Why I am not a lawyer

Chad links to an interesting article in the NYT about the relative decline in prestige and fulfillment accruing to law and medicine. A number of reasons for the growing dissatisfaction are given, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that it misses an important one: doctors and lawyers are both heavily protected by professional associations and state licensing laws.

Licensing restricts entry into the professions and raises the returns on education for the people who practice them. But by putting up barriers to entry, they also allow the gatekeepers to subject aspirants to arduous training often disconnected from their true needs. For lawyers, this means an imposing law school entrance exam, three years of difficult, stressful, expensive study, tests that have little to do with lawyering, an even more difficult bar exam, and then, for many, years of tedious work as an associate. The med school education of doctors is probably more worthwhile, but it’s followed by extremely stressful and arguably dangerous (for patients) years of internship and residency in which lack of sleep is practically a form of hazing. Without the protection of licensing and groups like the ABA and AMA, I very much doubt that these forms of education would persist.

In other words, these professions still earn good money but are now largely composed of people who have self-selected as willing to put up with years of mandated drudgery. Is it any wonder that self-expressive work and entrepreneurship now hold so much more cachet?

This, anyway, is my uninformed outsider’s opinion. My many friends who have recently or will soon graduate law school are welcome to step up and defend the system.


3 thoughts on “Why I am not a lawyer”

  1. No defense here. I agree. When I decided to pursue law, I made the choice to undergo several years of what I thought would be intense and stressful schooling. In truth, for me at least, it was neither. Nevertheless, I face the bar exam (a barrier that I actually would defend, for various reasons), and then many years of employment where 90% of my work will be drudgery.

    But as you say, law still provides good money. The distinctions between law (and medicine) and other careers as an entrepreneur or in business are that, for the most part, those other careers have more risk (along with more potential reward). If one gets in to a reasonably good law (or medical) school and gets reasonably good grades there, one is basically guaranteed a substantial amount of wealth for so long as one wishes to pursue the profession. Part of that guarantee is thanks to the artificial scarcity of talent caused by the barriers to entry, but nevertheless, it’s cushy.

    The success of the investment economy has meant that over the last 60 years or so, and the last 25 years in particular, the risks of business in America aren’t as high as they once were, and the rewards are higher. Much less risk, for instance, than business in a developing country. And so the prestige of our professions has dipped in comparison to careers that tend, in our country right now, to be more lucrative. In developing countries, however, law and medicine are still accorded the same prestige they once were in America. It’s why our legal and medical corps are now composed of so many foreigners. When you’re very comfortable, you’re willing to take risks.

    That brings up another interesting point for which I have no support. I am sure that, compared to former demographic profiles, applicants to the legal and medical professions now come more from more middle-class backgrounds. The professions used to be reserved to the wealthy, but that is no longer the case. I think that is both symptomatic of, and causative of the decline in prestige.

  2. No defense of the system, but an observation (concurrence with Barzelay?) that law school isn’t really all that arduous… certainly not compared to doing real work. With the exception of my first run through finals which was exceedingly stressful, I found my pre-law school work experiences to be much more panic inducing. They were often more time consuming as well.

    This, I’m sure, is in no way a harbinger of the stressfulness and lengthy time requirements of future employment opportunities.

  3. Hmmmmm, I actually found law school to be incredibly hard and constantly stressful. True, I am the type who is easily stressed. But in law school, I had SO much more work than I ever had in college and was always struggling to catch up. I could never “turn off”…I was always worrying about the next thing I needed to accomplish.

    I much prefer working in the “real world.” However stressful my job gets (which comes and goes depending on how near I am to a trial), I can generally go home at night and turn off. It’s so…free-feeling. I have free time, again!

    But, yeah, I can offer no defense of law school except to say that I found it inherently interesting. It certainly didn’t teach me how to be a good lawyer (beyond the first year).

    If the bar system actually kept crappy lawyers out of the courts, I’d have more support for it. But some of the lawyers I deal with make it abundantly clear that isn’t the case.

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