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Some Evidence on Law Professors' Relative Job Satisfaction:

Those who read and debated my recent post on the question of whether law professors are "miserable" may be interested to see some actual evidence of relative job satisfaction among law professors as compared to other law school graduates. In 2006, Yale Law School surveyed members of the Yale class of 2001 on a variety of career-related issues including job satisfaction. 67% of graduates working in academia said that they were "very satisfied" with their jobs, compared to 51% of those working in "public service," 30% of those employed by businesses, and 30% of those working for private law firms. At the other end of the scale, there were no academics who were only "somewhat" or not at all satisfied with their jobs, compared to 19% of those working in public service, 16% of those employed in business, and 34% of those in private law firms.

It is striking that job satisfaction among academics is high not only relative to those in private practice, but also relative to graduates employed in "public service," which is often viewed as a career path chosen in large part to maximize personal happiness rather than income.

There are, of course, some limitations to this data. First, only Yale graduates are surveyed. The average Yale graduate in academia may have a somewhat better job than the average academic in general. On the other hand, the average Yale graduate in private practice or public service also probably has a better job than the average graduate of most other law schools. A more serious problem is that there are only 12 total academics in the sample. This is just enough to be statistically significant, but is a small group nonetheless. In addition, the survey question measures only the respondents' satisfaction with their jobs. It doesn't measure their overall level of happiness. Some academics might be happy with their jobs, but miserable more generally. However, the former is the better measure of the marginal effect of the job itself on personal happiness, which is after all the point at issue.

Finally, I should emphasize that the data does not prove that all, or even most law school graduates would be happier in academia than in other kinds of jobs. Obviously, academics are a self-selected group that draws disproportionately from those who would enjoy the job most. However, the survey does suggest that those law school graduates who choose to become academics are, on average, happier with their jobs than those who choose other careers.

UPDATE: Co-conspirator Orin Kerr points out that Yale has compiled the combined numbers for the 1996 to 2000 graduating classes (each also surveyed five years after graduation) here. As Orin notes, the numbers are similar to those for the Class of 2001 discussed in the post. For the 1996-2000 group, 75% of those working in academia, 60% of those in public service, 49% of graduates employed in "business," and 24% of those working for private law firms reported that they were "very satisfied" with their jobs. Similarly, 5% of the academics, 8% of those in public service, 13% of the business employees, and 37% of the law firm lawyers reported that they were only "somewhat satisfied" or "not satisfied." The 1996-2000 data represent a much larger sample than that for the Class of 2001 alone. In combination, the data for all six classes make a strong case that legal academics have higher average levels of job satisfaction than law school graduates working in other fields.

CDU (mail):
Ilya, I'm not seeing the table with the survey results in it (it does show up in the RSS feed, but on on the website).
12.30.2007 3:24pm
Ilya Somin:
Ilya, I'm not seeing the table with the survey results in it (it does show up in the RSS feed, but on on the website).

I couldn't get the table to work right, so instead just reported the results in text form. Sorry. You can see the full table at the link to the Yale report.
12.30.2007 3:27pm
Thoughts:
I didn't participate in the last thread, and don't have a stake in the broader issue, but wanted to make a couple of small nit-picks:

1. You write that "'public service,' ... is often viewed as a career path chosen in large part to maximize personal happiness rather than income." If that were the dichotomy, then perhaps, but I think the principal rationale cited would be "doing good for others, even if at the cost of both income and personal happiness." Public service jobs often force one to face repeated roadblocks and setbacks -- and those who choose such jobs tend to choose them in spite of those factors, which they know might diminish their personal happiness.

2. You write: "The average Yale graduate in academia may have a somewhat better job than the average academic in general. On the other hand, the average Yale graduate in private practice or public service also probably has a better job than the average graduate of most other law schools." This is true, but I'd caution against any quick assumption that the drop-off rate is the same. Put more concretely, the 80th percentile law grad can still get a law-firm job that's pretty much equivalent to the 95th-percentile graduate's job. The same probably isn't as true for academia (of course, there are always exceptions on both ends, and I'm generalizing to a great degree). If we assume that Yale grads tend to be toward the very high end of the overall distribution, this probably means that there's likely to be a bigger gap between (1) a Yalie's academic job and a Yalie's law-firm job than (2) a second-tier grad's academic job and a second-tier grad's law-firm job. Indeed, the second-tier grad's law firm job is likely to be pretty similar to a Yale grad's law-firm job, while the same is much less likely to be true for the Yalie's academic job and the second-tier grad's academic job.

