each; reprints of article $3.00. Volume 12, Number 1 Spring 1996 is devoted to career issues of lawyers.

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