In favor of "BigLaw"

Last Friday, my amazing little brother published an article in the Harvard Law Record entitled Want to Save the World? Do BigLaw! which has had mixed reception, including a rebuttal that was published in conjunction with it.

My brother has an intentionally inflammatory style for humor (see also: our childhood), but his point was this: if you can withstand the indulgent aspects of corporate culture, then you can do more good by making lots of money and donating it to effective charities than you can by donating your career to particular causes.

While I think that there always individual exceptions, I agree with his analysis.  The market has greater capacity for corporate lawyers than for public interest or government positions.  Additionally, the scope of influence for the latter two is usually limited to the nation in which the individual practices.  In the case of American public interest lawyers, the people benefiting from their services are usually American citizens or residents (legal or otherwise).

In all countries there are marginalized populations; these people deserve advocacy and legal protection.  However, if citizens of a nation wait until all of their fellow residents are happy and healthy before they look outside their own country to do good, then they will likely be waiting indefinitely.

The US is incredibly privileged.  We still have problems, but citizens of many, many other countries have it much, much worse off than even the poorest among us here.  We can choose to pay $3 for someone's lunch in America, or spend that same money on a Malaria net that saves a child's life [1].  It simply comes down to the most effective allotment of resources.  (And requires thinking globally instead of nationally.)

In the case of law, I think the numbers work out in favor of practicing corporate law and donating a percentage of your income.  Everyone must make their own choices, but I think if more people took this path, it wouldn't only be good for the recipients: lawyers practicing this lifestyle might begin to change corporate society, steering it away from consumerism and self-indulgence.

Press for his original article:
Above the Law: What Harvard Law Students Tell Themselves When The Demon Come

[1] Probabilistically, it actually takes more than that to save a life, since not everyone is guaranteed to get malaria; the AMF puts the figure at about $2,500/life.  In the US, that could be used for a fancy computer or a vacation.  It's also less than four month's net income for the average US food stamp recipient household.  The average food stamp recipient is gets $133.85/month, or less than $1.50/person/meal.  So the real comparison is helping to feed a family of four (in the US) for a little over a year vs. saving a life.  It's not so cut and dry, but I think the life still wins.


Anonymous said...

I'm skeptical that corporations working under the free-market-maximize-profits paradigm can be steered by insiders; it seems systemic to me that they exploit existing systems to make a profit and hire staff that helps them do that most efficiently. I doubt the effect of funneling your income to good causes is enough of a counterweight to the detrimental effects of proliferating and enhancing the power of big corporations. Only recently I saw a professor for business ethics teach that "the ethics are in the system, and therefore we are free to use every loophole and consider ourselves ethical". I wouldn't expect a mentality like that to change by helping businesses that follow it be profitable.

ajbc said...

You might be right. However, corporate decisions are made by people, not rule-following machines, and so there is some possibility of a change in culture. At the very least, employee culture could shift, and some companies seem to care a lot about their internal cultures.

But that isn't the goal; it's an optimistic side effect. The real goal is to balance self-fulfillment with bettering the world when making personal choices. I think the take-home message is that making lots of money and donating a non-trivial amount of your income is a good, under-used way of achieving that balance.

Also, what exactly are the detrimental effects of having big, powerful, corporations? That's meant as an honest question; I'm fairly ignorant on such matters.

Jeff Kaufman said...

I found it frustrating that all the responses I could find just ignored the possibility that someone would actually go ahead and make the donations that Bill's argument is based on you making:

"""I can bet that almost no one going into corporate law next year is donating 30% of their post-tax income to charity."" --

"""To even get into this argument, you have to accept the premise that there is any Biglaw associate, anywhere, who is going to give away 25% of their post-tax salary. And you would have to be really dumb to accept that premise. It’s a dumb premise, even if you assume that Biglaw associates are desperate to make charitable contributions to the world. Between rent and student loan payments, giving 25% away would make it a struggle for most associates to pay all their other bills. People don’t bill 60 hours a week working for the greater good of corporate clients to be functionally poor.""" --

Bill's article is writing about someone with an income of $100k. Donating 25% of that leaves you with $75k, which is much more than you would have working in one of the other jobs Bill considers, much more than you probably lived on in law school, and far from "functionally poor".

Yes, if you don't actually give the 25% then going into biglaw isn't very world-saving, but why assume that?

ajbc said...