Can’t Get No Satisfaction!

Jon Hanson and Goutam Jois

Harvard Law Record 10/19/06

Just as it does every year this time, the season has clearly changed at Harvard Law School. We’re not referring to the falling leaves or the failed Sox. We’re talking about hundreds of 2Ls donning business attire for their annual migration to the Charles Hotel. We’re talking about interview season.

Much has been written about the stressful, transformative, and often harmful effect of the Harvard Law School experience on the lives and careers of its students.(1) Certainly Dean Kagan’s tenure has done much to alleviate many of these effects. Still, the interviewing season, except for some added efficiencies, has remained fairly constant. Many students continue to find this period to be the most harried and disconcerting of their three years at HLS. Some sense that their futures are taking directions that seem more predestined than chosen. As one alum describes: “By the time Harvard Law students make the decision to take a job with the high-powered firm they ‘summered at’ the previous year (or another just like it), it is not eminence they feel, but rather resignation, confusion, and a loss of their capacity to chart their own futures or make things happen.”

This all seems a little puzzling. If most students come here because of the amazing career opportunities that a Harvard Law School education affords (and of course they do), then why do so many of those students find the actual job-hunting process so unsatisfying?

* * *

Over forty years ago, Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, distinguished between two types of decisionmakers: maximizers and satisficers. The maximizers seek the “best” outcome and exhaustively search all possibilities; the satisficers look for an outcome that is “good enough.” Flipping through channels with the TV remote, the maximizer is frantic with concern that, on one of the other 300 channels, a more entertaining show may be underway. The satisficer is happy with any option that isn’t home shopping. Sitting at Chez Henri, where the options include the Rice Crusted Tuna or the Chupe de Longosta, or perhaps the Star Anise & Plum Glazed Duck Breast, a maximizer pores over the menu, scrutinizes the ingredients, cross-examines the waiter, and factors in her tablemates’ selections. A satisficer picks the first entrée that sounds good and returns to the conversation.

At the risk of stating the obvious, HLS is brimming with maximizers. Indeed, the urge to maximize is a de facto prerequisite for admission. At least since high school, we have been making good grades and excelling at extracurriculars to separate ourselves, the few who have gained admittance, from the thousands who, sour grapes aside, wish they had. Not only does maximizing open the HLS doors, it is the main reason that most of us opt to enter. This is an institution that attracts high achievers who, though often uncertain exactly what they want to do with their lives, crave many rewarding options to choose among. As Alexa Shabecoff summarized in these pages a few weeks ago:

many of you may have ended up in law school because you lack a strong sense of what you want to do for a living. Having left college without specific training, and knowing that further education is highly valued, you find comfort in a place that will not only give you more time to prepare for the “real world” but will also give you skills that can be applied in numerous settings.

And once here, the maximization decision strategy is only reinforced. We teach and learn in our courses that policymakers maximize wealth, that consumers maximize utility, and that corporations maximize profit. Professors are measured by their citation ranking while students are measured according to how well they maximize grade points as they as they prepare for positions that increasingly involve maximization of billable hours. In short, most HLS students and professors are here because we were maximizers in the past, are maximizers in the present, and expect to be maximizers in the future.

* * *

That brings us back to interview season. We are in the middle of the hectic job-searching phase in which summer jobs and clerkships are being traded like cattle futures. Mark Weber, who heads the on-campus portion of the interviewing program, describes the process as “intense, exciting, and busy” and the season itself as an “exciting, overwhelming, and emotional time.” Alexa Shabecoff calls it simply, the “fall insanity.”

Here is the strange part. The alleged source of this craziness is-take a breath to let this sink in-too many opportunities. According to Weber, HLS students are “curse[d]” (and blessed) with too “many choices and options.” They “face seemingly endless career choices requiring quick decisions.” As one 2L recently lamented in the Record, “there are so many incredible choices that I’ll never be able to make up my mind.”

Since when did having too many choices become a problem for HLS students? When selecting from the menu at Chez Henri, we maximizers proved our capacity for astute decision-making by gathering information, seeking advice, and, in the end, thoroughly enjoying French cuisine “with a Cuban twist.” Harvard types are proven choosers! Surely HLS students must be at least as good at picking career trajectories and employers – major life decisions that they have been anticipating for years.

Psychologists Sheena Iyengar, Rachael Wells, and Barry Schwartz just published a study that, unfortunately, suggests otherwise.(2) They studied college seniors who were entering the job market. The job seekers were first rated as relative maximizers or satisficers and then followed over time.

Some of the findings should sound familiar. The maximizers searched far more extensively than did the satisficers. They considered more options, but owing to a lack of meaningful information, relied more heavily upon simple, external criteria for evaluating those options. By some measures, the maximization strategy paid off, literally: the maximizers enjoyed average starting salaries that were $7,500 (20-25%) higher than those of their satisficing counterparts. Ka-ching!

