Does it pay to be nice? Nice people, particularly if they are men, earn less than not-so-nice people. So concluded a recent study that analyzed the pay rates of “agreeable” people vs. their “less-agreeable” peers. Not-nice men earn about 18% more than nice men. For women, being not-nice means about 5% higher earnings.

At Law Firms, Jerks Rise

Above the Law took particular interest in one researcher’s assertion that many employers reward not-nice employees without even realizing it:

That sounds like a law firm, doesn’t it? The firm talks about teamwork and efficiency and excellent client service, but at the end of the day, whichever d-bag bills the most hours gets the most toys. The guy who is constantly in the managing partner’s or client’s face, elbowing others out of the way, is the guy who gets the best work. The guy (or girl) who just does the job, quickly and without drama, and then goes home, somehow doesn’t have the “it” factor to make partner, or to make it rain once a partner.

Our legal system is adversarial. Despite all the talk about alternative dispute resolution, the fact is that most lawyers spend their days striving to outwit, outwork, or outmaneuver other lawyers. The nature of this work seems to encourage not-nice behavior, and the not-nice may well seem better at it simply because they have more aggressive, me-first personalities. To over-burdened managers, appearances can matter more than results.

Happy vs. Wealthy

Other than hoping that by some miracle managers will actually start firing jerks and divas, what’s a nice lawyer to do? You can work to become more assertive and not allow your not-nice co-workers to take advantage of you, but it’s probably impossible for you to change your personality. If you’re nice, you’re stuck with it.

But ask yourself this: do the jerks and divas in your office seem happy? Did you ever consider the possibility that people who act like that do so because they are in fact unhappy? Does it seem that the bigger office, the nicer car, the expensive clothes are making them happy? No. Unhappy people are generally not nice, and happy people are. And while we’d all like to make more money, we know that money doesn’t make anyone (except the very poor) happier.

Bob Dylan sings about the jerks and divas at your office:

While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in

Don’t be pulled in. Just smile and wave to those poor souls down there. Then go do some great work that will support your next request for a (nice) raise.



  1. Sam Glover says:

    I don’t know if nice lawyers finish last, but there sure are plenty of jerks out there. Unfortunately, kicking them out of big firms just means they wind up being solo jerks. That’s comforting to their former colleagues—until they wind up across from the courtroom or negotiating table.

    It seems judges’ pleas for more collegiality are falling on deaf ears. Or, maybe collegiality is just no longer compatible with an adversarial system.

  2. Dave Shearon says:

    What does finishing first mean? (a) The most money, or the (b) most satisfied with life? (a) The fastest to partnership, or (b) enjoying what you do on a daily basis. If you lean toward (b), nice can work.

    Also, let’s take care about reading too much into studies without actually reading the study! “Agreeableness” does not necessarily equal what you or I might mean by “nice.”

  3. Justin Morton says:

    As a fairly nice guy, I totally agree with this post. The key is that you can be nice, you just can’t let people walk all over you. That can be a fine line to walk sometimes, but it is necessary to keep yourself from being taken advantage of.

  4. Matt says:

    This seems to apply to many lawyers involved in litigation and maybe those who negotiate business deals, but the last thing I want out of my estate planning or tax lawyer is for him or her to be a jerk or diva. Although I don’t want the litigation realm to be populated exclusively with jerks and divas, maybe the “nice” people should just get out of litigation and move to a different niche?

  5. Julie says:

    @Dave – The definition of nice is “pleasant, AGREEABLE, satisfactory”. The definition of agreeable is “enjoyable and pleasureable; pleasant.” Looks like he did read the study after all.

  6. I have always found it interesting that people equate “strong” with “mean or disagreeable” It is possible to be pleasant and polite without being a pushover. In other words, you can say “no” without saying “no, @#*&!”

  7. Sergio Camacho says:

    I think that the image of a not-nice lawyer is a for the TV… In the TV shows we can see that the best lawyers are a “bad-ass people” and in many law schools the image of a very successful lawyer is the same. I think that we must not confuse the concept of to be a “not nice” person with an assertive person

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