Are Law Professors Miserable, and if so Why?

Paul Caron of TaxProfblog claims that law professors tend to be unhappy and tries to explain why. He argues that legal academia is a "miserable" job because it is characterized by 1) anonymity, 2) irrelevance (inability to see any impact your job has on the lives of others), and 3) "immeasurement," (inability to measure whether you are succeeding at the job or not). UCLA lawprof Steve Bainbridge takes issue with Caron's assessment, pointing out that there is no proof that law professors are, on average, more unhappy than professionals in other fields. He also notes that professors do not in fact generally suffer from anonymity, irrelevance, and immeasurement. I think Bainbridge generally has the better of this argument. In particular, he is absolutely right to note that academics don't lack for measures of their success (or lack thereof). Our achievements and failures are measured by citation rates, conference invitations, offers of visiting positions, promotion to tenure, pay increases (which at many schools are at least partly merit-based, and of course student evaluations. None of these measures are perfect. But collectively they should give most professors a reasonably good indication of their professional standing.

In addition to the points Bainbridge makes, I would note that it's hard to believe that being a lawprof is an unusually "miserable" job in light of the fact that there are so many more people who want get into legal academia than there are jobs available. According to AALS data, in most years, less than 15% of applicants for entry level law professor jobs succeed in getting a position. That is a very high demand for a "miserable" job, especially when we consider the fact that most of these applicants could earn higher salaries as private sector lawyers. It's possible that all these sophisticated graduates of top law schools (and sometimes of PhD programs as well) are misinformed, though I tend to doubt it. In any event, very few people leave legal academia to go into the private sector, even though people who already have lawprof jobs are presumably well-informed about how "miserable" such positions are.

There are also important advantages of being a professor relative to most other professional jobs. They include opportunities to travel to interesting locations, an unusually high degree of control over your schedule, and spending most of your time working on issues that interest you.

Obviously, some professors really are "miserable." And the job certainly isn't right for everybody. I know people who are happy working at law firms who would hate the academic life. However, it's unlikely that the life of the average lawprof is more miserable than that of the average professional in most other fields.