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John Monahan

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Scholar’s Corner

MOST LEGAL SCHOLARSHIP today takes place outside the public view — in faculty workshops, conferences, and academic journals. The best work being done at Virginia and at other top schools examines the consequences of legal rules in a way that invites understanding — and, when appropriate, change. In this way, the practice of law and the production of legal scholarship are very much alike. They both require a broad view of the problem combined with a ceaseless curiosity in teasing out every material issue.

John Monahan, a psychologist, joined the Law School faculty in 1980. He now holds the John S. Shannon Distinguished Professorship in Law. A leading researcher on violence, mental disorder, and risk assessment, Monahan has directed two MacArthur Foundation funded projects on mental health and the law. He is the author or editor of 15 books and has written more than 200 articles and chapters. Monahan’s work has been cited frequently by courts, including the California Supreme Court in the landmark Tarasoff v. Regents and the United States Supreme Court in Barefoot v. Estelle, in which he was referred to as “the leading thinker on the issue” of violence risk assessment.

In the following excerpt Monahan trains his sights on the Law School Class of 1990, members of which he originally surveyed in 1987 during their first year at the Law School. Two decades later, Monahan and his co-author surveyed them again for a fascinating analysis of how their careers have unfolded since.

Lawyers at Mid-Career: A 20-Year Longitudinal Study of Job and Life Satisfaction

John Monahan and Jeffrey W. Swanson
Journal of Empirical Legal Studies (in press).
Available at

This article reports an empirical study of lawyer satisfaction that differs from the bulk of existing research on this topic in three fundamental ways — the .rst two methodological and the third substantive. First, this study is longitudinal — the same respondents were extensively studied during the three-year course of their legal education, and again 20 years after they began law school, permitting performance on a number of factors relevant to satisfaction to be studied over time. Second, this study achieved a response rate that is unusually high — high enough to obviate most concerns with sample bias. Finally, this study is the first to our knowledge to simultaneously measure the predictors of lawyers’ satisfaction with their careers and the predictors of lawyers’ satisfaction with their lives more broadly….

One class of the University of Virginia School of Law was studied between their matriculation in 1987 and their graduation in 1990. All 360 living graduates of this class were contacted in 2007, with a response rate of 72.2% ….

We highlight five of what we take to be the principal findings of this research. In each case, we give three brief but representative quotes from the comments that our respondents gave to the final open-ended question on the survey, inviting “any comments, reflections, or advice you have to share with law students regarding a career in law or regarding life more generally.”


“Starting off at a large firm is a great way to develop as a lawyer. If you are willing to trade-off some salary after getting a few years, there are some wonderful in-house opportunities in the non­profit sector. Many will provide some of the most sophisticated, challenging and satisfying law jobs around.”

“I hope law school grads understand that the skills and knowledge they gain in law school can be applied to a lot more than the practice of law. I have combined my experience as an engineer, as a lawyer, and as a businessman to arrive at a satisfying career outside of a traditional legal career.”

“I would tell current students to not be afraid to try unusual places or ways in which to practice law. I would have never pictured myself as a solo practitioner in a poor area of rural Virginia, but overall I am extremely satisfied with life and practice here …. I can raise my show dogs, go to the office in shorts, and still face exciting challenges and intellectual stimulation in my practice.”


“After years of practicing law in private firms, I believe it is incredibly difficult to have a career and raise a family. Many women my age agree. The idea that we could ‘have it all’ sounded great, but it doesn’t really work out that way.”

“Law firms are still very difficult places for women lawyers. Most of the partners are men who have wives who stay at home and it creates a very difficult place to practice law in a sophisticated way while balancing that with family responsibilities. I find that most of my male partners do not see their children during the week; for me, that is not an option that I would ever exercise.”

“To be successful, you have to accept that your career will consume a much greater percent of your life than most ‘jobs.’ You have to have a good support system; forget the idea that you can do it all superbly (e.g., my husband does all the cooking and is proud of my success). The more valuable you are, the more flexibility you will have to negotiate a work schedule that works for you.”


“Life in a private law firm is very demanding. Unless you love it, there is a soul-sucking quality. I would not encourage my own children to go into law unless they love it.”

“UVA law degree, education, training: good. Slavish compulsion to follow the crowd and work in as big a law firm as possible: bad.”

“I’ve found the practice of law — even practice at a large firm — to be far more satisfying and intellectually stimulating than I imagined it would be when I graduated.”


“Among people who have chosen a career as an attorney, I am one of the luckiest people alive. The firm I found is fantastic. I am paid extremely well, have significant control over what work I do, and I work very reasonable hours.”

“An old Greek definition of happiness is ‘vital powers exercised along lines of excellence in a life that affords them scope.’ This describes the joy I get from the practice of law as a partner in a 21st century law .rm.”

“A career in law can be very rewarding and fulfilling. However, law firms need to make it a priority to improve the quality of life of their associates and partners.”


“Law is extremely rewarding. The intellectual challenge is a reward in itself. My practice is a window into human nature. It is unseemly at times, but by comparison with other people, my life is wonderful.”

“Private practice is not for everyone, and government practice provides a great opportunity for better work/life balance. I don’t make as much money as my private-practice peers, but I have a great quality of life with my family.”

“I am a partner at mid-sized firm in a mid-sized town. I control my own practice. I have four kids and I put them to sleep almost every night. I coach a soccer team and a baseball team. It’s a great life.”