Lawyers: Not Actually Destroying Society

Summarizing detailed academic research for the purposes of a brief news article is always risky business. The sensational claims get the focus while all the detailed background gets lost. You trade the larger context for brevity and page views.

Last week, Bloomberg Businessweek writer Paul Barrett wrote a short summary of a book by Connecticut professor Peter Turchin. The article bears the click-baiting title "Another Reason to Hate Lawyers: They're Destroying American Society." The book, War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, explores the apparent signals societies display when they approach collapse. As Barrett's headline suggests, one of those indicators is a glut of law grads. Or something like that:

So why is it important that we have a multitude of desperate law school graduates and many more politically ambitious rich than 30 years ago? Past waves of political instability, such as the civil wars of the late Roman Republic, the French Wars of Religion, and the American Civil War, had many interlinking causes and circumstances unique to their age. But a common thread in the eras we studied was elite overproduction. The other two important elements were stagnating and declining living standards of the general population and increasing indebtedness of the state.

Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side.

As Turchin sees it, high numbers of law graduates are a sure sign of "elite overproduction" and the cause of "intra-elite competition," separate elements from stagnation and decline in general population living standards. I see it differently, and I'll use myself as an example.

I graduated from Murray State University in Kentucky in 2001 with little debt (university tuition had not yet become astronomical), and then entered the work force as a smart, white male from a middle class background. In past decades and for past generations, my demographic profile and educational achievements would have guaranteed a steady, upward trajectory of promotions and income. However, I had the misfortune to be building a career in the 2000s as "the bubble" neared its ultimate explosion in 2008. Instead of regular raises and advancement, I, like the majority of my generation, found increasing health care costs, Boomers clinging to jobs for fear of an impoverished retirement, higher gas and food costs, and diminishing if not absent raises. Despite working long hours and doing well as a middle manager for nearly a decade, my career had nowhere to go. By 2009, my standard of living was actually declining the longer I worked.

So I, along with many college-educated Americans in their late 20s and 30s, fell victim to the general decline of living standards that Turchin lists separately from the "overproduction of elites." With few solid prospects despite a solid resume, I made a very tough decision - I decided to enroll in law school.

Law school seemed like a reasonable choice for me. I was an A student in college, and my strengths were writing and presentations. I was a confident public speaker, a thorough researcher, and as a manager, I handled other people's problems with confidence and success. I had always been interested in social issues and politics. While an MBA may have been the more obvious educational step, law school held a certain mystique and promise of financial security that I couldn't pass up.

Ultimately, though, my choice to go to law school was a response to the financial and career morass I found myself in. My income was actually decreasing each year. Raises were a thing of the past. None of my superiors were going anywhere, so there was no upward internal mobility within my organization. And my particular background was increasingly specialized to make applying elsewhere a risky endeavor.

So I went to law school, graduated, and became a lawyer. But this is where I think Turchin gets it wrong. I'm not an "elite." I didn't become one when I graduated from law school, and I didn't become one when I started practicing as an attorney. Law schools don't "produce" elites. For me, law school produced a lower-middle class middle manager with an additional resume item. The "elites" aren't people like me who build a modest career for a few years and then go to law school and amass a bunch of debt, they're the children of privilege and wealth to which the vast majority of us aspire but whose luxuries we flail at helplessly.

Law schools today are generating lots of desperate people who sought the financial security promised by a profession which can't make such promises anymore. Those desperate people, ambitious but swindled by diminishing opportunities and increasing social costs, made a rational choice to improve their own lot. Unfortunately, as the statistics show, that improvement still eludes many. Even the lucky ones who found work as attorneys - such as me - still have to build new careers from scratch. They don't hand you the keys to a free BMW when you walk across that aisle on law school graduation day.

The overproduction of law graduates is a symptom of a crumbling middle class, not a separate signal of societal collapse by itself. After all, law graduates without jobs can't possibly be considered elite - they have no clients, no money, and no social power. They are no different from any other unemployed or underemployed 20- or 30-somethings desperate to receive the security they were promised by their parents and by society when they dutifully went to school for nineteen years of their lives.

And there is no "intra-elite" competition when it comes to law graduates. There is competition among law graduates for existing jobs in what appears to be a shrinking legal employment pie, but to have intra-elite competition, you need actual elites. In our larger society, the competition now is among the underprivileged for the few middle class scraps there are left to claim. Law graduates, most saddled with outrageous debt and with few job prospects, are in a financial situation no one could possibly call "elite." They stand alongside the vast majority of Americans struggling together to succeed despite an ongoing recession, fewer good jobs, dwindling benefits, and stagnant wages.

I suppose the lesson here is: don't mistake symptoms of a problem for its cause. If American society is in fact being "destroyed," it's not being destroyed by an army of unemployed, deeply indebted law graduates whose sole possession is a fancy piece of paper with their name on it. If "intra-elite competition" is a signal of societal collapse, we must look elsewhere to find it.