California Labor and Employment Law Section Survey: We Are Only Mostly Satisfied

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California Labor and Employment Law Section Survey: We Are Only Mostly Satisfied

By Bryan Schwartz

Bryan Schwartz is the Chair of the State Bar of California’s Labor and Employment Law Section. He also serves on the boards of the California Employment Lawyers Association, the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, and the Foundation for Advocacy Inclusion and Resources (FAIR). His Oakland-based firm (www.BryanSchwartzLaw.com) represents employees in individual, class, and multi-plaintiff actions prosecuting discrimination, whistleblower, wage and hour, and other workers’ rights claims in federal and state court and a variety of administrative venues.

Survey Results

After reviewing nearly 30 surveys of lawyer satisfaction over dozens of years, and accumulating data from more than 40,000 attorneys, one legal scholar concluded that surveyed attorneys across practice areas nationwide place attorneys’ job satisfaction at 78.8%.1 California labor and employment law attorneys are even more satisfied, according to an August 2016 survey of Labor and Employment Law Section members, with 506 respondents, which we believe is the largest study of labor and employment lawyers ever conducted.

According to our survey results, approximately 85% of us are satisfied with our careers; 92% feel our careers are on the right track; 66.6% feel our stress level is healthy or manageable; 81% feel challenged; more than 75% feel we take part in meaningful and varied cases; and 66.6% are satisfied with our compensation. More than 80% of us are satisfied with our relationships with colleagues and feel we are respected professionals. Nearly 85% are satisfied with the extent to which we use our skills and abilities in our work without being micro-managed. More than 77% are happy in our legal careers and 87% are proud to be attorneys.

While these results should comfort us to the extent they certainly do not support a finding of widespread misery in the labor and employment law bar (whew!), they also do not tell the whole story. Our survey also showed that more than 60% of Section members wish we could do more to help people who really need it. Where we are least satisfied is with our ability to do pro bono legal and other volunteer work—less than one-third of us are satisfied with these areas of our careers. We also feel we spend too much time on written discovery, and not enough on trials. Attorneys who are newer to the profession are significantly less satisfied than seasoned practitioners. And though a high percentage of us are generally satisfied, only 47% are "very satisfied" with our careers, which matches the figure for Americans generally.2 After everything we did to enter this profession, shouldn’t we be more highly satisfied than the national average?

Though we are doing well, in this article, I identify several ways we can do even better as a community of labor and employment law attorneys in the coming years, based upon the results of our survey.

After reading Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode’s 2015 book, The Trouble with Lawyers, which documents fundamental concerns with the legal profession, I urged the Section to pass a resolution forming a committee to design a survey for our Section’s members. The Section did so, and our committee sought to develop a survey to learn whether the problems documented throughout the legal profession are also endemic to California labor and employment law attorneys. We retained Jessica Broome, PhD, a survey research expert, to assist us in crafting and deploying a study to our membership that would generate data on fundamental questions, such as identifying what works for us and what does not, activities we wish we could perform more often, our Section’s demographics, how we perceive our quality of life, whether we find meaning in our work, and how well we create access to justice for all of California’s workers and employers.

The 506 respondents represent approximately 7% of our Section’s members and were evenly divided between plaintiffs’/union-side attorneys and defense/management-side attorneys, with a minority of neutrals. The respondents were diverse in terms of race and ethnicity (24% identified as non-white) and other factors such as sexual orientation (7% identified as LGBT), religion (a majority identified as religious minorities or non-religious), and geography (about 33% reported working outside major urban centers). Respondents were 56% female, and the mean age was about 50, with 70% having been in practice more than 10 years. The latter may have skewed the results toward a more satisfied response since, generally, this survey and many others have demonstrated that more experienced practitioners are more satisfied than newer entrants to the field.3

Respondents also were 75% in private practice, with most working at small and mid-sized firms and as solo practitioners—and the remaining 25% working primarily in government, at non-profits, and in-house at corporations. That just 11.5% of respondents work at large firms (with more than 50 attorneys) probably also tipped the balance more toward a satisfied response: Big-firm attorneys in this survey tended to be among the least satisfied, which is consistent with studies nationwide and across legal practice areas.4 A majority of respondents earn under $160,000/year, although big firm attorneys tended to earn more.

