Sunday, January 13, 2008

Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief

As a health care attorney by day, I can relate to the recent NYTimes article on the decline in self-esteem for those who toll in the professions of law and medicine. In The Falling-Down Professions, the article discusses the diminishing prestige in those once lofty professions, stating:

Make no mistake, law and medicine — the most elite of the traditional professions — have always been demanding. But they were also unquestionably prestigious. Sure, bankers made big money and professors held impressive degrees.

But in 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.”

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.”

See also, The Prestige Factor: Have Lawyers Lost Their Status?.

Certainly, the long hours and the boring, tedious work have long been the bane of our existence -- for both doctors and lawyers, but the Times points to a new phenomenon -- the loss of prestige in both professions, which until now has at least made the effort worthwhile for most.

I know countless colleagues who are miserable in their current job situations, yet feel an overwhelming helplessness to find a reasonable alternative career path. In fact, a recent Wall Street Journal article said that at many as 19% of lawyers suffer depression (vs. 6.7 of the general population), Even Lawyers Get the Blues. See also, now that's depressing. Those statistics do not surprise me at all. If anything, I'd say they were low. I think in part it's because many people who go into law (and medicine) are those who are highly intelligent, competitive and motivated and the jobs just can't measure up to the expectations. There's just too much drudgery inherent in these careers to sufficiently stimulate and satisfy the people who are attracted to these fields.

In essence, it's rare to be able to find the happy balance. Luckily for me, I'm one of the few who have. I certainly concur with the sentiment expressed at Legal Blog Watch, More on Unhappy Lawyers:
Solo champion Susan Cartier Liebel agrees that large firm practice no longer is desirable, and she blames the firms for their plight. Cartier Liebel also says that solo lawyers don't have the same angst as large firm lawyers, because solos decide about their 'work life, income and definition of success.'
It's been a (very) long time since I was a trial attorney and practiced in a big firm, and I understand that the hours and stress in big firms today are substantially worse than I experienced way back when. Of course, the current pay at the big firms is obscene as well, which necessarily contributes to the pressure to bill, bill, bill (and work, work, work). But I can't deny that I make a pretty good living where I am and I honestly enjoy my career. In fact, on occasion, I've been recruited by bigger firms, but I couldn't dream of doing that again -- ever. In other words, I don't regret my choice at all. I'm (mostly) my own boss and my clients (who are in various positions within the health care field), are hardworking professionals who are just trying to do the best that they could (and to make a decent living while they are at it).

However, I'm so far removed from the realm aspired to by many of the big firm lawyers that, to some extent, the loss of professional satisfaction experienced by these professionals doesn't apply to me. Yet, having been there (and done that), I understand the angst:

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.

This decline, Mr. Florida argued, is rooted in a broader shift in definitions of success, essentially, a realignment of the pillars. Especially among young people, professional status is now inextricably linked to ideas of flexibility and creativity, concepts alien to seemingly everyone but art students even a generation ago.

* * * *

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, 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.

Doctors rarely approach such heights. While income varies widely, a typical physician might earn $150,00 to $300,000, according to data. A surgeon might make $250,000 to $400,000; hot-shot surgeons can earn $750,000 a year, and superstars over a million dollars.

But absolute numbers are not the only issue, Mr. Coleman said.

The professions still largely award income in the traditional sense — a set, orderly progression, over the course of decades. Careers in more entrepreneurial industries like hedge funds and private equity firms follow the sky-is-the-limit model of the entertainment industry, the Web or professional sports.

Ah yes, there's the rub -- in the end, for many, it's all there is -- the $$$. Lawyers don't mind being the butt of lawyer jokes, so long as they are at the top of the financial heap. It when the tables are rearranged, and the money is too, that makes it harder to accept the loss in status. See Rich lawyer, poor lawyer.

What's the answer? Others, like me, have opined on their experiences. I think the advice of Legal Blog Watch is on point, which says:

Other law bloggers used the New York Times article to reflect upon their own personal choices. Victoria Pychon of the Negotiation Law Blog reflects on her career history, and urges readers to "take the long view" and follow their dreams. And Kevin O'Keefe at LexBlog also advises lawyers to

Find something you love doing. Do work you'll find personally and professionally rewarding. May hurt in the pocketbook in the short term, but it's worth it.

As for me, I've always believed that neither law (nor medicine for that matter) ever guaranteed wild financial success. Exposing and reinforcing this fact may be redundant, but it deters those people interested only in money from entering the legal profession at all. And perhaps that, more than anything will improve the morale of the profession and raise its stature.


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I appreciate the last quote very much. Lawyers should do something that they find right and in favor of society.

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Ben said...

How can he be all of these things at once? Are you implying that the chief is responsible for all the above?

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