The Difference Between Unemployed Scientists and Unemployed Lawyers

A front page story in today’s Washington Post casts interesting perspective on an Ethics Alarms rumble that broke out here a couple of weeks ago. One of the many websites where underemployed, over-indebted law grads hang out to commiserate—sites with pathetic names like “butidideverythingrightorsoithought”—discovered a post from the days when people were taking Occupy Wall Street seriously, in which I chided a protester whose sign blamed his law school  for his failure to  find a job, without giving due weight to the fact that sitting in a park whining about his plight wasn’t doing him any good either. Suddenly Ethics Alarms experienced an avalanche of indignant and often personally insulting comments introducing me to the strange world of the JD conspiracy theorists, who maintain that law schools engaged in an intentional conspiracy or “scam” to gull naive college grads into believing that a law degree was a sure-thing ticket to Easy Street and six-figure starting salaries.

In the Post’s report, we learn that other advanced degree-holders, namely PhDs in scientific fields, are also unable to find work or toiling in fields unrelated to their degrees. The Post says:

“Traditional academic jobs are scarcer than ever. Once a primary career path, only 14 percent of those with a PhD in biology and the life sciences now land a coveted academic position within five years, according to a 2009 NSF survey. That figure has been steadily declining since the 1970s, said Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University who studies the scientific workforce. The reason: The supply of scientists has grown far faster than the number of academic positions.”

Sounds a lot like the legal market to me! The similarities don’t end there, however. The news story also notes that today’s unemployed and under-employed PhD’s pursued their degrees after being told for years that the U.S. was desperate for scientists. Indeed President Obama was part of the throng. Yet nowhere in the article are there quotes from angry scientists working in the admissions offices of state colleges claiming that they were set up to fail, and that the academic institutions, career counselors and the world lied to them to trick them into taking out huge student loans. There are quotes from angry and frustrated out-of-work scientists…absolutely. It is just that they acknowledge the reason for their current dilemma: there’s been a massive recession for four years.

What’s the difference between the scientists and the lawyers, other than the fact that the JD’s are still better off than their science counterparts, since a law degree is more versatile than a degree in physics? How can we explain the tendency of one set of degree-holders to see complex and sinister forces at work, while those in other disciplines apply Occam’s Razor? I think there are three key distinctions that create the divergent responses.

First, there are many more JD’s, and many more JD’s who are not the sharpest knives in the drawer, not to be excessively unkind. A lot of mediocre to poor students manage to become lawyers; PhD programs are more discriminating. Law is not necessarily a profession requiring high intellect: diligence, cleverness, guts, charm, management skillsand perseverance can make a successful attorney. These qualities are not that helpful, however, when it comes to performing peer-reviewed research, unless one also has the IQ points to go along with them. Second, the scientists entered their fields for the right reasons: they were interested in science, and good at it. Many of today’s out-of-work lawyers prepared for a profession, a calling, for purely financial motivations: they wanted to be rich. That is, and has always been, the wrong reason to go into law, and lawyers with that as their primary goal make up a disproportionate number of the nation’s unethical lawyers.

Finally, lawyers are trained to be advocates, and to argue for positions most beneficial to their clients’ interests. Disillusioned, indebted, worried lawyers without clients have been trained in the art of deflecting accountability and blaming others for misfortune, so it should be no surprise that their training and mindset lead them down the dark alleys of conspiracy theories, class action lawsuits and confirmation bias. They are their own clients now, and are seeking miscreants and tortfeasors who made their dreams of big houses, fancy cars and law firm partnerships go up in smoke: the law schools, the TV hype, the loan programs, the degree itself. Ironically, this phenomenon may be the one aspect of a legal education where criticism, or at least caution, is justified. A legal education gives graduates the tools and skills to deflect, shift and avoid their own accountability, but cannot imbue the character necessary to resist the impulse to use them for that purpose.

I suppose what needs to happen is for those unemployed scientists to hire the unemployed lawyers to help them make the case that they were tricked and defrauded too.


