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Good news for those of you who didn’t graduate from top law schools or aren’t working in high-paying law jobs. According to new research, you might actually be happier than some of your high-achieving or high-earning colleagues. Or at least equally miserable.

Combing over 6,000 responses from lawyers in four states, Florida State University law professor Lawrence Krieger and University of Missouri psychology professor Kennon Sheldon finds that law school pedigree and money did not make lawyers happier. The ABA blog sums up the findings:

Lawyers in “prestige” jobs, who had the highest grades and incomes, aren’t as happy as lawyers working in public-service jobs for substantially lower pay. Judges, however, were happiest of all.

Here are some other details of the study that I find particularly intriguing:

1. Unhappiness begins in law school. “This study again confirmed broad negative effects occurring during the three law school years, including increasing student distress and decreasing internal motivation for legal work.”

2. Three factors determine lawyer happiness: sense of autonomy, feeling competent, and “relatedness” (connection with the world).

3. Lawyer happiness is not that different from everyone else. The authors say we should “banish any notions that law-trained people are somehow special.… [T]o thrive we need the same authenticity, autonomy, close relationships, supportive teaching and supervision, altruistic values, and focus on self-understanding and growth that promotes thriving in others.”

4. Least happy lawyers are in general practice, family law, and private criminal defense. The report says this group has “neither the high earnings of the ‘prestige’ group [Big Law practioners] nor the high service aspirations or internal motivations of the ‘service’ [public interest] group.”

5. Male and female lawyers are equally happy/unhappy. But men had “slightly greater autonomy and competence satisfaction, and had higher income and lower loan balances on graduation.” Women, however, had “greater relatedness satisfaction, and more affinity for service- oriented positions.”

6. Race not a big factor, but Caucasians “had less internal motivation for their work and consumed alcohol more intensely than others”—despite making more money. “African Americans report[ed] least alcohol use; Asians and Hispanics generally fell in the middle of the groups.”

7. Lawyers who work longer hours aren’t more miserable. However, lawyers who work under the pressure of billable hours tend to be less happy.
8. Married lawyers and those with kids were happier.

There’s lots to parse here, but what seems clear is that a meaning purpose and a sense of ownership are essential factors for job satisfaction in law—and probably anything else.

I’m not at all surprise that public interest lawyers are the most satisfied bunch out there, besides judges. They can be self-righteous and humorless, but they do serve (or believe they do) a higher purpose. For that, we can all be envious.

What do you think—who are the happiest or most miserable lawyers you know?