Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Is It OK To Make Money As A Lawyer?

Last night, a comment I made on twitter caused a raging debate about lawyers and money.

I said: "People who go to law school to become lawyers for the purpose of making money are no different then prostitutes."

My meaning? Prostitutes are engaged in an important function: sex. In some relationships sex is part of love, in others, it's just superficial, like prostitution.

My comment was interpreted as being critical of lawyers who make good money.

After an hour so of debate, some got it.

My point was that those that enter law only to make money, are part of the problem.

If your only purpose for going to law school. for practicing law, is to make money, then you have no sense of the higher calling that is the profession.

Being a lawyer is important.

Making money is a nice thing.

I believe one of the reasons we are so hated in society is because of the notion that we are all "rich." Truth be told, most lawyers are not rich, but "rich" is usually defined as someone who makes $1 more than the person making the accusation.

That being said, we did not take an oath to poverty. When I hear a PI lawyer obtained a $100 million verdict, or a fellow criminal lawyer got a six-figure fee for a big case, or a divorce lawyer is working on a multi-million dollar divorce, I say "way to go."

Doctors make good money, health care costs are out of control, but you dont hear people being critical of doctors salaries. It's not sexy. Unless it's a charity medical procedure, you never hear that a patient received a heart transplant and the doctor received $50,000. When we hear how much people make, the worst in us comes out.

Lawyers work hard to build practices. We go to school at least 3 years longer than most others, and the stresses of the career are not well understood. Many of us lay awake at night, having absorbed as our own the problems of our clients.

And yes, there are scumbags among us, those that give us a "bad name." There is bad in every profession. No segment of the workforce is exempt. Unfortunately when lawyers are criticized, it's often preceded by the term "money grubbing."

I just wish we could weed out those lawyers in law school.

Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. Read his free ebook The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer. Please visit www.tannebaumweiss.com

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30 comments:

David V. Lorenzo said...

Show me a person in ANY business who does not care about money and I'll show you someone who is broke.

You need to make money in order to take on the kind of matters that are important to you.

Dave Lorenzo

http://RainmakerLawyer.com

Brian Tannebaum said...

David, I agree. I am speaking more from a philisophical standpoint as to why the lawyer entered the profession. I went to law school to become an advocate. When I was asked why I was going to law school, I would have never thought to say "to make money." Lawyers who are in the profession solely to make money will make choices that do not comport with the high calling the profession deserves

David V. Lorenzo said...

I understand.

But let's not confuse people who are morally bankrupt with people who earn a good living because of the value they bring to the market.

I run into attorneys all the time who say: "I don't care about money. I just do this because I want to set precedent or "break new ground". I applaud that ambition but breaking new ground is a lot easier when you have the resources.

Money is important to everyone.

Now as far a making bad choices - unethical or illegal behavior - rich people and people who are not financially motivated can be equal opportunity offenders.

David V. Lorenzo said...

In a perfect world, people would become an attorneys because they want to help people.

And people who would love being teachers would go into teaching and get paid as much as CEOs - instead of taking other jobs.

And firefighters would make as much as baseball players.

But the world has a screwed up value system.

So I guess we agree that attorneys who get into the law because they believe in helping others are good.

I have a problem with the folks who try to downplay the importance of the financial component of this or any other profession. Money is important to all of our survival. Pretending that it is not is disingenuous.

Mike said...

"Lawyers who are in the profession solely to make money will make choices that do not comport with the high calling the profession deserves."

Brian, it's hard to take the "higher calling" of law seriously when you have law schools charging $40,000+ a year for tuition. Mnay of these oprivate law schools such as NYLS are not worth the investment. These law schools are filled with academics who have never practiced law or big law refugees.

If they thought law was a higher calling perhaps they could lower tuition? No chance.

I would love to be a DA or PD but I simply cannot afford to do it at $40,000 a year. So I took a job in civil litigation. I'm not complaining, that's life.

Brian Tannebaum said...

David, yes money is important, but you must remember those lawyers in public service, legal aid, and other low paying jobs. There is nothing wrong with money being important, but I contend that when it is the driving force, it demeans the true core of what a lawyer is.

Mike, you bring up a different and troubling issue for me. There are law students who would love to be prosecutors or public defenders, or work in legal aid jobs, but their law school debt prevents that. They must then take a higher paying job just to survive. I don't believe those graduates are therefore solely motivated by money in becoming lawyers, just being practical in a system that does not help those that wish to work in public service.