How does this point affect the outcome here? It probably means that the gap between satisfaction among Yalies is greater than it is more generally. E.g., if we assign the Yale-grad academic a satisfaction value of 90 and the second-tier grad academic a satisfaction value of 80, but law-firm grads of both schools get, say, 70 , you've got a 20-point gap among Yalies and only a 10-point gap among the second-tiers. This would suggest that the "average" gap is smaller than the Yale gap. (Of course, this says nothing on the basic question presented, which is which class is more satisfied. As a (relatively satisfied) law-firm person, I can say that the fact that academics are more satisfied would have seemed to me beyond dispute!)

Both minor points, and perhaps I'm wrong about one or both. But some food for though.
12.30.2007 3:28pm
Ilya Somin:
If we assume that Yale grads tend to be toward the very high end of the overall distribution, this probably means that there's likely to be a bigger gap between (1) a Yalie's academic job and a Yalie's law-firm job than (2) a second-tier grad's academic job and a second-tier grad's law-firm job. Indeed, the second-tier grad's law firm job is likely to be pretty similar to a Yale grad's law-firm job, while the same is much less likely to be true for the Yalie's academic job and the second-tier grad's academic job.

Actually, the gap between the top Yale grad's job and the average YLS grad's job is likely to be smaller than that among most lower-ranked law schools. A low-ranking Yale grad can still get a job at a top NY or DC law firm similar to the ones where many of the best YLS grads go. This is not likely to be true at most other law schools.

You write that "'public service,' ... is often viewed as a career path chosen in large part to maximize personal happiness rather than income." If that were the dichotomy, then perhaps, but I think the principal rationale cited would be "doing good for others, even if at the cost of both income and personal happiness." Public service jobs often force one to face repeated roadblocks and setbacks -- and those who choose such jobs tend to choose them in spite of those factors, which they know might diminish their personal happiness.

There is some truth to the above, but I would note 2 points here: First, "doing good for others" is itself a source of job satisfaction for those who value it highly. Second, public service here includes working for the government as well as working for public interest law organizations. I'm skeptical that those who work for government bureaucracies are unusually altruistic or that they choose such jobs primarily to serve others. The extent to which government bureaucrats and public employees unions routinely lobby for policies that serve their interests at the expense of the general public suggests that they are no more altruistic than most private sector workers are.
12.30.2007 3:36pm
dearieme:
"There are, of course, some limitations to this data. First, only Yale graduates are surveyed." And to think that some people say that Americans don't do irony.
12.30.2007 4:29pm
OrinKerr:
The very last chart of that survey is particularly interesting, as it compares expectations of career positions at the beginning of law school to their actual positions 5 years after graduation. At the beginning of law school, 48% said that 5 years after graduation they would work in public service; 24% academia; and 13% expected to work at a firm. The actual numbers: 48% were in firms, 26% were in public service, and 11% in academia.
12.30.2007 4:41pm
Thoughts:
Ilyan, I think you misunderstood me. I wasn't addressing the gap between top-ranked Yalies and other Yalies, but rather the percentiles among all law grads. Yalies are likely to have the most satisfying academic jobs and the most satisfying law firm jobs. My point was that the differential will be misleading because a second-tier grad could have an equally satisfying law firm job but likely not an equally satisfying academic job.
12.30.2007 4:44pm
OrinKerr:
Ilya,

You can find the data for the previous five years (Yale Law classes of '96 to '00) summarized in a report right here. The data for the five years combined are very similar to that of 2001.
12.30.2007 4:51pm
hattio1:
A couple of comments,
Thoughts, what are you thinking??? A second-tier law school student is likely to have a law firm job that pays much less money compared to a Yalie at a law firm job. Not all law firm jobs are big law. This doesn't necessarily mean the person will have less happiness, but it's definitely a factor.

