Which field of law should you go into?

By William MacAskill

In this guest post series, I’ll write about ethical career choice. Within law school, students often face a dilemma about which field to go into. On one hand, one could go into an ‘ethical’ field, such as a district attorney or public defense job — and, for the readers of this blog, I guess that health law and academia are also salient options. On the other hand, one could go into corporate law, where there are more jobs, better pay, and less bureaucracy, but little direct positive impact. For many people, this can seem like a dilemma between doing what’s best for yourself, and what’s best for the world.

I’m going to argue that this dilemma is ill-posed. I’m going to argue that earning to give — that is, deliberately taking a high-paying career (such as within corporate law) in order to donate a substantial proportion to the very best causes — is often a better way of doing good than working in a job that directly does good. Because of the venue, in subsequent posts I’ll have the opportunity to explore some of the philosophical issues in more depth than I’ve been able to in some of my other writings.

I’ll give two considerations in favour of earning to give. I’m not arguing that these considerations are decisive for every person. But there are strong considerations that often aren’t fully appreciated or properly understood, and they should be thought about hard.

The first consideration is that “making a difference” requires doing something that wouldn’t have happened anyway. To see this, suppose you come across a woman who’s had a heart attack. Luckily, someone trained in CPR is keeping her alive until the ambulance arrives. But you also know CPR. Should you push this other person out of the way and take over? The answer is obviously “no.” You wouldn’t be a hero; you wouldn’t have made a difference.

Similarly with legal jobs the directly do good. The competition for these jobs is fierce, and if someone else takes the job instead of you, he or she likely won’t be much worse at it than you would have been. So the difference you make by taking the job is only the difference between the good you would do, and the good that the other person would have done.

Of course, the competition for corporate law jobs is even fiercer, but if someone else gets the corporate job instead of you, he or she would not likely donate as much to charity. The average donation from an American household is less than 5% of income—a proportion that decreases the richer the household. So if you are determined to give a large share of your earnings to charity, the difference you make by taking that job is much greater.

The second consideration is that charities vary tremendously in the amount of good they do with the money they receive. For example, it costs about $40,000 to train and provide a guide dog for one person, but it costs less than $25 to cure one person of sight-destroying trachoma. For the cost of improving the life of one person with blindness, you can cure 1,000 people of it.

This matters because if you decide to in a job that directly does good, you’re rather limited. You can only change jobs so many times, and it’s unlikely that you can work for only the very best causes. In contrast, if you earn to give, you can donate anywhere, preferably to the most cost-effective charities, and change your donations as often as you like. Because different causes vary in their cost-effectiveness by such a great amount, this is hugely important to determining how much good you can do in your job.

0 thoughts to “Which field of law should you go into?”

  1. Very interesting. A few reactions:

    1. Your central assertion seems to be that for many of us, public interest law is worthwhile only if we know we will be able to serve the public more effectively than anyone else, i.e., only if we will make something happen that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The implications of this idea — call it the indispensability principle — trouble me. For one thing, how are we to judge our place in the pecking order? I think I’m a pretty good lawyer, but I don’t know with any precision how I stack up to my peers. Surely some of them would do my job as well as or better than I can. Others would do it worse. Who’s to say that one of the hotshots would get my job if I left? Maybe a putz would take my place.

    2. If significant numbers of people, operating on your indispensability principle, concluded that others could probably do their job at least equally well and they quit as a result, then we would lose a lot of terrific public interest lawyers. We would also lose talented workers in other competitive fields where pay isn’t the main motivator — higher education, the military, the Foreign Service, etc. And losing them would make those fields less competitive, which would in turn lead to a decrease in quality/qualifications in areas where we expect excellence.

    3. A side note: I question whether “the competition for corporate law jobs is even fiercer” than the competition for public service jobs. That’s certainly not true for the most elite public service jobs (Federal Public Defenders, ACLU, DOJ, etc.), and I’m not sure it’s even true as a general matter.

    4. You don’t mention job satisfaction — a factor I’ve found that law students too often overlook while they’re chasing gold stars. The work that associates perform in big law firms can be stultifying and the hours brutal. Many of us who took public interest jobs — either straight out of law school, after a clerkship, or after time at a firm — did so not out of any do-gooder impulse, but because we thought these jobs would be more interesting than the alternatives. I nearly went to a firm after my clerkship; I had no aversion to the idea, I saw the upsides, and I can still imagine working at a firm someday. But I chose the public interest route because I thought that the day-to-day work would be more engaging and that I’d get a greater degree of responsibility and autonomy early in my career. Sure, someone else could probably “make a difference” in my current job just as effectively as I can, but I don’t really care; I find the work fulfilling. That’s no small thing in an industry with chronically high levels of job dissatisfaction and depression.

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