Hovering within that silver lining, however, was a dark cloud. The simple external indicators on which job seekers relied revealed little about job fulfillment or overall happiness. “Even though maximizers invested more time and effort during the decision process and explored more options than satisficers-presumably in order to achieve greater satisfaction-they nonetheless felt worse about the outcomes that they achieved.” Indeed, every measure of psychological satisfaction that the researchers devised revealed that maximizers felt much worse: “maximizing tendencies were positively correlated with regret, depression, and decision difficulty, and negatively correlated with happiness, life satisfaction, optimism, and satisfaction with decision outcomes.” To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, it seems that maximizers, though they try, and they try, and they try, can’t get no satisfaction.

This study seems to capture at least part of the problem facing HLS students in their own personalized versions of the experiment. The fresh 2L often lacks good information about herself-exactly what sort of work she will want to do or how she will respond to different work environments-or about her options. At Chez Henri, we can hardly go wrong: the stakes are trivial, the options are mercifully few, and any one of them will be more pleasing than last night’s Ramen noodles. Yet we maximizers rely on the same basic strategy to choose a job as we do to choose our dinner. One student summarized her decision process in The Record this way:

In the past week, I’ve been to the DOJ info session, the DC headhunters talk, an advising appointment with a DC headhunter, an advising appointment with OPIA, firm cocktail receptions, firm brunches. I’ve talked to my parents, best friends from college, law school friends, lawyers whom I happen to know, old bosses. I’ve made a list of firms, proofed my resume, re-read my journal, collected business cards at firm receptions.

Despite these efforts, I don’t seem to be getting any closer to an answer to the question: will I work in a law firm this summer?

Although it may elicit little sympathy from those with fewer options, this student seems to be trapped in a kind of choice hell in which she has obtained advice from every available source and has admittedly “talk[ed] the question to death,” but remains mystified and anxious about her future. So what does the maximizing 2L do? More or less, she decides not to decide: “I’ll submit my bids. Bide my time. Spend another few weeks soul-searching, buying interview shoes, attending firm receptions and OCS tips sessions.” All of this is done in the hope that over time she can muster the courage to choose an option that will provide “long-term satisfaction.” It’s the OCI equivalent of asking the waiter for more time in the hope that she will somehow intuit whether the Chupe de Longosta or the Plum Glazed Duck is tastier.

Even if the 2L decides to spend the summer at a particular firm, she will learn about only one firm for one type of career and will gain little ability to make meaningful comparisons across numerous firms or career paths. Furthermore, that one firm will likely employ a bait-and-switch tactic that, although recognized, still seems to work. The Record recently included a description of “a 2L bragging about his summer job at Über-Prestigious Law Firm. He was looking forward to the lavish lunches and social events, but knew things would change if he accepted an offer there; as a junior associate, he would work nights and weekends, keep his Blackberry with him at all times, and not have much of a life outside work.”

It would be easy to conclude, as many do, that anyone choosing such a job and its gadgets must expect personal benefits to exceed the personal costs. But if many jobs are occupying more hours and foreclosing more of “life,” then perhaps we should worry about whether the benefits truly exceed the costs. That is a concern particularly given that the overall satisfaction levels of lawyers are distressingly low. According to one source, lawyers suffer from major depressive disorder at a rate 3.6 times higher than non-lawyers (fully one-third of them suffer from clinical depression) and are alcoholics at double the rate of adults generally. Divorce, suicide, and stress-related illness rates are also disproportionately high among practicing lawyers.

Perhaps such evidence about “life” as a lawyer helps account for the increasing annual turnover rate in large law firms, which is now close to twenty-five percent. Even those who stay often say later in life that they would not become lawyers again if they had the choice. In an article on big-firm lawyering, a partner at a D.C. firm assessed his life this way: “A lot of us hate ourselves for what we’ve become . . . . We no longer recognize the practice of law as we knew it. I’d never want my kids to lead the life I’ve led.” The lawyer went on, pointing a shelf of memorabilia: “See those trinkets? . . . Each of those reminds me of another slice of my family’s life that went to pot because I had to stay holed up at work.” Ouch!

Assuming it’s not always the path to fulfillment, then what else could explain the heavy foot traffic between the Hark and the Charles? Alexa Shabecoff has argued that, “despite the diverse doors” opened by an HLS degree, many students tend to settle on just one: that of the large law firm. That is true in part because of situational forces that limit options, including huge debt loads and the lack of short-term clarity and closure behind most of the other doors. Commendably, Harvard Law School has lightened that burden by creating the best loan repayment program in the country. “If debt loads can be reduced,” the hope seems to be, “then our students will be free to choose the career path that they prefer.” Unfortunately, student loans are but one of the many situational factors influencing career directions. Another is that students must often look to imperfect sources of information when considering their options: the “choices” of classmates gravitating to big firms, the expectations and pressures of family and friends, “[t]he perceived prestige” of those firms, social status and standing, and, of course, the hard-to-miss and easy-to-compare wage rates.

