Lawyers and Their Discontents

In my previous blog, I wrote about job dissatisfaction: about a survey that found it on the rise, and my own speculations about possible causes of job dissatisfaction. By coincidence, a few days later I attended a presentation on a related topic at the Careers Conference. My friend and fellow JIST author Dr. John Liptak, of Radford College, spoke about "A Framework for Integrating Spirituality in Career Counseling and Coaching." He noted how many people are dissatisfied with their jobs and he stressed the need to help people identify the activities that give them the greatest fulfillment.

Neither the survey I cited nor John Liptak’s presentation focused on the particular occupations that have the most dissatisfied workers, but one occupation has been getting attention lately for its frustrated workers: lawyers. Of course, it is entirely possible that lawyers are no more dissatisfied than plumbers, order clerks, or truck drivers and that they are simply better at getting the attention of journalists.

Lawyers’ dissatisfactions seem especially poignant because they have invested so much money and effort to gain their law degree. They expect a wonderful payoff. Lately, however, as noted in The New York Times, the law degree is no longer a golden ticket to high income and job security. Employers laid off more than 4,600 lawyers last year, bonuses are not as robust as they once were, and pay raises are now based on performance rather than occurring automatically. The bar association of New York reports that half of the lawyers seeking counseling from the association’s outreach program cite mental health as their primary concern.

Another recent article, this one in The Wall Street Journal, mentioned that a 2009 study by AmericanLawyer.com found the morale of associate lawyers at its lowest level in five years. The article featured advice for lawyers thinking of walking away from their hard-to-enter profession.

The main causes of dissatisfaction mentioned in the articles were the fear—or the reality—of job loss, plus the stress of working long hours.

Of course, not all lawyers work under such conditions. A young friend of mine works as a lawyer at the Social Security Administration. The pay isn’t as good as it is at law firms (for those who are still employed), but the security is much higher, and she works a 40-hour week.

In my previous blog, I argued that job satisfaction has been oversold; people have been trained to expect more fulfillment than any job can actually offer. I think that lawyers suffer from a particularly bad case of this hype. Let’s face it, this is one of the few careers that has reliably served as the basis for television series as long as the medium has existed. Physicians and crime-related careers, such as police officers or private detectives, are the only other staple TV-show careers. (I recall a series about a social worker, starring George C. Scott, that aired in the early 1960s and lasted only one season.)

Even before lawyers lost their job security, their career suffered from hype. It was no surprise to me that Marty Nemko, in a December 2008 article in U.S. News and World Report, listed lawyers among 13 "Overrated Careers." (Interestingly, police officers were also listed there.)

I have one piece of less-than-scientific evidence to offer as confirmation of the continuing interest in lawyers—interest that the career may never be able to fulfill for many who aspire to it. I have a "channel" on YouTube called CareerVideoGuy. Three years ago, as an experiment, I uploaded three career videos that were developed for and distributed by the U.S. Department of Labor. One was about farmers and ranchers and has been viewed 70 times over these three years. Another is about zoologists and wildlife biologists and has been viewed 818 times. The third, called "Attorneys (Lawyers)," has been viewed 2,457 times.

Certainly, you can find many lawyers who love their work. But I would advise a person considering this career not to assume that the long years of schooling and the hefty tuition payments will automatically be recouped in the form of high income and satisfying work. Make sure you know what you’re getting into and that it truly will suit you. Of course, that’s what I say to anyone about any career plan, but the stakes are particularly high for those contemplating a law career.

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