Anti-Buzz: The New Lawyers

by Andrew Emmott on December 21, 2013

in Anti-Buzz

newface-620x461For a moment, forget all negative stereotypes you have of lawyers and consider the following, related to me by a lawyer acquaintance of mine: Software engineers are the new lawyers. Not so much in what they do and what they offer the public, (though I will indulge with some analogies soon enough), but in the place they occupy in the labor market.

In particular, being a lawyer requires intelligence, and is an intellectually stimulating job and if you go back enough decades, you will find it had a reputation for good pay, good working conditions and high job satisfaction. So if you wanted an interesting, versatile job that required skill and could not be accessed by everyone, becoming a lawyer was a good bet. And certainly, then and now, not everybody is cut out to be a lawyer, but over the last century we’ve seen a great influx of lawyers into the labor force.

The American Bar Association at one point said that 1300 billable hours per year was about the maximum for a lawyer before they are likely to commit malpractice. Today, working 1800 billable hours per year means you are working at a really easy, laid back firm. The perks of being a lawyer have diminished by this point, you either accept lower pay or terrible hours or maybe you don’t even find work at all.

Software Engineering is at this law-degree-like tipping point. Good pay, great working conditions, intellectually stimulating, and becoming increasingly overcrowded in terms of college enrollment. Right now, the demand for the skilled labor is still there and so the high job satisfaction persists. It is essentially a laborer’s market in software engineering; if you are better-than-mediocre the question is “which company has the privilege of employing you?” and in the current economy this distinction stands out even more. I’ve said before that the largest companies are in fierce competition with each other for the most talented applicants. The bottleneck on most development projects is high quality labor. So is this going to change?

In some ways, it already has. The range of pay and working conditions varies greatly in software engineering. The starkest example is the video game industry, well-known for its significantly worse pay and hours; they get away with it because video games are a glamor job. While that may be the extreme end, it turns out not all software is written by Google or Microsoft or Apple. There are a lot of holes to fill and they don’t all require the same talent or responsibility, and they don’t all command the same pay or perks.

But we’re really only witnessing the beginning of this. In the coming decade there will be an enormous influx of software engineers into the market and I’m curious what the impact will be. It’s not unreasonable to think that some of the same negative stereotypes we have of lawyers are a result of their increased presence in the labor market – we might see a similar shift of sentiment for software engineers. There are more similarities between the two professions that you, (or they), might guess, but most important in this case is that both professions have the capacity to essentially “create work” and an unemployed lawyer and an unemployed software engineer are never truly out of work – they could always drum up business of their own. When a profession can impose its craft on the world, that’s when we get public resentment at the profession.

Is the public not sometimes frustrated with the persistent threat of “the next new thing?” Is the recent explosion of pay-to-win games on the market any less predatory than the proverbial “ambulance chaser”? Do both professions not sometimes leverage obfuscation of their services to increase your reliance on them?

If one thing might save the software engineer’s reputation it might be that they are shielded by monolithic companies in a way that lawyers aren’t – that maybe the public resentment will be directed at the large companies and not the profession itself.

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Larry Emmott December 21, 2013 at 9:40 am

Very interesting take I had not considered. I do see one significant difference. Engineers (and dentists) work in the world of real things with real immediate results. Lawyers work in a much more subjective world with ambiguous answers and less definite measures of success.

If an engineer builds a machine and when he/she hits the switch it fails to run it is an obvious failure. When a lawyer writes a brief it is just an opinion that others may or may not agree on. Success and failure are not so easily discerned.

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