Conventional wisdom says that lawyers are uniquely unhappy. Unfortunately, this conventional wisdom rests on a weak empirical foundation. The “unhappy lawyers” narrative relies on nonrandom survey data collected from volunteer respondents. Instead of depending on such data, researchers should study lawyer mental health by relying on large microdata sets of public health data, such as the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) administered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The NHIS includes data from 100-200 lawyers per year. By aggregating years, an adequate sample size of lawyers can readily be obtained, with much greater confidence that the lawyers in the sample resemble the true population of U.S. lawyers. When we examine the NHIS data, we find that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, lawyers are not particularly unhappy. Indeed, they suffer rates of mental illness much lower than the general population. Lawyer mental health is not significantly different than the mental health of similarly-educated professionals, such as doctors and dentists. Rates of problematic alcohol use among lawyers, however, are high, even when compared to the general population. Moreover, problematic use of alcohol among lawyers has grown increasingly common over the last fifteen years. These sometimes surprising and nuanced findings demonstrate the value of relying on more reliable data such as the NHIS.
Citation: Listokin, Yair and Noonan, Ray, Measuring Lawyer Well-Being Systematically: Evidence from the National Health Interview Survey (August 4, 2020). Journal of Empirical Legal Studies Forthcoming, Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper,
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