The satisfaction levels were fairly uniform across most demographic groups—male respondents were 2.5 percentage points more satisfied, employee-side advocates were 5 percentage points more satisfied, and whites were 2 percentage points more satisfied—differences that may not be statistically significant and that varied depending on the wording of particular questions. Similarly uniform results (with slight variations) were reflected when respondents answered whether: (1) their careers were on the right track; (2) their stress levels were healthy and manageable (although those outside private practice indicated they have slightly less stressful jobs); (3) they were proud to be attorneys; and (4) they were happy in their legal careers. One noteworthy gap: 76% of employee-side attorneys would be likely to choose the same career path, while only 63% of management-side attorneys would be likely to do so.

An encouraging finding about our lifestyles was that, as a group, labor and employment lawyers tend to exercise more frequently than we drink alcohol or take non-prescription drugs, we work on average less than 50 hours a week, and average nearly 15 personal days off a year. The latter distinguishes California labor and employment lawyers from reports regarding "soul-crushing schedules" in other practice areas nationwide, where "on average, associates bill close to 1900 hours a year," and considerably more in large firms, requiring 50- to 60-hour work weeks.5

On the other hand, nearly 60% reported suffering anxiety or depression in a typical month—and women felt this substantially more than men: 64% compared with 52%. Newer and younger attorneys are much more likely to feel anxious or depressed at times—around two-thirds do—which correlates with them feeling much less happy and satisfied in their legal careers and less likely to choose the same career path than more senior attorneys. The minority of respondents, those who reported that they were generally dissatisfied with their careers, were the most likely to feel depressed and anxious: 86% feel this way in an average month.

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CA LABOR AND EMPLOYMENT LAWYERS’ LIFESTYLES

Stress Level at Work in a Typical Week

Stress Level at Work in a Typical Week for California Labor and Employment Lawyers' Lifestyles

This figure shows on a picture of a thermometer how stress level can rise from negligible, to excessive, and finally, health/manageable.
Image description added by Fastcase.

% of Days in a Typical Month They…

Percentage of Days in a Typical Month Chart

This chart shows the percentage of days in a typical month where an attorney excercises, drinks alcohol, uses non-prescription drugs, and suffers anxiety or depression.
Image description added by Fastcase.

AMOUNT OF TIME SPENT ON LEGAL SKILLS

Amount of Time Spent on Legal Skills
This chart shows the amount of time attorneys spent on jury trial, oral argument, bench trial, mediation, appellate work, investigations, depositions, substantial brief writing, client interface, and written discovery. The attorneys surveyed ranked their time spent on these skills as “not enough,” “just right,” “too much,” or “N/A.”
Image description added by Fastcase.

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Takeaways

Here are five takeaways from our survey, and what I hope the Section will do to address them, beginning this year.

1) Despite basic satisfaction, California labor and employment lawyers wish they were doing more to help people who really need it.

It is striking that 61% of respondents wished they could do more to help those most in need, and only 13% disagreed (with the rest remaining on the fence). Although across demographic groups a majority of respondents felt this pull to do more to help, women were 5 percentage points more likely to feel this way than men, and non-whites were 10 percentage points more likely to feel this way than whites. Employee-side attorneys were 9 percentage points more likely than management-side advocates to feel they want to do more to help people who really need it.

This may relate to why California labor and employment law attorneys, who—although generally content— are not ecstatic about their careers by and large. Only 38% strongly agree they are happy in their careers, 37% were very likely to have chosen the same career path, and less than 50% are very satisfied.

Indeed, in a long list of areas affecting our lives and law practices, the lowest satisfaction levels—by more than 20 percentage points— were in taking part in pro bono work and volunteering at law- and non-law-related nonprofits. Only one third were satisfied with these aspects of their jobs. To be sure, a high percentage of respondents were neutral when it came to pro bono and volunteer efforts, and only a small percentage listed them as top priorities in their career. Still, a majority want something more.

Section Action Plan: This year, the Labor and Employment Law Section will launch an education initiative about California’s myriad employment laws directed at those least likely to have access to our justice system, in conjunction with nonprofit organizations and government institutions that will devote resources to the project. We will conduct outreach to small businesses and low-wage workers, and hope to reach outside the major urban areas. My hope is that through the Section, you will have opportunities to share your wisdom about labor and employment law and do more to help people who really need it.

2) Newer lawyers are the least satisfied and need mentorship, which more senior lawyers feel satisfied providing.

