Wade H. McCree, Jr., Collegiate Professor of Law Emeritus David Chambers analyzes forty years of survey data from University of Michigan Law grads, starting in the early sixties, in "Satisfaction in the Practice of Law: Findings from a Long-Term Study of Attorneys' Careers." He finds:
[A]mong Michigan’s graduates five, fifteen and twenty-five years out of law school, for both men and women, overall work satisfaction is much more closely related to perceptions of the social value of their work and the quality of their relations with co-workers than it is to their satisfaction with income or with their prestige in the community.
The big surprise? Women grads on the whole are somewhat more satisfied. Chambers speculates that this is because women in general place a higher priority than men on finding employment in settings where they perceive the work as having comparatively high social value and where they are likely to have especially good relations with coworkers.
The article speculates about the effect of the Great Recession on satisfaction:
We note again that the Michigan surveys ended in 2006. Thus we can say nothing about the effects on work satisfaction of the severe economic downturn that is still going on. The only guidance the Michigan data provides comes from prior, less profound recessions that occurred during the years when the Michigan surveys were conducted. For example, one prior serious downturn that affected attorneys began in 1990. The recession officially lasted only eight months – from July 1990 until March 1991 – but lawyers in the United States in general experienced effects for several years. Many large law firms laid off large numbers of first and second year associates. More broadly, initial employment for law school graduates in the United States as a whole declined from 92.2 percent in 1987 to 83.4 percent in 1993. Within the Michigan data, those working in settings other than private law firms continued to report essentially the same generally-high levels of satisfaction that they had in prior years, but for those in private law firms, a several-year long downward trend in satisfaction among both the five and fifteen year graduates reached its lowest point with the classes surveyed in the years 1992 and 1993, when, among private-firm lawyers, only 30 percent of five year graduates and only 44 percent of the fifteen-year graduates reported being quite positive about their careers. Satisfaction improved over the years that followed. We fear that, for private firm lawyers, the trough in satisfaction will reach lower and last longer for those who were five or fifteen years out of law school at the time we completed our surveys in 2006.
In a post about the Chambers' article, Legal Ethics Blog's John Steele asks why Michigan Law discontinued the survey. Anybody got an answer?