Source: Washington Post

Graphic: Minding the campus

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

23 thoughts on “The Difference Between Unemployed Scientists and Unemployed Lawyers

  1. A related point. Most scientists are in pursuit of the truth (never mind the metaphysics of what ‘truth’ might be).

    But in practice of law, there is no truth; there is only evidence. The world is divided into plaintiffs and defendants. In the world of accountants and physicists, spreadsheets must cross-foot, assets equal liabilities, energy must equal mass (and if not, it must be explained with equal or greater rigor). Not in the law.

    It isn’t just those who are attracted to the law that explain this behavior, it is also to some extent the material they have studied, and the approaches they have been taught.

    The law has its place, of course; but it’s better suited to arguing about blame and accountability than it is to taking responsibility.

    • I understand the origin of this criticism, but I respectfully disagree. Lawyers are part of an adversarial system designed to expose the truth. The theory of the system is that when there is an issue of fact in dispute between two parties, the truth of the matter can be best ascertained by having both parties make the strongest possible case they can, and then having a neutral fact finder determine which side speaks true. Lawyers are charged with zealous advocacy, seeking to persuade the neutral. If either side attempts to distort or hide the facts, the other side will hold them to account and expose their deception.

      Naturally, in any system designed by humans, there will be flaws, ethical lapses, missed facts, and incorrect verdicts. We have yet to design the system that can expose truth between two disputing individuals with scientific accuracy. Advocacy, cross examination, and a jury of one’s peers are the best we have yet devised. It is an imperfect system, but in light of the constraints and goals the adversarial model is an eminently reasonable approach to finding the truth among flawed and biased human contestants.

  2. Science degrees are surprisingly versatile. You can even find a good job as a lawyer (almost half the Ph.D.’s from my research group are patent attorneys)! The lack of academic positions is not in itself problem. Most chemists by far are employed outside of academia. The higher the degree, however, the harder it is to get a job. B.S. graduates can get multiple job offers even in this job market. M.S. graduates also seem to have good job prospects. There are always more positions for followers than for leaders.

    You might want to rethink them comment on physics. Physics graduates work in academia, Wall Street, in engineering, software development, even into ministry. It is an incredibly versatile degree.

  3. Most science Ph.D.s received full-ride scholarships and stipends in the pursuit of their degrees. Most J.D.s financed their educations with loans to the tune of $100K+. Unemployment is unfortunate for both, but a crushing financial burden for the latter. This has been explained to you repetedly.

    You remain the target of contempt by scambloggers because you continue to insist that legal unemployment is not structural, or that the J.D. holder can swim in the ocean of versatility. Paul Campos has demonstrated to my satisfaction that both your positions are fundamentally incorrect.

    Why don’t you give this battle a rest and stick to ethics?

    • I really couldn’t care less what scambloggers think they have proven. Failure of accountability is epidemic right now, since our President specializes in it. It’s a major ethical issue. I’m glad unemployed lawyers have somewhere to hang out in lieu of seeking work.

      • To be honest, it doesn’t really seem like you care about proof at all – whether that means proving scambloggers wrong or proving your own assertions right. Unemployed lawyers are being held accountable with poor marks on their credit, loan defaults, wage garnishments, working retail just to get by, etc. But law schools are not being held accountable at all. And you seem to be doing everything you can to blame students and apologize for the law schools, like insisting that unemployed lawyers went to law school to become rich, calling the law school scam a fictional “conspiracy theory,” and continuously side-tracking any discussion of this issue with references to confirmation bias and unaccountability epidemics. Ethically, that’s very difficult to understand.

        As for Campos, I have yet to see anyone prove him wrong, though many would love to and have tried. And thanks in large part to his efforts, as well as the efforts of the employed people (again, employed because they have to work) who can’t find legal work because legal work doesn’t exist, law schools are now facing a serious crisis. Namely, a sharply decreasing number of young people are willing to borrow insane amounts of taxpayer-provided money to pay law schools’ insane tuitions – which is, according to you, exactly how this situation could fix itself. So I give them a lot of credit for hanging out there and exposing the law school shills. Much like I give you credit for hanging out here, in lieu of working, and exposing unethical behavior. At least when you’re right.

