Are Law Professors Miserable, and if so Why?

Paul Caron of TaxProfblog claims that law professors tend to be unhappy and tries to explain why. He argues that legal academia is a "miserable" job because it is characterized by 1) anonymity, 2) irrelevance (inability to see any impact your job has on the lives of others), and 3) "immeasurement," (inability to measure whether you are succeeding at the job or not). UCLA lawprof Steve Bainbridge takes issue with Caron's assessment, pointing out that there is no proof that law professors are, on average, more unhappy than professionals in other fields. He also notes that professors do not in fact generally suffer from anonymity, irrelevance, and immeasurement. I think Bainbridge generally has the better of this argument. In particular, he is absolutely right to note that academics don't lack for measures of their success (or lack thereof). Our achievements and failures are measured by citation rates, conference invitations, offers of visiting positions, promotion to tenure, pay increases (which at many schools are at least partly merit-based, and of course student evaluations. None of these measures are perfect. But collectively they should give most professors a reasonably good indication of their professional standing.

In addition to the points Bainbridge makes, I would note that it's hard to believe that being a lawprof is an unusually "miserable" job in light of the fact that there are so many more people who want get into legal academia than there are jobs available. According to AALS data, in most years, less than 15% of applicants for entry level law professor jobs succeed in getting a position. That is a very high demand for a "miserable" job, especially when we consider the fact that most of these applicants could earn higher salaries as private sector lawyers. It's possible that all these sophisticated graduates of top law schools (and sometimes of PhD programs as well) are misinformed, though I tend to doubt it. In any event, very few people leave legal academia to go into the private sector, even though people who already have lawprof jobs are presumably well-informed about how "miserable" such positions are.

There are also important advantages of being a professor relative to most other professional jobs. They include opportunities to travel to interesting locations, an unusually high degree of control over your schedule, and spending most of your time working on issues that interest you.

Obviously, some professors really are "miserable." And the job certainly isn't right for everybody. I know people who are happy working at law firms who would hate the academic life. However, it's unlikely that the life of the average lawprof is more miserable than that of the average professional in most other fields.

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.

Law Professor Misery Roundup:

Paul Caron of Taxprofblog has a roundup of the extensive commentary(including two of my own posts) stimulated by his post arguing that law professors tend to be "miserable." He also seems to modify his original claim somewhat:

Much of the commentary argues that law professors have a great job and that most are happy with their jobs. I agree with both points -- my modest question is that, given how great this job is, why are some law professors so unhappy?

The answer, I think, is that some people in virtually any job are unhappy. There are people in all walks of life who are unhappy for reasons having little or nothing to do with their jobs. For example, I'm somewhat unhappy right now because I'm recovering from ankle surgery and can't walk; that has nothing to do with being a lawprof. And even the best jobs are going to have some incumbents who are unhappy because they are temperamentally or otherwise unsuited to them.

Are Academics Unhappy about their Jobs?

Megan McArdle lists several possible reasons why academics are unhappy relative to members of other professions. Some of her reasons capture real downsides of academic life. But is the premise true? Are academics indeed unusually dissatisfied with their jobs? I think not.

Back in December, I wrote a series of posts challenging this premise in the specific case of law professors. The available evidence suggests that law professors are much happier with their jobs, on average, than other elite law school graduates - including those who went into "public service" and other jobs commonly associated with lifestyle benefits.

A particularly telling point is that, in most academic fields, there are far more applicants for jobs than available job openings. Indeed, the ratio of highly qualified applicants to available jobs is more lopsided in academia than any other industry I know of other than entertainment, art, and professional sports. That suggests that being a professor isn't a less satisfying life than most of the available alternatives. Perhaps the applicants are deluded, and don't realize that they would be happier working in industry or government. Maybe. But people who are already academics rarely leave academia for other careers - even those in fields like business, medicine, law, and economics who could easily obtain far more lucrative employment in the commercial sector.