Many studies show the same phenomenon: "Career satisfaction, it seems, comes with age. This is partially …because lawyers get more responsibilities as their careers advance; but it is also because those who don’t enjoy practicing law usually find something else to do after a few years."6

However, this process of growing into a practice and becoming more satisfied can be shepherded by a capable Labor and Employment Law Section mentor, to everyone’s benefit. Those who have current or past experience either mentoring or being mentored were 15 percentage points more likely to be satisfied in their own careers than those with no mentorship experience.

This is readily understood not only because new lawyers feel better in the practice when they learn more, but also because more than 80% of respondents were satisfied with relationships with colleagues and a high percentage of us consider these a valuable part of our careers.

Section Action Plan: We will continue our programs for new lawyers, in coordination with the Young Lawyers Division of the Bar, including the new employment lawyers’ conference in January 2017 and the wage and hour basics conference in January 2018. We hope to start a mentorship initiative to pair seasoned labor and employment lawyers with newer Section members, to increase the satisfaction of both mentees and mentors. I believe the Section should also conduct further study and programming to learn about members’ anxiety and depression and seek ways to help.

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3) Limit written discovery and get to trial—it’s what we want.

Although most respondents, across all demographics, were largely satisfied with their levels of client interface, investigations, depositions, brief writing, and mediation, many believed there is too much written discovery and not enough trial work, especially jury trials (only 2% felt there is too much jury trial work). Quite a few want more oral argument and appellate work, but only 5% felt there is not enough written discovery.

The message is that California labor and employment lawyers want to get to the point and do the most intellectually stimulating work. A large number relish the challenge of our work.

Section Action Plan: Our Collaborative Law Committee is working to broaden the use of an employment litigation-specific replacement to the generic federal initial disclosures, to cut through a lot of the written discovery battles in many cases. The goal is to increase civility, decrease litigation costs,7 and, as Section members clearly want, skip to the good stuff.

4) We value autonomy.

Across the board, the most widely agreed-upon theme among survey respondents was that they feel most satisfied when they feel autonomous: 89% of us ranked this aspect of our practice as one of our top priorities. Members value opportunities to use skills and abilities, have flexibility in work schedules and arrangements, not be micro-managed, and have a say in selecting cases. Predictably, newer and younger lawyers report less satisfaction in these areas. Managers of other attorneys in the Section should be aware that these are key indicators for job satisfaction.

Section Action Plan: Creating opportunities for pro bono outreach creates possibilities for newer and younger attorneys to take ownership and employ their own expertise in ways that will make them feel valuable and satisfied.

5) We desire diversity.

We are more satisfied with diverse types of cases (over 80%) and diverse clients (more than two-thirds) than with the diversity in our own workplaces (less than 60% of us). Only a third of us are very satisfied in this area.

The demographics of the survey respondents illustrate the point. The 24% of respondents who are non-white is significant, but a far cry from the 60% non-white and Latino/Hispanic residents counted in California in the 2010 U.S. census. Black and Asian communities were about 50% as numerous in the California labor and employment law attorneys’ sample as in the State’s overall population, and Latino attorneys were even more underrepresented among respondents: only 7% of California labor and employment lawyers, but 40% of Californians, are Latino or Hispanic.

Section Action Plan: We will continue to support diversity grants to conduct outreach into diverse communities, as we have for about a decade. We will continue to work to bring diversity to our panels at conferences. As one survey respondent wrote, "Although my firm has some diversity, we are not as diverse as we could be." We encourage all firms and organizations in the Section to continue outreach efforts to make our Bar as diverse as the employers and employees we represent each day in California.

Please contact me (bryan@ bryanschwartzlaw.com) if you have questions or want to get more involved in the Section’s efforts outlined here. Working together, we can change our "only mostly" satisfied membership into a very satisfied California labor and employment Bar.

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Notes:

1. Jerry Organ, What Do we Know About the Satisfaction/Dissatisfaction of Lawyers? A Meta-Analysis of Research on Lawyer Satisfaction and Well-Being, 8 Univ. St. Thomas L. J. 225, 260-61, Table 3 (2011).

2. Deborah Rhode, The Trouble with Lawyers 14, n.31 (Oxford Univ. Press 2015)

3. See, e.g., Organ at 264.

4. Id. at 263; Rhode at 15-16.

5. Rhode at 13.

6. Stephanie Francis Ward, Pulse of the Legal Profession, ABA J. (Oct. 1, 2007) (avail. at http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/pulse_of_the_legal_profession; last viewed Sept. 13, 2016). Accord, Organ at 264.

7. See Ward, at 2 (citing concerns with costs and declining civility).