According to the recently released 2011 Associates Survey, third- through fifth-year associates billed the highest number of billable hours in 2010 since 2007, working more than two extra weeks (80 billable hours, or a total average of 2,037 hours) compared to the 1,975 average  hours billed for 2009.  Which may account for the fact that the average firm composite score in terms of associate satisfaction declined for the second straight year to the lowest level since 2004.

While they may find consolation in their at least having a job in this economy, and also in their salaries, which are at their highest level in five years, whatever bump these associates get from those facts obviously hasn’t done much to get their satisfaction rates out of the cellar.

On top of this survey comes the results of a survey conducted by Captivate Network, the company that publishes news headlines on elevator and lobby screens, of more than 670 North American white-collar workers.  The unhappy white-collar worker is an unmarried 42-year-old professional female, identified as a doctor or lawyer, making @ $100,000.  The typical happy white collar worker, on the other hand, is a 39-year-old married man with a household income between $150,000 and $200,000 in a senior management position, with one young child at home and a wife who works part-time.

Certain of the survey results may help explain our unhappy associates: 

  • 89% of happy people leave work at a reasonable hour, compared to 49% of unhappy people.
  • 93% of happy people take vacations, compared to 79% of unhappy people.

There is a significant difference in income between our two profiled workers, although one hopes that $50,000 doesn’t mark the difference between happiness and unhappiness.  And certainly the literature is full of data showing that personal relationships are what makes us happy, which our hapless lawyer does not seem to have. If happy people leave work at a reasonable hour, do our mid-level associates even have a shot at being happy?  Also, commentators have pointed out that the woman is not described as being in a "senior" position, which may reflect years of banging her head against the glass ceiling.

There is also always an issue about causation in this kind of data.  Maybe unhappy people spend more time at work or don’t take vacations because they are…unhappy.

But the bottom line is that the trend line for lawyers is not good, either in hours worked or work satisfaction.  Are we individually or collectively going to do something about it?