David V. Lorenzo said...

Money is a driving force for everyone to a certain extent.

The need for safety and security is one of Maslow’s basic needs in the hierarchy of all human needs. If one does not have money one cannot be safe and secure.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs

Being motivated by financial success does not make someone bad, it makes them human.

This is precisely the reason why people do not often spend their career in public service positions. They cannot afford to.

When these good folks leave to go into private practice, do they become “bad” people?

They made the change because of money….

It was their driving force…

Brian Tannebaum said...

Nothing wrong with being motivated by financial success, whether you are a lawyer, truck driver, or refrigerator salesman. My point is a very narrow one and that is those that enter the legal profession as lawyers for no other reason then to amass wealth.

Those that leave public service to make more money, I have no issue with either. Nothing wrong with realizing that you need to earn more to feed your family or that your skills may be worthy of more money.

SFlaw said...

David, it sounds like you are conflating money with happiness and security. You also seem to assume that not caring about money means you will be broke, which I disagree with. What does not caring about money mean anyway? To me it just means it is not priority # 1. I think that is good, because that can kind of warp some people's minds and their motivations.

True, you need money in this world to prevent yourself from living in a box on the street, but how much money you need to be happy and secure is largely subjective once you get beyond that baseline of, well, not living in a box on the street.

Crushing law school debt sucks big time, I know all about it, but one can survive and still pursue the work they want, such as public interest, if one makes certain sacrifices in their lifestyle. (And these sacrifices are easier to bear if one also is confident that one will not have to make them forever, just as long as necessary to pay off the debt). It just depends on what you want in life: does having a nice car and a big house/apartment/TV equal happiness? Sure, those things are nice, but not everyone values those things over others. What about having a job that gets you out of bed every morning eager to go to work, with a loving wife and family to welcome you home? Obviously money is "needed" to keep your loving wife and family safe and secure, but how much is needed is very different from how much is wanted, or desirable, and this differs amongst almost everyone. Desiring money as your first priority is not necessary to realize that goal, I think.

I think that "not caring" about money does not mean you are broke or that you will be destitute, and it does not even mean you don't realize the necessity of money. It just means your priorities are elsewhere.

There is my hippie west coast rant of the day.

David V. Lorenzo said...

SF,

I guess we have come to a semantic dead end.

My interpretation of "not caring" about something means that it is of no concern.

Everyone who likes to eat cares about money on some level.

Brian,

I agree that being motivated to amass wealth is different than simply earning a living.

Are you saying that people who enter the law profession for the sole reason of amassing wealth are bad people?

Are you saying that people who become lawyers to "make a lot of money" are incapable of rising to the top of the profession?

Are you saying that people whose primary motivation in building a law business (deliberate choice of words) is to amass as much wealth for the business owners as possible, are ill-motivated?

Dave


(By the way: This is a productive discussion and fodder for a presentation I am giving in a few weeks so I thank you in advance for continuing to play along.)

Moshe said...

The way I see this is that Brian is specifically referring to people who see senior partners in large firms(etc..) making millions of dollars and decide they want a piece of that pie and base their decision to enter law school on that.
He is distinguishing those people who feel that becoming a lawyer is a better way for them to earn a more lucrative living.
Or not... If you ask me why I am in Law school I will tell you that I want to make more. I work full-time with a family to support and I made a decision that the legal field would offer me more and better opportunities.

Brett Dusek said...

I like this blog post. Sometimes as a society we are quick to judge those who we have categorized as "evil". My perspective changed this weekend tremendously when an attorney with the company I am an associate of got on stage and gave his testimonial. I think the disconnect between the average American and the cost of an Attorney has damaged our legal system and the original purpose of our democracy. Thats why I chose to join this company. I love that we are bringing attorneys into the homes of the middle class and in a way they can afford! I hope one day they will change the philosophy that has plagued our judicial system.

Brett
http://generatingparttimeincome.blogspot.com/

SFlaw said...

David,

But there is a big difference between money being a "driving force," as you said in a comment above, and only caring about money as a means to an end, such as putting food on the table, isn't there?

I think the crux of the matter, at least to me when I think of this issue, is this: are you motivated to represent your client solely in order to extract money from said client, or to actually serve them and advocate on their behalf. I believe those are two completely different things.

Brian Tannebaum said...