Second, Ilya, you note that those in public service report less job satisfaction. You also note that many people chose it for job satisfaction over money. That doesn't eliminate the fact that most public service jobs are poorly paid as a source of poor job satisfaction. I'm a public defender, and even though I'm much happier than I was at a law firm job, that doesn't mean I wouldn't like more money.
But, probably more importantly public service jobs are often very poor in the resources they have at their fingertips. Once again, I would love a $10,000 raise. But I, and most attorneys in my office, would gladly trade that for two or three highly paid paralegals for the office.
12.30.2007 4:58pm
Ilya Somin:
Ilya, I think you misunderstood me. I wasn't addressing the gap between top-ranked Yalies and other Yalies, but rather the percentiles among all law grads. Yalies are likely to have the most satisfying academic jobs and the most satisfying law firm jobs. My point was that the differential will be misleading because a second-tier grad could have an equally satisfying law firm job but likely not an equally satisfying academic job.

My apologies. However, I'm not convinced that the above is true. The gap in satisfaction between being at a top law firm and being at an average one is probably greater than that between being at a top law school and being at an average one. The kind of work I do at GMU is not much different in nature from the kind a Harvard law professor does (though he of course might do it better). By contrast, there are big differences between the cases addressed by an average firm and those dealt with by, say, Wachtell.

Moreover, the competitiveness of academic job markets ensures that even most YLS grads in academia will tend to be at average institutions rather than at the very top ones.
12.30.2007 5:00pm
Ilya Somin:
Second, Ilya, you note that those in public service report less job satisfaction. You also note that many people chose it for job satisfaction over money. That doesn't eliminate the fact that most public service jobs are poorly paid as a source of poor job satisfaction. I'm a public defender, and even though I'm much happier than I was at a law firm job, that doesn't mean I wouldn't like more money.

I certainly don't doubt that most people in public service would like more money. The same is true of most people in other types of jobs as well. That, however, doesn't refute the point I made in the post - that, on average, YLS grads in public service jobs report lower levels of job satisfaction than those of academics. Some of that may be due to having less money - though it's important to remember that "public service" in this survey includes government jobs, many of which are not much worse paid than academic ones.
12.30.2007 5:04pm
Thoughts:
Ilya -- on government, we disagree. I worked in government for several years. I did not do it for altruistic reasons. Many others, though, were doing just that. Your derision for "bureaucrats" notwithstanding, many people believe that public service is a valid way to serve the common good.

Hattio -- I'm thinking of the many many "second-tier" grads with whom I worked in biglaw, smallaw, and government alike. Those jobs weren't available to all such grads, but there were far more of them (proportionately) than in top-notch teaching jobs.
12.30.2007 5:07pm
hattio1:
Thoughts,
The vast vast majority of law grads overall tend to wind up not in big law, not in government bureaucratic jobs, but in the vast numbers of firms that do family law, divorce and plaintiff's work. While many second-tier grads wind up at big law, most don't. Yalies don't wind up in the trenches unless they choose to. Graduating in the 95 percentile at Yale will get you a better shot at a big firm job than 50% at a second-tier law school.
12.30.2007 5:14pm
Elliot Reed (mail):
hattio1—did you mean graduating in the 5th percentile at Yale? Actually, it's probably even better than that; doesn't Yale's High Pass/Pass/Fail grading system make the students at the "bottom" of the class very hard to distinguish from those in the "middle"? A pass is a pass however you slice it.
12.30.2007 5:35pm
Ilya Somin:
Your derision for "bureaucrats" notwithstanding, many people believe that public service is a valid way to serve the common good.

I don't doubt that they believe that. However, most people people in any profession probably believe that their jobs "serve the common good," including most private sector employees. Very few people believe that their jobs harm the common good or are even neutral in their impact. The relevant question is whether serving the public good is actually their major motivation for taking the job.
12.30.2007 5:41pm
b.:
"Thoughts" is right on this one, Ilya.

The satsfaction level reported by associates in private practice generally declines as the prestige of the firm increases.