As I noted above, some of the issues Megan notes are real causes of dissatisfaction among academics. For example, it is true that professors are highly status-conscious, that they make less money than they could in other fields, and that they often don't get to live in the cities they prefer. But offsetting these problems are major advantages such as 1) the opportunity to work on issues that interest you, as opposed to those that interest customers or the boss, 2) the ability to set your own schedule to a far greater extent than is possible in nearly any other professional job, and 3) the chance to influence public debate. Academics tend to be the kinds of people who care greatly about 1 and 2, and many care a lot about 3 as well. Indeed, the very fact that so many people compete for academic jobs despite the fact that they know they could make much more money elsewhere suggests that there are important benefits associated with those jobs. Those who don't find the tradeoff worth it are unlikely to enter academia in the first place or to stay very long if they do.

Not everyone would be happy as an academic. Indeed, the vast majority of people would probably hate it. But most academics and seekers of academic jobs would probably be a lot more unhappy in any other line of work.

UPDATE: I initially failed to link to Megan's post. This has now been corrected.

Jobs I Would Leave Academia For:

The ever-recurring debate over whether academics are unhappy (discussed in my last post) leads me to ask whether there are jobs I would leave academia for if I could get them. There are a few such jobs. But the nature of this list actually underscores the difficulty of finding a job that would be more fun for me than academia:

I. Supreme Court Justice.

In addition to the power and prestige, Supreme Court justices get to deal with interesting and important cases that they choose themselves. Moreover, they have lots of time to write academic books and articles on the side if they want to (as Justices Breyer and Scalia do, among others). Due to a larger staff and smaller case load than other judges have, the justices have plenty of opportunity to pursue outside interests and commitments. I could even continue to blog about legal and political issues if I wanted to (as several lower court judges, such as Richard Posner do). The big caveat here is that even if I weren't already unconfirmable, I couldn't just leave GMU and become a Supreme Court justice right away. I would have to spend the next 20-30 years wooing the politicians who might appoint me and doing all I can to avoid saying anything that might hurt my confirmation chances. And even then, the chances of getting appointed would be a crapshoot at best. On balance, then, it's not really a preferable job to being an academic once I factor in all the sacrifices involved in getting it.

II. Science Fiction or Fantasy Writer.

If I had the talent for it, I'd love to write sci fi or fantasy novels for a living. However, it would only be worth it if I were good enough to be one of the top writers in the field. The hand to mouth existence and tiny reading audience of the average professional fiction writer is not - for me - preferable to life as even a mediocre academic. Moreover, nothing prevents an academic with tenure from writing sci fi or fantasy novels on the side if he wants to. It sure worked out well for J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, among others.

Note to members of my tenure review committee if you are reading this: No I don't plan to actually do this myself I get tenure, if only because of my dismal lack of literary talent. Trust me!

III. Owner of the Boston Red Sox.

I would love to have the opportunity to implement Moneyball principles even more thoroughly than the current, relatively enlightened, Red Sox owners have done. I do have some doubt about whether I have the political and interpersonal skills to manage a large enterprise such as a major league team. But I'm pretty sure I couldn't offend nearly as many people as George Steinbrenner and his sons have done in their time as New York Yankees owners.

Although it's tempting, I probably wouldn't leave academia to be a professional athlete myself - even if I had the physical talent for it. I don't think I could deal with the constant physical pain, and I also don't want to be washed up by the time I'm forty.

Bottom line: Unless some of you generous VC readers want to give me the $816 million or so that it would take to buy the Red Sox, I think I'm going to stay in academia.

UPDATE: I should note that this is a list of jobs that I think would actually be more fun for me than academia. I'm not considering jobs which would be less fun, but that I might take because I could perhaps make more a contribution to the public interest there.

UPDATE #2: To avoid assorted comments on this point, I'm not claiming above that I'm actually qualified right now to be a Supreme Court justice. I think I might have the technical legal knowledge for the job. But I probably don't have the necessary political skills.