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:

JobIncome KeptIncome 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.

I also posted this on my blog.

[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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14 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:07 AM

If someone could write a piece making these points in the Law Record or Above the Law, that might be very useful. Especially if they defused the issues from the original piece that Stefan mentions in his comment (for example, mentioning that Mystal's argument is an understandable reaction to a provocative piece before explaining that the original argument is actually very strong and that Mystal's response doesn't address the underlying logic at all). I don't know whether one would have to be a legal professional/student in order to write this though. Perhaps Harvard EA knows some Harvard students well placed to co-author something like this?

I wrote to the Harvard EA people, and they didn't know anyone. I wrote to Bill Barlow, and he's drafting a response.

Great work!

James Ting Edwards is another trained lawyer who could do this.

As someone who is a law graduate working in what might be called public interest law (asylum & immigration law) I agree with your analysis to the extent that if someone considered they were equally well suited to both types of work and ambivalent to a which path to follow this would be a good argument to consider commercial law.

However, while the academic skills of a commercial and publicly funded lawyer might be the same (both might go to Harvard or Oxford and study similar subjects in similar ways) - the specific non-academic skills needed to do these jobs and their actual competencies of the people involved with them vary wildly, such that I would doubt that a successful commercial lawyer is likely to be a successful public interest lawyer and vice versa. (with some exceptions of course - in particular the very top barristers, the british equivalent of trial lawyers often handle both public interest and commercial work because of their unique skill set).

In the nicest possible way, the vast majority of people I work with, i suspect would not succeed in the commercial world - they would not find the work intrinsically motivating or interesting enough to maintain a high level of conscientiousness - they would lack the specific social/extraversion skill-set necessary to succeed in high pressure business environments and so on. I certainly know from trying it out in summer placements that I would not succeed there.

I am sure that in many cases, the vice-versa is also true, many successful commercial law friends would find the day to day work in my area extremely frustrating and would not have the skills to succeed here either (though I suspect it is easier to adapt this way - plenty of lawyers do move from commercial to public interest work - not many the other way at all, at least in the UK).

So while I think this is a good argument for law students considering their future to bear in mind, I suspect that in many cases it is on the edge because you are overestimating the chance for which a student will succeed in two very different careers.

(Though, I recognise there is a risk that I am overgeneralising from my own and what I know of my colleagues experiences). Edited spelling

Having been an investment banker for many years working with top flight partners in Magic Circle firms in London my particular concern is that it can be very corrosive to long term morality, particularly as you rise to partner level. The moral choices you are often asked by clients to assist them in making in favour of financial return would I imagine affect most people. With the hours that such jobs require, minimising contact with an effective altruism community I would worry about a corporate lawyer losing their commitment to effective altruism as other moral guidance came to the fore.

With the hours that such jobs require, minimising contact with an effective altruism community I would worry about a corporate lawyer losing their commitment to effective altruism as other moral guidance came to the fore.

Interesting to have you take on this as someone who's been there David. People are familiar with these concerns of value drift, but I think underrate their application to themselves, because it's hard to imagine one's own values changing at a time when one's very absorbed in them. Nonetheless, many effective altruists are currently in a very favourable setting for EA ideas (being students with several EA friends), and it'd be natural for some to drop off when they move to the sort of environment you describe.

That is a well known bias isn't it? I forget the scientific name of it - but its part of our tendency to see the world as fixed and ourselves in control of our actions that when we see ourselves in the future - we fail to imagine changes in our personality and values but instead project ourselves into that time as we currently are, relatedly we consistently underestimate how much we have changed already and how different we are from the people we were in the past because we are bad at noticing how our values and personalities change over time.

End of History Illusion sounds like what you're looking for.

Thanks for this. Mystal's article is appallingly poor. I don't quite agree with this characterization of Atri's article, however:

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.

A major theme in Atri's article is Barlow's unnecessarily provocative characterizations of people who choose not to go into Big Law. To some degree I understand that Atri is upset, in the light of sentences like these:

Alternatively, go into Public Interest, Government, or Academia, and feel warm and fuzzy about yourself. Sadly, when people at this school talk about public service, they mean the latter, rather than the former.

Lots of people who've gone into Public Interest, Government, or Academia have a tremendous amount of good - more good, I'd argue, than they could have done at a Big Law firm. What's more, I think that some of them had reason to believe that when they choose their career, given what they knew about their capabilities. Harvard Law graduate Barack Obama is a name that springs to mind. In any case, the burden of proof is on Barlow. He shouldn't start talking in this condescending way about people who don't go into Big Law without giving us very firm evidence - much firmer than the rather shallow arguments that he gives (e.g. "Can poor people eat using your opinion on law’s impact on poor people?" - this is below the argumentative quality you'd expect from an effective altruist) - that choosing the Big Law path is indeed the right one for everyone.

I'm sure some people who go into Public Interest, Government, or Academia are self-important and/or confused over how they can best impact the world, but there are also morally serious and determined people similar to Obama out there. Hence sweeping generalizations such as this should be avoided.

I agree. The think there's a strong argument that you can go into Big Law and still achieve a lot of good; but it's pretty unclear whether an equally talented and altruistic person would do more good earning to give than going into public interest law. Also, as Alasdair points out below, personal fit is going to be a big consideration.

Once again, I am quite late to the party, but for posterity's sake, just want to add a few points: First, this is exactly what I do, and it's just not that hard. Second, I was formery a public interest lawyer (doing impact litigation) and believe the skill set required for that job is very similar to the skill set required for my current job (commercial litigation). Lastly, I am doing what I am doing on the belief that it does the most good -- I've considered the alternatives! If anyone seriously believes I'm mistaken, I'd very much like to hear from them.

Sima makes a jibe at banks

bank that backed thousands of predatory and racist loans and helped create the foreclosure crisis

which seems to be a common criticism of EA activities: earning to give is evil, because finance is evil. EAs tend to give a (I think valid) response about replace-ability. But I think EAs should also be aware that Sima's criticism fails on other grounds too - banks weren't racist or predatory, and weren't responsible for the 'foreclosure crisis'.

Jeff, thanks for sharing these articles and your thoughts on this.