This is due in large part to the additional hours worked by associates at premier firms.

Any marginal increase in satisfaction which comes from working on "better" cases/deals at the most prestigious firms is likely wiped out--and then some!--by an additional 10-15 billable hours per week of work.

And while the kind of work that a professor may do at GMU may not be substantially different from that done by profs at Harvard, the subjective and objective perks that one receives from work at these institutions likely *does* differ.

By contrast, the "best" law firms--Wachtell excluded--largely pay the same yearly salary and lock-step bonuses to their associates. And no one in the general population gives a damn whether you work at Wachtell or at a commensurately disreputable law firm at the bottom of the AmLaw 100. No one has heard of either. The same cannot be said of Harvard and GMU, or--in keeping with the Wachtell / AmLaw100 contrast--between Hravrad and, the University of the Pacific (McGeorge), I'm sorry to say.

Yale grads are more likely to work at the top of each the AmLaw and US News rankings. 2nd Tier grads are more likely to work at the bottom of these scales, if at all. Job satisfaction probably differs more between academic positions at the "best" and "worst" law schools (swanky perqs, sharper students, enhanced public prestige) than it does between associate postions at the best and worst law firms (same salary, same bonus, but longer hours at the better firms where Yale grads are more likely to work).

Thus, as Thoughts suggested, the level of academic satisfaction for Yale grads is probably higher than the level of academic satisfaction at large; while the level of law firm satisfaction is likely the same from Yale on down (though it may be understated since Yale grads likely work at "better" law firms, are thus likely to work more hours, and therefore may, on average, be less satisfied than associates from "lesser" schools at lesser firms working fewer hours).
12.30.2007 6:06pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Spent nearly ten years in public service law, and can say:

(1) It's the only period in legal practice where I stopped working at 5, went home, and didn't even think about the job until I showed up for work the next morning. Never worked weekends, and rarely was bothered on vacation (once you get some seniority, that's a month per year). And of course never worried about "paying the rent." To that extent it was satisfying.

(2) But... I can't say I know anyone in the private sector who is looking forward to retiring, as a government lawyer does. It's not uncommon to find that someone who can't step down for five or more years has memorized the year and month of his retirement. Maybe it's just tradition? Or perhaps just a reflection of the fact that, at least under the old retirement system you could "retire," take another job, and still draw the full pension?
12.30.2007 6:11pm
Ilya Somin:
i>"Thoughts" is right on this one, Ilya.

The satsfaction level reported by associates in private practice generally declines as the prestige of the firm increases.

This is due in large part to the additional hours worked by associates at premier firms.


I don't think the chart you linked proves this. TO the contrary, most of the firms ranking near the top in terms of job satisfaction are also extremely prestigious (such as No. 3 Arnold &Porter). More to the point, nearly all the firms on the list rank in the top 100-150 nationally in terms of prestige. Even if within that group, the most prestigious are not, on average, the ones with the most satisfied workers, that doesn't prove that lawyers at the top 100 firms aren't on average more satisfied than those at average quality firms.
12.30.2007 6:22pm
b:
Ilya said: "[N]early all the firms on the list rank in the top 100-150 nationally in terms of prestige. Even if within that group, the most prestigious are not, on average, the ones with the most satisfied workers, that doesn't prove that lawyers at the top 100 firms aren't on average more satisfied than those at average quality firms."

That's correct. I'm assuming that since the survey you cited above was limited to Yale grads, the number of Yale grads responding from private firms outside the top 100-150 would fall somewhere between a statistically insignificant number and zero. :-)

Ilya also said: "I don't think the chart you linked proves this."

Perhaps not. But it was the best single publicly-accessible indicator that I could find on short notice which bears forth the anecdotal sentiment wdely shared throughout private practice at the nation's top 100 firms.

Feel free to substitute that chart with the following source:

"'The malaise that new associates experience appears more acute at the large-firm level.' Specifically, associates in firms with 250 or more attorneys are the least satisfied with the nature of their work. But wait: The results are more powerful still. My friend Prof. Bill Henderson of Indiana University School of Law/Bloomington, and I developed a correlation analysis based on last year's AmLaw associate satisfaction survey. What we found is that, across the board, PPP is strongly negatively correlated with every measure of associate satisfaction—at highly statistically significant levels." (from Adam Smith, Esq. law blog.)

