REUTERS | Ajay Verma

Why autonomy is important to the happiness of lawyers

According to the Penguin English Dictionary, autonomy means “self-determined freedom and independence, especially moral independence.” Research on lawyer happiness and wellbeing indicates that this is an important concept. If you experience autonomy in your working life, then your chances of experiencing happiness and wellbeing are increased. Two interesting pieces of research address this question and explain why autonomy is so important and how it links to happiness.

Autonomy support

The first comes from the United States. Several thousand lawyers in four states completed a survey that asked them about happiness using validated psychological scales to measure subjective wellbeing. The survey also included several demographic questions on, among others:

  • Income.
  • Gender.
  • Ethnicity.
  • Hours worked.

The responses were analysed using a theory developed over the past 40 years by positive psychologists known as self-determination theory. This is a useful theory for examining social contexts, such as the workplace, to identify factors that positively impact on wellbeing. The theory suggests that where an individual experiences autonomy, competence and relatedness, their levels of wellbeing flourish. This research indicated, and please forgive the simplification, that what made lawyers happy was experiencing autonomy support at work:

“Autonomy support is generally experienced when a supervisor or teacher conveys respect rather than control to a subordinate or student, by expressing understanding of the preferences of the other and providing him/her with choices.”

Respect, rather than control, is the key; but how does a supervisor get that balance right?

An ethical workplace

A second piece of research from Australia brings an extra dimension: the notion of an ethical workplace. 336 new lawyers in the State of Victoria were surveyed to capture their perceptions of the ethical culture in their firms to discover if there was a link with levels of wellbeing. The researchers measured three ethical attributes:

  • Power and self-interest.
  • Integrity and responsibility.
  • The ethic of care.

By looking at these attributes, a link was found between higher levels of wellbeing and perceptions of the workplace having an ethic of care. An ethic of care was defined as the situation when work colleagues:

“were perceived to express empathy and understanding for each other and strove to develop positive and respectful relationships.”

So, if you are in a position of power over a less experienced colleague and you wish to support their wellbeing, motivation, persistence and happiness, then autonomy support is key. Actively listening to colleagues to understand their perspective, and balancing control with meaningful choices, where possible, is also important. By understanding autonomy and an individual’s perception of this, we can better understand wellbeing in the workplace.

LawCare is an independent charity providing free, confidential, emotional support to all legal professionals, support staff and their concerned family members. You can call the helpline on 0800 279 6888, email or access online chat and other resources at

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