Moshe, bingo. That's exactly what I am saying. People see lawyers who appear to be financially successful and say "I'll be a lawyer," without knowing what it is really all about.

But then Moshe, you make my argument by saying: "If you ask me why I am in Law school I will tell you that I want to make more. I work full-time with a family to support and I made a decision that the legal field would offer me more and better opportunities."

So my question to you is why not become a doctor, or start a business, or sell something? What is it about practicing law, sans the money, that interests you? Do you want to help people, try cases? What is it that is attracting you to law, besides money?

David V. Lorenzo said...

Is this different from any other profession?

Would a salesperson who sells vacuums be unethical if he only sold vacuums because he needed the money?

Brian Tannebaum said...

That David is the crux of it. Law is a profession, a higher calling. Selling vacuums doesn't require a license or advanced degree. It is a respectable career, but it is not something that the government says "here's what you must to do be able to do this job."

David V. Lorenzo said...

By that logic a massage therapist should also be considered a "higher calling" because that requires a license and schooling. Should those folks should be judged based upon their motivation for rubbing the bodies of strangers?

I understand the point of your argument I just think the logic is flawed and distorted by generalization.

We need to see the results to fairly judge the attorney. We proceed down a slippery slope when we try to assess the work of others based on what we believe is their motivation. If the attorney gets the results legally and ethically, does it matter why he became a lawyer?

Brian Tannebaum said...

How's this for clarification of my point: Lawyers are part of the spokes in the wheels of the 3rd branch of government, the judiciary. I think if you want to go into that profession, you should do so for a higher purpose than making money. That should help separate lawyers from massage therapists

You're right, one should never assess the work of others based on what we believe is their motivation, but when more and more of the people in the legal profession are there because they watched too much LA Law, and the reputation of the profession continues to dwindle, there is a correlation.

Moshe said...

I was thinking about that exact question when I posted my comment.
You are right, there are other professions that would be just as lucrative. I was drawn to law by numerous factors - the previous training I have had in analytical thinking; the desire to be a part of the system of our government; to help people.

I think the best part of this post is that most people (with the exceptions of those you are referring to) will really have an underlying reason if they stop to think about it. What's more worrying is that the only person I have ever heard who decried the idea of becoming a lawyer for the money is a lawyer. Shouldn't the public have a sense of what makes a moral lawyer? They obviously do, since on average they dislike lawyers. Why do they take it for granted that anyone practicing law is morally (but not financially) bankrupt? And why, despite the jokes and insults, are they ok with it?

shg said...

Brian's point seemed quite clear, and that there are so many comments that demonstrate an inability to grasp it is quite surprising. If one chooses to become a lawyer because it offers what is perceived to be a good income, but without any desire to be a lawyer, then one might as well make womens dresses. This does not mean the obverse, that a person who wants to be a lawyer does not want to earn a good living, or that it's wrong to earn a good living as a lawyer. Rather, it simply means that becoming a lawyer, rather than a dressmaker, should be based on a desire to practice law rather than earn a lawyer's income.

Thus, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a lawyer earning a good living, and charging his clients for his services. But that should not be the sole or primary reason someone selects law as a career, and if it is, she will most likely find law unfulfilling and inadequately rewarding.

As for the public's perception and hatred of lawyers, they believe that the fact that lawyers charge for their services, rather than give their time and efforts freely in the name of justice, means that lawyers are in it solely for the money and, hence, are mere prostitutes.

It is an irrational view, as desiring justice and feeding one's family are not mutually exclusive goals, but the public's perceptions are not bound by reason, leaving the public to believe things based on false logic. That's life.

Was any of this really in doubt?

MissForrest said...

Consider this illustration:

I'm a law student in Mississippi, and lately we've seen scandal after scandal among practitioners, all because of money. Google "Dickie Scruggs," an extremely successful (now incarcerated) attorney who recovered vast sums of money for tobacco and asbestos plaintiffs. He also put together a group of lawyers who successfully sued the insurance companies who would not honor the policies of Hurricane Katrina victims. These are all good things.

But then there was a fee dispute over what amounts to a drop in the bucket of the Katrina recovery. Scruggs sent one of his guys to offer a bribe to the circuit judge over the case, and the judge blew the whistle on the whole thing. A lawyer wrapped up in that scandal has revealed that there were other bribes in other fee disputes, including one to a federal judge who was appointed to the bench by Scruggs' brother-in-law, then Senator Trent Lott. A DA was also part of this scandal. The DA and the federal judge were the DA's in the "Mississippi Burning" case. Scruggs is the subject of John Grisham's "King of Torts."

