Nearly Three Decades Later, UVA Law Grads Report 91 Percent Life Satisfaction

Members of the Class of 1990 gather for a recent alumni event. The class includes Dean of Students Allen Groves, front row, far left.

Graduates of the University of Virginia School of Law reported 91 percent career and life satisfaction in a new study published Tuesday in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies.

John Monahan, UVA’s John S. Shannon Distinguished Professor of Law, has tracked the progress of members of the Law School’s Class of 1990 for almost 30 years.

In the most recent installment of his longitudinal study, 91 percent of respondents said they felt satisfied with their lives, ranging from “average satisfaction” to “very highly satisfied.” What’s more, their happiness has risen over time. In 2007, 86 percent reported feeling satisfied. The average age of participants this time was 53.

The findings cut against the image – cast by popular culture and, Monahan suggests, some suspect high-profile research – that lawyers are a largely unhappy bunch, relatively more prone than other similar professionals to depression, substance abuse and suicide.

An enthusiastic survey response rate gives Monahan confidence in his findings, he said.

Having sampled everyone who responded to the 20-year follow-up survey in 2007, “We got a response rate of 81 percent [or 259 people], which is literally unheard-of for things like this,” he told members of the class during a presentation at the fall 2018 UVA Law Board and Council luncheon.

In terms of their careers, respondents said both the prestige of the Law School and the training it provided made a large difference in their work lives. Eighty-eight percent agreed or strongly agreed that the school “prepared me well for my legal career,” while 92 percent agreed or strongly agreed the school’s prestige was a benefit.

“So we’re great in real life, and we’re even greater on paper,” Monahan joked.

More than a quarter – 27 percent – were working at large private law firms (defined as having at least 100 lawyers in them), with 42 percent working in firms overall, but that number has declined over the years. A significant number of lawyers have transitioned into other jobs, including non-lawyer positions in the business world; others have become self-employed consultants, nonprofit employees or academics.

Monahan noted a significant uptick of women with children, who weren’t working as of the previous survey, re-entering the workplace. The returning earners were just as satisfied with their lives and careers as the women who had never stopped working.

Overall, 94 percent of female respondents reported being satisfied with their lives.

Money, while not everything, may have been a component in satisfaction, male or female. The median pretax household income for 2016 was $350,000, with a quarter of the sample having a household income of $150,000 or less and a quarter having a household income of $650,000 or more, and with 18 percent reporting a household income of more than $1 million.

Other factors that may have contributed: 86 percent reported being partnered or married, 63 percent had children at home and 95 percent said they were in good-to-excellent health.

“To this day, I’m overwhelmed by how much respect I have for the people I met at UVA,” one of the satisfied survey respondents wrote. “At no other point in my life have I felt surrounded not only by incredibly intelligent and creative people, but thoughtful, generous and caring people. … Based on my experience with fellow lawyers from other top law schools, no other law school encourages being a great worker, leader and friend, along with being a great lawyer. It’s what makes UVA truly different. I hope that never changes.”

Monahan’s paper, “Lawyers at the Peak of Their Careers: A 30-Year Study of Job and Life Satisfaction,” was co-written with statistician Jeffrey Swanson of Duke University.

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Eric Williamson

Associate Director of Communications and Senior Writer University of Virginia School of Law