Happy talk: Motivating lawyers, helping law students choose

One of the interesting sub-plots of the Big Law vs New Law debate is the way in which workers (partners and their equivalents, salaried partners, employees) are motivated. If reports of the extension of performance related pay to associates is anything to go by, Big law seems to be deepening its commitment to financial incentives as the currency for motivation. It’s a shame on a number of levels. There’s quite a bit of evidence mounting about the negative impacts of using financial incentives to motivate workers, especially sophisticated workers. We can all see the logic of an organisation that solely or mainly cares about bills or hours billed heaping on the pressure to deliver those bills; and labelling that as ‘rewarding hard work’. Research evidence from other contexts suggests the downsides can be acute: financial incentives may demotivate (or – I suspect- motivate only narrowly) and money frames can diminish ethicality. The kind of horror stories we are hearing about partner behaviour in defunct firms may not be an accident or simply the result of financial pressure: a financialised model of professionalism has the potential to weaken a firm’s sense of community in very real terms.

My focus today though is on something a little narrower. That concern is how law schools, law students and law firms define success and whether success has a meaningful impact on our own happiness in the long term. That concern is examined in research by Lawrence S. Krieger with Kennon M. Sheldon on What Makes Lawyers Happy? Transcending The Anecdotes With Data From 6200 Lawyers. They employ the concept of “subjective well-being” (SWB) to measure happiness of law student and lawyers. As the title points out they have very large data sets (though not very high response rates to their data survey instruments). Their work is based on Self-determination Theory (SDT):

“Tenets of SDT include that all human beings have certain basic psychological needs – to feel competent/effective, autonomous/authentic, and related/connected with others.”

This is one theory of why we come to work. Another is for money. Money provides us with status and material goods. These things too can make us happy. The interesting question that that this research poses (and seeks to answer) is what is more predictive of our well-being?

The researchers have spent some time looking at these issues.

Their first study on (US) law schools suggests that, “students after they began law school [show] marked increases in depression, negative mood, and physical symptoms, with corresponding decreases in positive affect and life satisfaction.” So far so grim, but it gets worse. They speak of an effect which I think law students in the UK sometimes worry about (or at least the ones I talk to do): “shifts from helping and community-oriented values to extrinsic, rewards-based values in the first year; similar shifts in motivation for becoming lawyers, from salutary internal purposes (for interest, enjoyment, and meaning) to more superficial/external reasons (such as for financial rewards, recognition, or to impress or please others).” This leads (they argue) to, “generalized demoralization or loss of personal purpose.”

Not all law students are equal, however: “students beginning law school with the most internal motivations and intrinsic values earned higher grades.” That is the best students in intellectual terms and those motivated for (if I can put it like this) the ‘right reasons’ did better but also, “those students then shifted to more external (money-oriented) job preferences.” Success breeds instrumentalism. Never mind though, success is its own reward, right? Well, maybe not: “success in law school (measured by grades) could exacerbate the longer-term negative effects of the law school experience. More successful students changed career goals to prefer more extrinsically-oriented jobs than when they began law school, and thus would be predicted to experience diminished satisfaction and well-being.”

Their second study, “confirmed broad negative effects occurring during the three law school years, including increasing student distress and decreasing internal motivation for legal work.” The effect was stronger at a ‘traditional’ school. What drove these outcomes was, “decreases in satisfaction of the fundamental needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness to others after students entered law school.” They speculate (but it is speculation) that students may get greater support from an emphasis on law practice training (“skills” and clinics) and from faculty with a stronger emphasis on teaching than research orientation. They also nod very firmly in the direction of Elizabeth Mertz’s seminal work on US law schools suggesting that, “basic law school training changes student values, “unmoors the “self”, marginalizes fairness, justice, morality, emotional life, and caring for others, and exclusively emphasizes competitive processes to the extent that they become the only goal.”

The paper to which I have linked goes beyond this work to look at lawyers in practice to see if similar kinds of issues were predicting lawyer well-being in practice. They established a useable sample of 6226 lawyers, judges, and those in related positions. Whilst response rates were low, on measured comparators they claim their sample is broadly representative. My own view is that they are likely to have a sample somewhat biased towards those interested in the subject matter of the survey, but nevertheless the numbers are large and within that group they provide very interesting evidence of what shapes students and lawyers on their path to a satisfying life.

What kinds of things made a difference? Well doing well at law school had some positive influence. Debt levels similarly had a small (negative) relationship to well-being. Income had a moderate positive impact on well-being. “Experiences of autonomy/authenticity, relatedness, and competence” were – however- far stronger predictors of well-being suggesting that those who chose (or were able to choose) jobs that they found interesting, enjoyable and/or that related to their own core values were strong predictors of well-being. This kind of intrinsic motivation was a much stronger predictor of well-being than class rank and income. The lesson for law students and lawyers appears to be, if you want to improve your sense of well-being (and if you have a choice) choose “interest and meaning in work rather than higher income”.

