Friday, April 13, 2018

New study finds that Texas lawyers generally remain satisfied with careers even after the recession (Michael Simkovic)

A new survey study by Milan Markovic and Gabriel Plicket finds that Texas lawyers generally remain fairly satisfied after the 2008 recession.  However, satisfaction varies by income, practice setting and status.

"In this article we used data from a large cross-sectional sample of Texas lawyers to examine lawyers’ career dissatisfaction in the post-recession period. Our results show that most practicing lawyers regard their careers as satisfying and that factors such as income, practice setting, class rank, and remaining law school debt affect career dissatisfaction whereas attorneys’ demographic characteristics, practice areas, and firms’ size do not. The economic recession may have impacted the legal profession, but the overall incidence of dissatisfaction remains low, and many of the factors that impacted lawyers’ assessments of their careers prior to the recession continue to be salient."

The study is interesting as a purely descriptive analysis, and consistent with studies using After the JD data such as Ronit Dinovitzer, Bryant G. Garth & Joyce S. Sterling, Buyers’ Remorse; An Empirical Assessment of the Desirability of a Lawyer Career, 63 J. Legal Educ. 211 (2013).

One of the more interesting findings is that satisfaction seems to increase with experience, although this raises questions about attrition from the sample (i.e., who leaves the practice of law?).

I think more caution is generally advisable when interpreting cross-sectional data about satisfaction and would have preferred less causal language.  I think a longitudinal study with fixed effects would have supported stronger inferences about what drives lawyer satisfaction.

For example, the study notes that law firm partners are more satisfied than law firm associates and suggests that this is because partners have more autonomy.  That's plausible, but it's also possible that law firm partners are on average more satisfied than associates because the associates who are the least satisfied leave the law firm, while those that are the most satisfied are better suited to law firm work and therefore are more likely to be offered an opportunity to join the partnership.  With a cross-sectional analysis, it's hard to know which (or how much of each) of these factors could be driving differences in satisfaction.

There are other questions about the methodology, such as choice of controls.  For example, is it appropriate to control for both income and practice area and then conclude that people in criminal law are no less satisfied than lawyers in business law?  Practice area my strongly influence income and corporate lawyers could be more satisfied than public defenders precisely because they have higher incomes.  This could be over-controlling. Indeed, even baseline level of happiness and personality could influence income.  Similarly, there are questions about controlling for class rank and current income and total debt levels, since those who ranked higher in the class may be more likely to have lower debts initially and to earn more subsequently.

The study finds that public sector work is associated with higher satisfaction, all else being equal.  Why is that?  Is it because total compensation (income + benefits) could be higher per hour of work in the public sector?  Is it because the work is inherently more rewarding or because of greater job security and less stress?  Is it because someone in the private sector whose income is the same as someone in the public sector is much lower in the hierarchy than a similar income peer in the private sector because incomes are so much higher in the private than public sector?

Another key question is, compared to what? If lawyers are generally satisfied, but other highly paid professions are even more satisfying, how should we interpret that result?  If lawyers are generally unsatisfied but other highly paid professions are even less satisfying, what does that imply?  Are these differences causal or because of selection of different personality types into different professions?

It will be interesting to see what Markovic and co-authors come up with next to address these challenging questions.

Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Weblogs | Permalink