  4. “Sounds a lot like the legal market to me!”

    Agreed, and it’s a similar problem.

    ” nowhere in the article are there quotes from angry scientists working in the admissions offices of state colleges claiming that they were set up to fail, and that the academic institutions, career counselors and the world lied to them to trick them into taking out huge student loans”

    Probably because PhD students generally don’t take out huge student loans. Are you not aware that grad students normally have their tuition waived and get a stipend?

    I do agree that JDs are typically less dedicated to law than PhD students are dedicated to their chosen fields. And I do agree that there were and a lot of JD students who went to law school for the wrong reasons.

    But none of that makes law school any less of a scam. It doesn’t change the fact that a lot of law schools are taking advantage of the naivete and unsophistication of recent college grads; wildly exaggerating employment statistics; and admitting students whom they know are very likely to be a lot worse off for having attended law school.

    By analogy, there are a lot of people out there who are stupid and greedy enough to wire $500 to a random person in Nigeria in hopes of a 20 million dollar payoff. But a Nigerian con artist is still just as much of a criminal, no matter how stupid and greedy his victims are.

    And by the way, I am a reasonably successful attorney who has been practicing for many years. But I graduated with only 50k in debt.

    • First of all, I want to see any evidence that “wildly exaggerated employment statistics” have played a significant part in persuading anyone to go to law school. The employment statistics from the Labor Department still suggest that lawyers are less likely to be unemployed than the rest of the work force. The accurate reports of starting salaries for law firm associates (now fallen precipitously, but that’s now) made a lot of students go to law school for a jackpot at the end. Why is a law school that admits a college grad of supposed intelligence exploiting her? The grad is not “worse of” for attending law school—like any education and advanced knowledge, a law school education can’t possibly harm someone. You mean the loans make them worse off? Paying too much for a product where the price is fully disclosed is now the fault of the seller? Is that really what this is…a shift of accountability, where it’s a “scam” because the law schools don’t tell applicants who have the qualifications that they would be happier if they became firemen?

      I have not regarded this issue as ideologically driven, but you persuade me that it is. This seems to be a classic victim mindset with ant-capitalism overtones. The complaining law grads are like the purchasers of homes with mortgages they couldn’t possibly afford, blaming the lenders, absolving themselves. You do neither them, nor the law, nor justice, nor the culture any favors by enabling such a distortion. A degree is not a job, it’s a base of knowledge to be used, or not, to get one. The law schools deliver what they were selling—if students are naive, poor planers, foolish, not cut out for their chosen profession, or paying too much for the risk, that may be a legitimate concern for the law schools, but it is still not the fault of the laws schools.

      I understand the attarction of ducking personal responsibility and accountability for failure, but it’s neither ethical nor practical.Tell me: if a law student today pays too much for a degree and can’t find a job in 2015, will you say that this student also was exploited? When the employment problems of laws grads and their difficulty paying loans have been publicized to the skies?

      • It’s not like there’s ever been a time ever in the history of our Anglo-English legal system that a more sophisticated party has routinely taken advantage of a less sophisticated party’s ignorance, and a law has been enacted to reduce the likelihood of it happening again. And even if it had happened, it certainly could not have involved an institution as respectable and ethical as a law school staffed by lawyers, whose ethical codes require full disclosure not only of all relevant information but also how that information might mislead an unsophisticated consumer.

        I just hope those taxpayers, backstopping all those loans that may never be repaid in full, show the equanimity toward law schools that its unsuccessful graduates apparently cannot. I raise my highball glass to you, Mr. Marshall, on behalf of those whose hard work or grandparents’ hard work got them theirs.

