Lawyer Job Satisfaction and Comparing Downward

In law school, we learn about model answers, class ranking and, for lack of a better term, perfection. It usually seems to be about striving to perform better and comparing to others ahead of ourselves, no matter where we are placed – or place ourselves – in the ranking queue. Yet, along comes work by Nancy Levit and Doug Linder, two professors of law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, who examined lawyer happiness. While many people think that money would have a huge impact on happiness, that apparently was just not accurate according to a reported study. But other factors mattered. What struck me about this exploration, in particular, was the finding that “comparing downward” was a good way to promote happiness.

The way I understand it, a downward comparison means to appreciate what we have and see the hundreds, thousands and more people who have less than we do, not those people/lawyers who have more. That would be comparing upward – to the friend at the more prestigious firm, the other friend who is ranked higher in six different categories at school, or to the person who just received the prestigious clerkship you applied for as well.

I know I compare upward quite a bit. I went to Harvard, but was not a top performer (no summa for me), did not get the top clerkship, job, etc. It actually is pragmatically useful, though, to recognize the advantages to comparing down. I really like and use a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that does indeed implicitly compare down:

 “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

This quote is posted in my office and at home, for good reason.

2 Responses

  1. This is a thoughtful and inspiring post. Thanks Steve!

  2. I think it’s important to compare both up and down. Be grateful for what you have, but always aspire to achieve more.

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