Unhappy Lawyers in Pittsburgh

I spoke with a reporter today who is following up the local angle of a story that will hit tomorrow: A national survey of law firm associates in more than 50 cities puts Pittsburgh at the bottom -- for the fourth year in a row -- in rankings of "dissatisfied" lawyers. The question is: Given that lawyers everywhere are pretty dissatisfied with their careers, why are Pittsburgh lawyers -- and law firm associates in particular, more than 130 of whom apparently responded to the survey -- *more* unhappy than their peers?

The answer: I don't know. I have no evidence. I have a theory (what are academics good for if they can't make up theories?), and since I don't know how much of my theory will make it into the paper, here it is:

As an economic culture, and speaking in general terms, Pittsburgh is not big on risk-taking. Not at the institutional level, not at the individual level. Doesn't think regularly about doing things differently; doesn't encourage risk; doesn't look for risk; doesn't reward taking risks.

Now put yourself in the shoes of a typical junior associate at a law firm: Nicely compensated, but working long, stressful hours, facing uncertain career prospects (partnership being the pie that gets awarded to the winner of the pie-eating contest), and likely pretty emotionally distant from most of the clients in the office. Are there options? Choices? Prospects for doing something more interesting? Challenging? Emotionally rewarding? Even in Pittsburgh, I think that the answer is yes. I know that people here can get out of law firms, especially large law firms, if they want to. I know people in Pittsburgh who've done it and lived to tell the tale.

But do lawyers here *perceive* that they have options, the way that lawyers in (Palo Alto) (Seattle) (New York) (Austin) may perceive that they do? Here's the theory: No. They *think* that this is all that there is: under the thumb of some law firm partner, with little hope of advancement or prospect of finding something better to do elsewhere. If you're working in a high stress, low reward job under conditions that you perceive as involuntary, then you're going to express dissatisfaction -- even if you have more choices than you think you do, and even if few non-lawyers will have much sympathy for you.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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