That’s the basic question posed by this interesting piece, currently the most emailed article on the New York Times website. After describing some of the sufferings of lawyers and doctors today, Alex Williams writes:
[I]n the days when a successful career was built on a number of tacitly recognized pillars — outsize pay, long-term security, impressive schooling and authority over grave matters — doctors and lawyers were perched atop them all.
Now, those pillars have started to wobble.
“The older professions are great, they’re wonderful,” said Richard Florida, the author of “The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life” (Basic Books, 2003). “But they’ve lost their allure, their status. And it isn’t about money.”
Oh really? Tell that to the readers of ATL. Compensation coverage sends our traffic through the roof.
More discussion, after the jump.
Perhaps the reporter read our mind. Here’s a refinement of that earlier statement:
Or at least, it is not all about money. The pay is still good (sometimes very good), and the in-laws aren’t exactly complaining. Still, something is missing, say many doctors, lawyers and career experts: the old sense of purpose, of respect, of living at the center of American society and embodying its definition of “success.”
In a culture that prizes risk and outsize reward — where professional heroes are college dropouts with billion-dollar Web sites — some doctors and lawyers feel they have slipped a notch in social status, drifting toward the safe-and-staid realm of dentists and accountants. It’s not just because the professions have changed, but also because the standards of what makes a prestigious career have changed.
Quite possibly true. If you question the empirical basis for that statement, here’s some evidence:
[A]pplications to law schools and medical schools have declined from recent highs. Nationally, the number of law school applicants dropped to 83,500 in 2006 from 98,700 in 2004—representing a 6.7 percent drop between 2006 and 2005, on top of the 5.2 percent slip the previous year, according to the Law School Admission Council.
(Maybe they’ve been talking to actual lawyers. Forty-four percent of lawyers recently surveyed by the American Bar Association said they would not recommend the profession to a young person.)
The number of applicants to medical school, meanwhile, has dipped to 42,000 from 46,000 in 1997, although it has recovered from a low of 33,000 in 2003.
And here is one former Biglaw associate’s take on the situation:
“We’d all seen the visions, watching ‘L.A. Law,’ or ‘Ally McBeal,’” said Catherine Kersh, 32, a former litigator at a large firm in Los Angeles. “It did seem glamorous.”
Reality, she quickly learned, was different. Ms. Kersh recalled a two-week stretch in which she and a team of associates were holed up in a conference room with 50 boxes of documents. Every day, for 12 hours, they fastened Post-it notes to legal briefs.
We doubt they were fastening post-its to briefs — they were probably reviewing documents produced (or to be produced) during discovery. But whatever.
So what about pro bono work? Isn’t that all noble and sexy and meaningful?
As firms demand ever more billable hours, said Lawrence J. Fox, a partner in the Philadelphia office of Drinker Biddle & Reath, lawyers find less time for pro bono work — the very thing that once gave them a sense of higher calling. Increased competitive pressures also mean that young associates are often locked into arcane sub-specialties, like pharmaceutical product liability.
Sorry to quibble yet again, but pharma products liability isn’t that arcane. At least it’s something you can explain to non-lawyers you meet at a cocktail party (unlike, say, anything having to do with ERISA).
Back to the subject of money:
And then there is, yes, the money issue. Or rather, money envy. Associates at major New York firms often start at $150,000 to $180,000, said Bill Coleman, the chief compensation officer at Salary.com, a company that tracks income statistics. Partners at the country’s biggest 100 firms took home an average of $1.2 million in 2006, according to American Lawyer.
Hardly small sums, but for many senior investment bankers, bonuses and salaries this year will average $2.25 million to $2.75 million, according to Options Group, an executive search and consulting firm.
The article closes with some discussion about the long professional path of doctors:
[Young people today] want immediate rewards — not exactly the mentality that will fuel a student through years of medical school, a residency and additional training for a specialty.
“Their attention span, everything, is instant feedback: quick, quick, quick,” Mr. Coleman said. “Apprenticeship, these kids don’t want to do it.”
The same point could be made about the legal profession. A Biglaw partner complaining about an “instant gratification” mentality among associates could cite as evidence some of the comments posted on this site, where “NY to 190″ is a popular rallying cry.
According to this worldview, law firm associates are no longer to content to toil away humbly and quietly, grateful to be learning the craft of lawyering from distinguished partners who are leaders in their fields. Today’s law school graduates want a job with interesting work, perks galore, and a starting salary of $200K. And they want it NOW.
So, ATL readers, what do you think? Is the legal profession losing its allure, or are the people who go into it just more impatient and self-entitled? Would you discourage a young person considering a career in the law from going into the field? Feel free to discuss in the comments.
The Falling-Down Professions [New York Times]