Lawyering to Give

September 25th, 2014
ea, money
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.
Writing in the Harvard Law Record, Bill Barlow argues that a law student who goes into corporate law and gives 25% of their income to the best charities they can find will do more good than one who goes into academia, government, or public interest work.

Sima Atri responded in the same edition of the Law Record, and Elie Mystal responded in Above the Law a few days later. Both are solidly convinced that this is not an approach that benefits the world, let alone the best approach for a Harvard Law graduate. And both are convinced the arguments are obviously flawed:

Mystal: It's pretty stupid. It's not absurd enough to achieve Jonathan Swift levels of parody, nor is it thought through enough to be taken seriously.
Atri: I am not responding to this article because I think the arguments merit the time and energy I will spend writing this up.
The main issue seems to be that both responders have dismissed the possibility that someone going into corporate law would actually donate 25% of their salary. This turns the "earn money and give a lot of it away" proposal into "earn money and spend it on yourself," and it's not surprising that they wouldn't have much respect for someone arguing that you should do this:
Atri: I can bet that almost no one going into corporate law next year is donating 30% of their post-tax income to charity.
Mystal: 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.
Leaving aside that I know several people in corporate law who are earning to give, along with others in finance, teaching, software development, and other professions, they're making the wrong comparison. They're saying "considering the people I know who are going into corporate law, I can't imagine them starting to donate 25% of their income to charity". And they may well be right! The article isn't aimed at people who've already decided to go into corporate law, however, it's aimed at people who want to maximize the good they do. Consider each of the jobs Barlow describes relative to going into corporate law and keeping all the money. Each one has an amount of money you're passing up in order to do good, and an amount you keep:
Job Income Kept Income Forgone
Corporate Law, donating 25% $75k $25k
Public Interest $33k $67k
Government $40k $60k
Academia $26k $74k
Deciding to go into government law, for example, is like deciding to take a $100k job and donate everything above $40k. If Barlow's salary estimates are reasonable, someone going into corporate law and donating 25% has much more income left over for rent, student loan payments, and other expenses than someone choosing any of these other routes. Someone with an income of $75k is hardly "functionally poor."

After writing off the idea that people might donate 25% of their income (let alone 50%) as unrealistic the responding authors then seem to just assume that Barlow actually meant a much lower number. For example:

Mystal: I can just imagine a Big Phrama lawyer who spends six days a week to protect the company's patent monopoly on life-saving drugs, then cuts a check for $6 for a bug net and thinks he's done his good deed for the month.

Yes, of course that's wrong. Don't just donate $6/month! Barlow is proposing giving 25% of an $100k salary, or $2k/month. But this does get us into their second objection, which is more substantive: corporate law does harm:

Atri: I say this because you are not choosing to go into neutral, apolitical, work. None of us working in the legal profession are. Your firm, Bill, has represented JPMorgan Chase, a bank that backed thousands of predatory and racist loans and helped create the foreclosure crisis. Your firm also (according to its website) "routinely defends companies faced with serious products liability and consumer fraud claims ... involving thousands of claimants." For those thousands of claimants who were first harmed by faulty products, and then denied any remedy, your charity may be less than appreciated.

Going into corporate law means you should expect to be involved in a range of work, some of it harmful and some of it helpful. All of these situations could be either: patent monopolies are how we've ended up funding most of our drug research but loosening them up in some cases could be good; product liability and consumer fraud claims can go either way depending on the facts of the situation. But let's apply a "show me the harm" style argument. There are 760k lawyers in the US, and say half of them work in the private sector. That's 390k people. If you expect that someone going into corporate law while donating an amount that saves ~10 lives a year is harmful, then the net harm of corporate lawyers must more than 3.9M deaths a year. This is 14% of total worldwide deaths, and this doesn't include corporate lawyers in other countries. This is enough deaths that it seems pretty clear donating 25% does far more good than the harm you could plausibly be doing as a lawyer.

But what really worries me is when people start going down the path of "money doesn't matter":

Mystal: People who are actually concerned about the public interest don't think that way. They don't think that currency is the only tender that can or should be offered up in an effort to make things better. They resist the endless attempts to commodify every action or inaction in this country with dollars and cents. The author estimates that you could save 150 lives a year by donating $25,000 to anti-malarial bug nets. That's a great use of your spare cash, but you've got nothing on the people who spend their time helping to distribute those bug nets, or even the people who teach proper bug net use.

This is wrong in a poisonous harmful way, more wrong than everything else in the piece. Altruism isn't about sacrifice, it's not about whether you help via time, money, or materials, it's about having a positive impact on the people you're trying to help. If spending time distributing nets helps more people than spending time earning money to help fund a local organization that distributes nets then you should do that, but if it's the other way then you should earn the money and donate it instead. There's nothing categorically better about volunteering over other other ways of helping, and to say otherwise is to make giving about the donor instead of the people who really matter.

So how would I object to Barlow's article? His estimate of the cost to save a life is too low, but even at a more likely $2500/life, donating 25% would be saving 10 lives a year. His dismissals of the value of government, academic, and public interest work are also too strong: while it's very hard to estimate the benefit of a career in, say, academia, I wouldn't write it off entirely. Ten deaths a year [1] is a steep opportunity cost to balance, but dramatic legal process improvements could probably have a benefit larger than that. So it still might be worth going into one of the other branches of law if you had a strong reason to believe your particular job would have very large benefits [2]. But overall I wouldn't object at all: the simple math of earning to give is very powerful.

[1] In fact it's more like 30, because the comparison for "go into academia and earn $26k" should be "go into corporate law and donate all but $26k."

[2] After accounting for replaceabilty.

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