Maybe money can buy happiness: Salaries, happiness levels up among Large Law associates

September 25, 2013

moneyFor the past decade or so, the conventional wisdom about young associates at large law firms has been that they are unhappy because they work too much. Instead of reducing associates’ workload, large law firms try to make their new attorneys feel better by increasing salaries.

It is a formula that has not worked, as survey after survey showing how unhappy new Big Law associates are.

But two recent findings challenge this idea.

Earlier this month, the National Association for Law Placement reported that at firms with more than 700 lawyers, the median salary for new associates in 2013 was $160,000. That is up from $125,000 in 2012.

What is noteworthy about this increase in salary is that it coincides with the findings of another survey showing  that associates in their third, fourth and fifth years at large law firms are happier now than at any point in the past decade.

Now, this is two different organizations running two different studies, so keep that in mind.

Even so, when the two results are combined and compared, it results in some real food for thought. If one excludes all other possible factors, it appears that an increase in salary made new associates happier. That flies in the face of the idea that large law firms need to focus on work/life balance and take their foot off the accelerator when it comes to salaries and workloads.

Of course, “excluding all other factors” amounts to adopting severe tunnel vision. What other factors might there be to explain this increase in reported happiness?

  • The 5,683 attorneys who responded to the happiness survey are grateful to be employed in an era when many of their former law school classmates have not managed to secure similarly prestigious, well-compensated positions.
  • First- and second-year associates’ responses aren’t included in the portion of the survey that suggests “new” associates are happier these days. It’s arguable that first- and second-year associates would be the ones struggling most adjusting to a grueling workload, so perhaps excluding them artificially skews the results?
  • At the risk of getting too metaphysical, has the concept of happiness changed? Might this be the first survey that reflects a new normal in terms of how younger people (which newer associates by and large are) feel about the workplace and what role a job should play in personal satisfaction?

If you have any thoughts on the information presented here, please feel free to share them in the comments.