A recent scholarly study and the 2013 Am Law Midlevel Associates Survey together pose an intriguing question: Is the legal profession becoming happier? If so, that would be a welcome development.

Perhaps the answer is yes and perhaps I should take partial credit, at least for improved associate morale in some big firms. After all, for years I've been writing and speaking about the extent to which the profession has evolved in ways that undermine attorney well being, especially in large firms. Since the publication of my book, The Lawyer Bubble, many managing partners have invited me to address that subject at their partnership meetings. But before getting too carried away—either about the possible trend or my own role in driving it—let's take a closer look.

No Buyer's Remorse!

In "Buyer's Remorse: An Empirical Assessment of the Desirability of a Legal Career," professors Ronit Dinovitzer (University of Toronto), Bryant Garth (University of California, Irvine – School of Law), and Joyce Sterling (University of Denver Strum College of Law) analyzed data from the "After the JD" project. It tracks about 4,500 lawyers from the class of 2000 who responded to questions in 2003, 2007 and 2012.

Among other things, the authors conclude that, "the evidence of mass buyer's remorse [over getting a legal degree] is thin at best" (p. 3). I'm not convinced.

First, a new lawyer entering the market in 2000 has enjoyed better times for the profession than graduates of the last several years. That doesn't render data from the class of 2000 meaningless, but a study based on the experience of those attorneys shouldn't become a headline-grabber that unduly influences anyone considering a legal career today.

Second, the authors rely only on responses that attorneys provided in 2007. The answers they gave in 2012 are "currently being cleaned and readied for analysis" (p. 5), so the authors didn't use them. What was the rush to get to print with 2007 data? Why not wait and use the 2012 results to see whether accelerating law firm trends since 2007 affected responses from even the comparatively lucky class of 2000?

(For more on those trends, including partner de-equitizations, salary reductions for non-equity partners, and the environment that has accompanied the accelerating drive to increase short-term profits, read Edwin Reeser's excellent two-part article in the ABA Journal.)

More on the Data

In the end, "After the JD" is a useful source of information. But it's an overstatement to argue, as Dinovitzer et al. assert, "the data from the AJD project are the best (and almost only) data available on the issues currently being debated" (p. 5).

In fact, there have been dozens of studies on attorney satisfaction, including an October 2007 ABA survey in which six of 10 attorneys who have been practicing 10 years or more said they would not recommend a legal career to a young person. And that was before the Great Recession.

Now before defensive academics pull out their knives, let me state clearly that I'm not suggesting that the ABA's online survey of 800 lawyers is somehow superior to the obviously more comprehensive "After the JD" project. It's not. But contrary to the authors' assertion, AJD is far from the "only data available on the issues currently being debated."

For example, Professor Jerome Organ of the University of St Thomas School of Law recently published a compilation of 28 surveys taken between 1984 and 2007. Rates of satisfied attorneys ranged from a low of 59 percent (South Carolina in 2008) to a high of 93 percent (Minnesota in 1987). The latest national study on Organ's list (ABA/NALP in 2007) reported a satisfaction rate of 76 percent. (He excluded the ABA's reported 55 percent satisfaction rate in 2007 because it "was not a random sample of attorneys" ( n. 144).

The Am Law Survey

Meanwhile, Am Law's annual Midlevel Associates Survey of third-, fourth- and fifth-year associates reported record-high levels of associate satisfaction. Are their lives improving?

Anecdotal evidence of another possibility comes from an observed shift in attitudes among students in my undergraduate and law classes over the past several years. Many members of the youngest generation of lawyers (and would-be lawyers) are so concerned about finding jobs that they are now equating satisfaction with getting and keeping one long enough to repay their staggering student loans. That might explain why the same Am Law survey found that only 10 percent of men and 6.5 percent of women saw themselves as equity partners at their current firms in five years.

Now What?

Even so, inquiries that I receive from law firm managing partners provide more anecdotal proof that some firms have decided to value associate morale. The question is whether firm leaders will have the courage to push positive change into the very heart of the prevailing big law firm business model.

On that front, the news is less encouraging. In March 2013, Forbes reported on a "Career Bliss" survey of 65,000 employees that ranked "law firm associate" first on the list of "Unhappiest Jobs in America." Likewise, in a recent Altman Weil Flash Survey, 40 percent of managing partners reported that partner morale at their firms in 2013 was lower than at the beginning of 2008 (pre-recession).

Bottom Line

In the end, Dinovitzer et al. seem encouraged that "the overall trend is that more than three-quarters of respondents, irrespective of debt, express extreme or moderate satisfaction with the decision to become a lawyer."

That's supposed to be good news. But there are more than 1.2 million attorneys in the United States. Even a 75 percent to 80 percent satisfaction rate leaves more than 200,000 lawyers with what sure looks like buyer's remorse.

The profession can do better than a "C."

Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author of The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books, April 2013), and other books. He retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis in 2008, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.