Our system in Mississippi is broken because of lawyers and judges who placed money above the system's integrity. Although this is an extreme example, it literally touches every area of my state. No one, lawyer or not, is a paragon of virtue, but lawyers absolutely must hold ourselves up to the highest ethical standards. Sometimes that means letting a big pile of money get away. Scruggs was already a rich man. A billionaire doesn't have to "survive" or struggle to keep his business alive. But until all this shook out, plenty of law students--classmates of mine, even--wanted to be like Dickie Scruggs one day.

Even one greedy, corrupt lawyer can poison the whole justice system, and that is simply unacceptable. There is nothing wrong with making a good living, or wanting to make a good living. But we have to know where to draw the line. I am very suspicious of lawyers who have acquisition of wealth high on the list of priorities.

Mike said...

Look. I paid $150,000 for the privilege of becoming a lawyer.
I have to make a substantial amount of money just to live comfortably if I want to pay a mortgage in a half decent area, pay for my kids, and hopefully save for retirement! I don't feel the least bit guilty about it.

On the other hand I agree that there are a few greedy lawyers who have lost the plot. i.e. Mark Dreier and alot of Biglaw partners. I don't see any relationship between these people and some lawyer wants to make $250,000 a year to support a family and drive a Honda van.


I agree that if you practice in an area you enjoy, you will become good at it and the money will come as a by product of that. A good lawyer should make good money in the private sector.

South Florida Lawyers said...

This is a great discussion. I would only add that us being in a "profession" means we have additional duties and obligations that those who are simply "in business" do not.

Those include obligations of candor and good faith to our professional colleagues; obligations and duties to our judges as officers of the Court; and duties and obligations to our clients.

Those three-pronged sets of obligations and duties distinguish us as a profession and require us to think about more than simply the personal generation of income.

Jared said...

If the market is functioning properly, then--regardless of the motivation--only those lawyers who provide value would receive value.

Brian Tannebaum said...

Miss Forrest, great comment. You're right, even one greedy lawyer can spoil it all. We all suffer because of that one greedy lawyer. People tend to generalize.

Mike, you still don't seem to disagree with my premise (which Scott Greenfield perfectly clarified). I do not want people entering the law profession for the sole purpose of amassing wealth.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to make money, wanting to be paid appropriately for your services. This morning over coffee I was chastising a young lawyer for charging a paltry, fee in a very important and complicated case, so I understand and agree.

You say you "have to make a substantial amount of money just to live comfortably." OK. But is that the reason you are becoming a lawyer? Because if so, candidly, I don't want you (meaning anyone like you) as a colleague.

David V. Lorenzo said...

The only point I have been trying to make (unsuccessfully):

If you provide outstanding value for your clients and you do it legally, morally and ethically, nobody has a right to question your motivation.

Few people will admit that they are motivated by the accumulation of wealth – but most successful people are, at least to some extent.

Wanting to make money is not bad. That’s all I’m saying.

floridaduipro said...

re: "And yes, there are scumbags among us, those that give us a "bad name." There is bad in every profession." I've tried a lot of cases...50+ acquittals, i might add. i ask every jury in voir dire, "anyone have a bad experience with a lawyer." guess what! to this day, i haven't had a juror raise his or her hand.

Susan Cartier Liebel said...

The old adage applies: There is nothing wrong with doing well by doing good. Money follows good high quality work motivated by some for of passion for what you are doing as your chosen profession...regardless the profession.

Being a lawyer is tough whether in Big Law or going solo. So you HAVE to be motivated by more than money in order to succeed and find some measure of happiness otherwise you will not be able to survive crushing professional blows, disappointments, non-paying clients, unfair grievances, professional rules which put a stranglehold on your ability to grow, a poor public image and much more. You have to believe in what you are doing or misery will surely follow.

Even with crushing student loans, if your decisions are strictly driven by dollars you will end up like 50% of the lawyers out there who leave the profession or stay in it with its high rates of depression and more.

It's that simple and that complex.

Richard Head said...

Hey floridaduipro, I've tried a lot of cases...5000+ acquittals, i might add. i ask every jury in voir dire, "anyone have a bad experience with a lawyer." guess what! to this day, every single one raised their hands and said they thought you were a jerk.

I win.

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