Lawyer Satisfaction in the Process of Structuring Legal Careers

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Legal profession mostly divides early in career into two categories:

  • Lawyers servicing corporations and businesses
  • Lawyers serving personal clients
Top tier law school graduates trend towards corporate clients

The following is an excerpt from Bryant G. Garty, Lawyer Satisfaction in the Process of Structuring Legal Careers, 41 Law and Society Review 1 (2007).

The published literature on lawyer satisfaction tends to take one of two forms. One comes from those seeking to make the profession, and especially corporate law firms, more open and humane. This literature paints a “gloomy” picture of a profession in “crisis,” relying on data on depression and alcohol use in the profession, or on more general measures of career dissatisfaction. Much of this work highlights the lack of equal opportunity within the bar, focusing on the relative dissatisfaction of women and lawyers of color. These findings are often picked up on, repackaged, and transmitted by the popular press–with media headlines often reflecting data from bar surveys or polls with relatively low response rates, tending to overrepresent the more dissatisfied population of lawyers. The overall picture is one of a profession not doing enough to respond to perceived dissatisfaction.

By contrast, a second literature, typically stemming from more systematic social science, tends to minimize the problem of lawyer dissatisfaction. This empirical research often finds that lawyers are relatively satisfied across a range of measures and that this finding is fairly stable across gender and race. These reports of relative satisfaction, however, need to be contextualized by the more general finding that most people, across most occupations, tend to report that they are “satisfied” with what they do.

Underlying both strands of work on satisfaction is the implicit assumption that differences in satisfaction are symptoms of discrimination or inequality within the profession. This assumption is not surprising. Decades of work on the legal profession have confirmed that there are hierarchies in the profession that every lawyer knows. Access to the most prestigious positions has not been attained by women and minorities in proportion to their representation in the lawyer population. At the same time, however, this inequality is not consistently reflected in measures of job satisfaction–and it is this disjuncture of expressions of job satisfaction within structures of inequality that calls for a new approach to understanding lawyer satisfaction. We therefore seek in this article to steer the literature on job satisfaction in the legal profession away from models that evaluate the internal interest of lawyers‘ work or explain differences in satisfaction based solely on the obstacles or rewards that lawyers enjoy within the profession.

Taken together, this work leads us to inquire whether comparatively lower career expectations–particularly for those for whom joining the profession is itself a ticket to a bourgeois professional status–can keep large numbers of lawyers satisfied, despite positions offering relatively few possibilities to move into elite legal or other careers. Others, who expect naturally to be given a position within the elite, may grumble about their work because it does not comport with their image of where they belong or because they know already that they are passing through to something higher–perhaps in business or the state. And still others, in between these poles, may express dissatisfaction with relatively elite opportunities less because of an expectation of something more elite, and more because they feel they are not welcome in a particular setting. They may translate their dissatisfaction into a need to leave their jobs or possibly even the profession, with likely downward effects on their professional trajectories.

The implications of the system of stratification documented in this paper and in others are significant. We know for example, from the path breaking work of the Chicago Lawyers project, that the legal profession is divided into two hemispheres, with one sphere serving corporations and the other serving personal clients. It is clear from the After the JD data that this segmentation of lawyers into separate spheres begins early in their careers, and that it is related to patterns of stratification.

On average, top ten law school graduates spend 69% of their time serving corporate clients and 35% of their time representing personal clients or small businesses. The patterns almost reverse as we follow the hierarchy of law school tier, with average fourth tier graduates devoting 28% of their time representing corporate clients and 57% of their time on personal clients or small businesses. The direct correlation between law school tier and client type, and the step-graded pattern of this correlation, demonstrates that the system of stratification in the legal profession is even more complex than the two hemispheres previous research suggests.

The streaming of top law graduates into the corporate sphere has long raised questions about the ways in which the resources of the legal profession are expended, and the patterns we document in this paper call for further reflection on the implications of stratification for the legal field. With lawyers from lower tier law schools not only accepting of their place in the professions hierarchy, but also extolling its virtues by relying on the 46 benefits of lifestyle, we find a continued convergence of elite lawyers and corporate clients that is reproduced through career preferences.

As recent research indicates, it is precisely this elite convergence that continues to provide law firms with their own status, and underwrites their ability to retain and bill corporate clients. That this hierarchy is legitimated through individual career aspirations ensures that any change would be difficult to effect and elite law schools, continuing to draw their students from predominantly privileged social origins, will continue to place their graduates in large, urban law firms generating wealth for corporate clients. This is a paradigm that some of these new elite lawyers may be challenging, as they look outside of the large law firms for opportunities.

The implications of this challenge, however, remain unknown: while it may result in reform of law firms, it may instead work to their advantage by differentiating among elite students, with departures even extending the influence of firms and law schools beyond the legal field. Lawyer satisfaction, as a result, provides an early signal for how law’s symbolic value may be remade or reproduced in the coming decades.


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