Setting aside both the I chart earler and the above source, the numbers on billable hours logged by associates at the better firms is significantly higher on average than the hours logged at lesser firms (~10-15 additional hrs). Yale grads are more likely to work at these better firms. And I'll be damned if that doesn't negatively impact their overall level of satisfaction.

I should also add, as "Thoughts" did above, that the idea that profs should be more satisfied with their work than are attorneys in private practice seems to me beyond debate. I simply question (1) the degree to which the satisfaction distribution for Yale grads is applicable to grads elsewhere, and (2) the outer boundaries of satisfaction levels reported (i.e., Yale profs are probably slightly happier than average, while Yale grads are likely equally as happy on avergae, or perhaps even less so).

Lastly, this page keeps telling me that the comment period for this post is closed a scant 3 hours after it was opened. What's up with that?
12.30.2007 7:04pm
frankcross (mail):
I find the hypothesis insane. As someone who worked in private practice and (admittedly much less) in public service, it's not a close call.

But there is a very obvious market check that disproves the hypothesis -- legal academics could go into private practice or public service, and you don't see a lot of that, do you?

Any lawprofs who are miserable, I think, have absurdly unrealistic, and spoiled, expectations.
12.30.2007 7:14pm
Thoughts:
Ilya,

I wasn't equating top-notch teaching job with teaching job at top-notch school. In fact, I don't think the relevant comparison here is between "full-time tenure-track lawprof job at Harvard" and "full-time tenure-track lawprof job at GMU." As your experience (and that of many others) demonstrates, graduates of tip-top law schools (and tip-top undergrad institutions) wind up in teaching jobs at a wide range of schools. As you say, this is because these jobs are incredibly competitive. Given the above, I'd posit that you're in the top tier in the law prof world. That's not to deny that some at GMU might aspire to teach at Harvard, or that some at Harvard might aspire to teach at Yale. But there's a wide world out there, and the less fortunate among law profs aren't those at places like GMU -- they're the folks who don't get any job at AALS (per your earlier message), or who get adjunct positions paying a pittance, or in some cases they are those with full-time jobs at places far less inviting than GMU. My main point above is that as you go from the "best" graduates to the "worst," the academic types will hit places and situations much worse than full-time tenure-track at GMU well before the law-firm types will run out of options at the fifty or more firms (incl. the boutiques) all doing the "best" work available. Thus, I believe that the drop-off in satisfaction will occur earlier among profs than among law-firm types. But to be clear, I still believe that a person interested in academia will almost always be happier in academics than in a law-firm job -- my argument is only about relative differentials, not about absolute satisfaction.

On the altruism point, I agree about what the pertinent question is. We may just disagree on the empirical question, but I'd suggest that far more people (proportionately) go into public service (government or otherwise) with altruistic motives than go into private-sector legal jobs with such motives.

Finally, Hattio -- I think we're missing each other. Sure, lots of people wind up at small law firms, or as solo practitioners, or what have you, and for many of them that's not a matter of choice. But I think you'd agree that these (those ones who do this and not by choice) aren't people who would otherwise be teaching at Yale (or GMU). It makes no sense to compare the private-practice options of a person in the 50th percentile against the academic options of one in the 90th. (We also may well differ as to what constitutes the second tier. I occasionally teach at a local second-tier school, and my students always wind up with jobs in excellent firms, public interest organizations, etc. Second tier is still pretty damned good.)
12.30.2007 7:21pm
Ilya Somin:
But there is a very obvious market check that disproves the hypothesis -- legal academics could go into private practice or public service, and you don't see a lot of that, do you?

I noted this in my first post on the subject.
12.30.2007 9:25pm
markm (mail):
Some people want to work long hours, but many don't. A tenured professor can choose whether to work overtime or go home after 40 hours (or even less in many cases). Biglaw associates don't get that choice, nor do many employees anywhere except tenured professors.
1.1.2008 12:41pm