It turns out that the very thing that attracts so many of us to a place like Harvard Law School-namely, choice-may not be all it is cracked up to be. The more good options we have, the more good options we have to pass up. The more good options we pass up, the worse we feel, especially when the choice is highly consequential. According to Professors Iyengar, Wells, and Schwartz, perceived opportunity costs don’t vanish from a chooser’s imagination once a final selection is made. Instead, those costs continue to haunt the chooser with images of what might have been.

That problem is exacerbated when others are eager to snatch up the job that we might forego. Why work at a place that leaves little room for life? As one Record writer put it, “Do you know how hard it is to get a job there?” And, as another, reminded us: “Here at HLS, we’re privileged to be recruited for law firm jobs that students at other schools fight over.” Still another explained that, although “the work that firms do doesn’t interest me, . . . I go to Har-vard. I made it through my first year. . . . Don’t I ‘deserve’ to earn the $135,000 that a firm is willing to pay me? How can I pass up this wonderful opportunity?”

There exists, it seems, a sort of interpersonal tyranny of the majority that leaves us feeling obliged to choose as we imagine the majority of our cohorts would. Perhaps the majority’s choices will bring greater lifetime satisfaction, but perhaps not. Of course, if our cohorts are similarly motivated, then the career trajectories of many HLS students may simply reflect a shared illusion-a fairly common effect of what social psychologists call pluralistic ignorance. The phenomenon is all-too familiar: when a professor asks a deeply confused class if there are any questions, and every student remains silent (in the false belief that their bewilderment is unique), the professor moves forward as if he or she had been perfectly clear. Presuming that the group marches forward for good reasons, we go along, even though each of us may tread in ignorance. These and other herding tendencies may have motivated Professor Wilkins’s recent caution to HLS students: “keep your eyes open and . . . pay careful attention to what’s happening to your career because nobody really is looking out for you. And if they say they are, they’re mostly being disingenuous.”

* * *

So what might be done to help students really look after themselves? We suspect that many reforms are worth considering. But the best hope for dealing with this problem of “doing better but feeling worse” may be to provide new and improved types of information to students regarding their options-not in terms of the kind of work, rates of pay, and levels of billing but in terms of the kind of lifestyle, rates of depression, levels of satisfaction, and so on.

We humans are far worse than we believe at predicting what will make us happy. We lack the information and the imagination to know what a new situation will feel like and how it will wear. Nonetheless, we place every confidence in our own happiness forecasts. Social Psychologists like Harvard’s Dan Gilbert are making (satisfying) careers demonstrating this embarrassing shortfall.(3) And, according to Gilbert, probably the surest antidote is, not to try to imagine how we will feel about a life change, but to learn how people who have actually experienced the change feel about it. As he explained in a recent interview: “One of the very best ways to find out if you’re going to enjoy taking a job at a particular law firm is simply to see how happy the people who work there are.”

As we’ve discussed, that information is not what HLS students typically receive, nor, because of a misplaced faith in their imaginations, do they demand it. It is true that some general information is available, but it is typically cursory and unreliable. Vault’s “Quality of Life” rankings, for instance, are based on considerations such as training, associate-partner relations, and offices. Valuable data, yes, but they reveal little about how much time associates and partners spend with their families and friends or whether a firm’s lawyers tend to suffer disproportionately from substance abuse problems. Moreover, even the most detailed rankings do not survey government agencies, public interest organizations, or smaller private firms. Yet answering such direct questions could be the only way to provide HLS students with useful information on what their future lives might be like and, thus, on what choices they should be making now.

Of course, filling the information void would be a challenge. Still, it seems doable, and it’s entirely in keeping with the current mission and trajectory of HLS. A valuable way to improve student life further is to help students make good life decisions. And we can better ensure that our students better meet the needs of the legal profession by helping to ensure that the legal profession better meets the needs of our students.

Whether or not the Law School takes up this task, we think it a worthwhile area for further research (a potential 3L paper topic!) and, at the very least, something that students in the throes of this interviewing season should keep in mind.

Though your sample will be small and biased, follow Professor Wilkins’s advice and “keep your eyes open”: look at the lawyers and staff at the places you are interviewing; pay attention to whether they seem happy-not just with their work, but in their lives. Maximize your satisfaction.


2 Sheena S. Iyengar, Rachael E. Wells, & Barry Schwartz, Doing Better but Feeling Worse: Looking for the “Best” Job Undermines Satisfaction. 17 PSYCHOLOGICAL SCI., 143-150. (2006).


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