Survey says: Associate lawyers are unhappiest-- 'Company culture' cited as cause

By Tom Gantert

Legal News

A national jobs survey doesn't paint a very happy picture of the legal profession.

The job of "associate attorney" was found to be the unhappiest job in America in a 2013 survey done by CareerBliss, which also found that legal assistants come in seventh on the list.

That data was taken from 65,000 independent company reviews done in 2012. The survey evaluated key factors in the workplace environment, such as work-life balance, the relationship with the boss and co-workers, work environment, job resources, compensation, growth opportunities, company culture, company reputation, daily tasks and job control over work performed on a daily basis.

The survey found that the happiest job in America in 2013 was a real estate agent.

In an interview with Yahoo!Finance, Career Bliss CEO Heidi Golledge blamed the low ratings for attorneys on company culture.

"It was clear from CareerBliss data that people in this position felt most unhappy with their company culture," Golledge. "In many cases, law firms are conducted in a structured environment that is heavily centered on billable hours. It may take several years for an attorney to rise to the rank of partner. People in this position rated the way they work and the rewards they receive lower than any other industry."

Legal experts say lawyers at most large law firms can bill from anywhere to 2,000 to 2,200 hours a year.

But some Jackson attorneys said the city's smaller law firms may make for happier attorneys.

"Because I work at a small firm and not at one of those huge Chicago/New York/LA mega firms, I do not feel the same unhappy pressure that it seems those in the article feel," said Marie Matyjaszek, an associate attorney in Jackson, and a monthly columnist for The Legal News.

Matyjaszek said those who practice family law are often dissatisfied with their jobs, which she guesses is due to dealing with highly emotional people at one of the worst times in their lives.

''Since I primarily practice this, those I speak to in family law are often dissatisfied with their position as it causes a lot of stress on the practitioner to fix other people's problems that are often not fixable," she said. "The happiest associates or young attorneys I know are those that do a few types of law--some family, some criminal, some municipal, and mix up their practice. In doing so, the person doesn't fall into the rut of doing the same thing over and over, and is able to widen his practice to make it more enjoyable.''

The dissatisfaction is more likely to happen at larger firms, Matyjaszek said.

''When you work for a large corporation or firm, which I did do for a short time, it seems like everyone is out for themselves and not willing to help you learn," she said. "Not all large companies are like this of course, but it's harder to build relationships when you are forced to bill an extreme amount of hours per year and work 80 hours per week.''

Angela Wetherby is an associate attorney in Jackson who just graduated from law school last May.

"That's absolutely not my experience," said Wetherby. "I enjoy my job. I enjoy the people I work with. I work at a pretty small firm."

Wetherby said she has friends who work in bigger law firms who she said put in as many as 90 hours a week.

"I have heard the horror stories, like everybody has," Wetherby said. "But that hasn't been my experience."

John Barr, an attorney from Ypsilanti, said he was surprised to learn that so many attorneys are unhappy, but that he has noticed a shift in his line of work from an emphasis on helping the client to one of simply making money.

"From my perspective, it would be hard to find a better job than an attorney where you are helping people," Barr said. "You are a problem solver."

Barr said being a lawyer comes with stress because so much can hang in the balance with cases.

"I suppose that responsibility has some stress," he said.

But the workloads have increased over time in an effort to make more money. Attorneys can bill 1,200 hours a year and still make a living and have a balance to their life, he said.

"If you are going to be happy in the practice, you have to have a balance," he said. "That's one criticism I have with the practice as a whole at the present time. It's become much more like a business and less helping people. I can see where that can lead to unhappiness."

Ann Arbor attorney Larry Margolis said he's not been an associate attorney since he was just starting his career years ago.

"Today, after running my own office for years, I am sort of nostalgic about that time," he said. "I enjoyed it, made good money..etc. It is the grass is always greener complex. As an associate you worry about where you are going and when. Are you doing the type of work you became a lawyer to do, do you even know why you became a lawyer? Those questions are more common as an associate I imagine. There are also the demands for billable hours that are no fun to be responsible for earning. But, as an owner, the demands and needs are more daunting."

Why did real estate agent top the happiest list?

Thank the rebounding real estate market.

"Right now, it is a seller's market so the real estate agent's cost of advertising and marketing is very low and commissions are high," CareerBliss co-founder and CEO Heidi Golledge told Forbes. "Happy times."

Published: Thu, Apr 25, 2013

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