The authors conclude that:

“The data confirmed our hypotheses, revealing a pattern in which (1) the internal factors seen to erode in students during their initial law training were the precise factors most strongly predictive of lawyer well-being, and (2) the external factors emphasized in law school and by many legal employers were, at best, only modestly associated with lawyer well-being. …the external factor most predictive of [well-being…] was less predictive than the internal factor with the weakest association with [well-being].”

They also compared well-being amongst different types of lawyer. Judges reported the highest well-being and the greatest internal motivation and satisfaction, although because they were on average ten years older, their age may have impacted on these results. “[P]restige lawyers had robustly higher income, law school grades, and law review participation than the service lawyers …but also had less internal motivation and intrinsic valuing… [whereas] service lawyers reported greater well-being than the more “elite,” highly paid prestige lawyers… despite substantially lower earnings.” Their definition of prestige lawyers was somewhat different from the definition here, but it is nevertheless interesting as an indicator that status and reward does not bring higher levels of well-being to US lawyers. Interestingly, also, “prestige lawyers had substantially higher law school grades than any other group, they reported significantly lower satisfaction of the competence need… [suggesting] …a core dissonance between “competence” as measured in law school (largely by grade performance), and a lawyer’s ability to feel competent in actual law practice.”

Conversely, well-being was not a product of a long hours culture: it did not vary significantly with absolute number of hours worked. However, billable hour requirements increased, income increased but other predictors of well-being decreased (autonomy, internal motivation and relatedness). The net result was negative: “subjects experienced less life satisfaction and lower net affect as billable hours increased… [e]ach increase in billable hours brings moderately greater income and slightly less happiness.” Increasing firm size increased external motivation and reduced autonomy satisfaction (therefore reducing well-being). Litigators are also somewhat less happy on their data (although it’s a small effect). Pro bono work and taking holidays improved well-being.

The results put me in mind of a discussion I had recently with a law student complaining that law school is premised on the assumption that high paying (and therefore high status) jobs in law firms are what is desirable.  Indeed, with law schools increasingly being asked how well they ‘place’ students into legal practice and employability data making its way into league tables we have an interest in maintaining the status quo.  The research suggests the idea that there is a dominant, elite path to law which is beneficial may be an illusion; even a slightly toxic one. Yet the research also has warnings for the employers. They need to take the motivation of their recruits, employees and partners seriously.  The authors rely on other studies to claim that subjective well being has an impact on:

  • “professional behavior and positive performance in lawyers; such lawyers are also likely to produce more, remain longer, and raise the morale of others.”
  • “[it improves the] accomplishment of complex mental tasks, generally improved work performance, and greater culturally valued success.”
  • It also improves productivity, “energy, optimism, creativity, [and] altruism”:
  • “less happy employees impose high costs on employers in terms of increased absence and turnover, and poor work performance.

3 thoughts on “Happy talk: Motivating lawyers, helping law students choose

  1. Great post! This is a topic that I have been thinking about lately. (US) Law schools tell students that there is one desirable path. Get good grades, get a job as an associate, work hard, and make partner. Maybe you’ll go in-house or become a judge some day, but all in all there’s one “right” path. And this path will lead to success (not necessarily happiness.) If you get good grades, there is so much pressure to take the high paying Big Law sort of job, otherwise you “wasted” your degree.

    I went in-house directly out of law school and it was the best decision. I took a lot of heat for not following the right path. I didn’t make as much money but I loved my job. And the best part is I wasn’t pigeon-holed into one area of the law. Tons of variety in my work, lots of autonomy, my work was valued by those I worked with. Basically, my job provided me with all the tenets of SDT.

    My angle on all of this now isn’t job satisfaction, but what happens if you can’t move along the path? What if you can’t get the job as an associate? In the US we’re graduating a generation of lawyers who can’t get jobs, and a lot of these lawyers don’t know what to do because law school didn’t teach them any other way.

    Also 2 books come to mind…The first is Drive: The Surprising Truth About what Motivates Us by Dan Pink which is basically all about Self-Determination Theory. The second is How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton Christensen who talks about what really leads to happiness in your life and career.

  2. I enjoyed this. I am interested in learning how to motivate solicitors to engage with the Law Society and local law societies. The problem is that current issues which affect many small firms in my part of the world (South Wales) – such as the future of criminal legal aid and adapting to the reduced fixed costs regimes of the PI portals and the removal of eligibility for family legal aid from many prospective clients which took place last year – are not good for the subjective well-being of practitioners and diminish their self-determination.

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