Want to Save the World? Do BigLaw!

For people systematically chosen for being able to root out and analyze the rationality of arguments, lawyers are pitifully bad at being reasonable. Let us look, for instance, at the current theories about what to do with your law degree.

(1) Become a Corporate Lawyer at a Law Firm. By far the most popular choice, but which no one wants to talk about when inspiring you about to change the world. Most people take this, make a lot of money, and spend it on themselves buying big cars, big apartments, big diamonds, and a host of other things that will never make you happy in life.

(2) Become a Public Interest Lawyer. Not nearly as common, yet popular culture has induced the notion that this is nobler than being a corporate sell out by going the law firm route.

(3) Become a Government Lawyer. A nice balance between the two, with the perks of better hours and a reasonable lifestyle. In the good, better, best model, this is the “better” even if no one seems to agree on what the “best” is.

(4) Academia. Prestigious but obtuse. On the one hand it does not suffer from the downside of working for (gasp) giant corporations. On the other hand, no one really understands what utility comes from all those law review articles aspiring professors so desperately want published.

Decisions, decisions, decisions. But where will you do the most good? Conventional wisdom tells you that going into the private sector is bad because you will be working for big corporations that are invariably evil because they are big and because they are corporations. Save the world by going into public interest, fighting for the indigent and the oppressed, or by regulating those greedy corporate types by joining forces with the presumptively beneficent state! Such is the party line.

If you really want to do good by law, consider becoming a corporate lawyer, making a lot of money, and donating a substantial sum to charity. This is by far the greatest utility maximizing option you have. Let’s consider the following different scenarios:

Profession> First Year After Tax Income Utility
Corporate Lawyer $100,000 Allocate your skills by the market. If you decide to spend just 25% of your income on charity, you destroy all other professions by utility.
Public Interest Lawyer $32,500 You make just enough to survive, but get the warm fuzzies that you allocate your skills according to perceived need rather than market value.
Government Lawyer $39,500 You make marginally more than Public Interest Lawyers, and get the warm fuzzies that you use your skills according to the wonderful allocation capacity of the government.
Academia $26,000 You make less than everyone else while writing papers of dubious utility (Can poor people eat using your opinion on law’s impact on poor people?).

Sources: https://www.totaltaxinsights.org/Calculator.  Corporate Lawyer: using $160,000, For Public interest: using $40,000 as per NYU’s mean estimate http://www.law.nyu.edu/careerservices/employmentstatistics.  Government Lawyer: Use $50,790 for as per http://www.justice.gov/legal-careers/attorney-salaries-promotions-and-benefits.  Academia: Use $32,000 as per http://www.law.nyu.edu/careerservices/employmentstatistics.  Single filing status, no dependents.  Assumed living in NYC, though the end results are essentially the same in any city.

Let’s see what you would get if you invested just a quarter of your after tax income as a Corporate lawyer to charity.  If you decide to give to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, one of GiveWell.org’s top rated charities, you could deworm children at a rate of $0.73 to $0.99 per child.  http://www.givewell.org/international/top-charities/schistosomiasis-control-initiative.  In other words, your $25,000 could deworm 25,000 children, seriously improving their quality of life.  If solving Cleft Pallets is your thing, the smile train offers a life changing surgery for $250, meaning that $25,000 could change 100 people’s lives in a permanent way. (Though be careful, Givewell and other watchdogs estimate that the true cost is $1,000 and to be somewhat wary of this charity’s promises.)

Perhaps you could just give directly to the most impoverished, allowing them to decide for themselves what they most need to spend their resources on (hint: its not legal services, it usually is food, cows, and such) through the organization GiveDirectly (http://www.givewell.org/international/top-charities/give-directly). Additionally, for approximately $6, you can distribute a net that reduces child mortality rates for malaria, so with $25,000 you could distribute over 3,000 nets.  With the current estimate of 1 life saved per 20 nets; that equals saving 150 lives per year.  (http://www.againstmalaria.com/onechild.aspx, http://www.givewell.org/international/top-charities/AMF.)

So there you have it—be a corporate lawyer, donate 25% of your post tax income to charity, and save 150 lives a year, or deworm 25,000 kids.  Alternatively, go into Public Interest, Government, or Academia, and feel warm and fuzzy about yourself.  Sadly, when people at this school talk about public service, they mean the latter, rather than the former.  If only people applied the same amount of cognitive skill used in just one LSAT logic game to the most critical question of what to do with their law degree, hundreds of lives could be saved.

Response to Opposing Article: My respected colleague has misdirected her fury away from what is, ultimately, a mathematical question.  Is it better to save the lives of 150 living, breathing, people, or to exert the same effort on an unquantifiable, indefinable “good”? If this article has made you indignant, then good.  I, too, am indignant.  Not for the feelings that I have slighted, but for the lives that could have been saved.