        • 1. Legal ethics codes primarily relate to the practice of law. By your calculation, every lawyer politician would be in violation of professional codes. I’m sympathetic, but the profession has never seen it this way.
          2. I see no deception or exploitation by the law schools whatsoever. If they chose, the top ones could only admit rich kids who wouldn’t scream scam if they couldn’t find a job.
          3. What law would prevent students from buying an education they couldn’t afford?
          4. Law schools are not responsible for the idiotic student loan program, which IS a scam.

          • Professors are members of the bar who provide a service based on their knowledge of the law to a discrete subset of the public, and that subset pays their school directly for their time and that of others. Professors also trade upon a social capital that most politicians cannot, insofar as most people associate politicians with lying for personal benefit (as opposed to the client’s) and few do the same with professors. In these ways, professors are more analogous to practicing attorneys than politicians, and arguably have more responsibility to their students than a politician has to his public. The individual tenured professors may just be the piano players in this particular whorehouse, but certainly there are bar-admitted deans and admissions people who know or should know what’s going on upstairs.

            And what is going on, you ask? Before all of these responsibility-dodging graduates began their whining, schools would report employment in the aggregate and a median starting salary based on those reporting, both of which would tend to be high no matter where you looked in 2007. There were a number of details that probably should have been emphasized by the more sophisticated party: (a) a barista counted the same as an associate for purposes of employment; (b) until 2010, the formula for reporting total employment to U.S. News was [(graduates working full time or part time, or enrolled in another degree program) + (*25% of those whose status was unknown*)] divided by the total graduates that year, less those who were known to be unemployed and not seeking; (c) median starting salaries were and are often calculated based on fewer than half of the class reporting, with non-reports not counted against the figure; (d) lawyers working in eat-what-you-kill arrangements with other lawyers or as sole practitioners were underrepresented in this mix relative to lawyers who were working for more affluent firms who paid salaries per a firm offer letter to the new associate.

            But they didn’t emphasize any of that. Instead, law schools published a high employment average with a high median starting salary, hoping that most of their students would assume that you couldn’t sustain such a high employment average and median starting salary unless everyone had jobs in the law or ones equally desirable in other fields. Not being attorneys yet, people like me discounted the possibility that this was self-interested bulls**t. In the present, these “top schools” to which you refer are a rapidly shrinking group, and maybe only the top ten schools or so can claim that three-quarters or more of their class found paying work in the law aside from sole practice or co-shingling with other recent graduates who also have no idea how to practice law.

      • “First of all, I want to see any evidence that “wildly exaggerated employment statistics” have played a significant part in persuading anyone to go to law school. ”

        I find this a quite interesting ethical viewpoint – the burden of proof is not on the proven dishonest people, but on the people who believed them.

        “The employment statistics from the Labor Department still suggest that lawyers are less likely to be unemployed than the rest of the work force. “”

        That’s because people need ‘jobs’. When they lose their lawyer job, they will end up taking whatever they can get, at which point they are not an unemployed ‘lawyer’, even if they lose that job later.

        Jack, do you actually not realize that?

            • That one’s not irrelevant either. The point is that a degree, regardless of the type, does not determine hiring prospecxts or success. The individual does. A degree is just a convenient scapegoat when the individual’s ability, judgment, determination, work ethic, skills, intelligence, character, presentation, creativity, timing or luck are lacking.

              Then you carry a sign that says, “It’s not me, it’s a conspiracy.” That act alone implicates judgment, determination, work ethic, intelligence, character, presentation.

              • “That one’s not irrelevant either. The point is that a degree, regardless of the type, does not determine hiring prospecxts or success. The individual does. A degree is just a convenient scapegoat when the individual’s ability, judgment, determination, work ethic, skills, intelligence, character, presentation, creativity, timing or luck are lacking. ”

                I’m not sure what the name of this logical fallacy is; I’ll call it strawmaning, for lack of a better word. Your degree will have massive influence on your career. You might be able to overcome it; then again you might not. For example, if people generally don’t want to hire JD’s in non-lawyer jobs, then anybody with a JD is sharply handicapped. Some may overcome this, some may not. And it might depend on luck more than anything else.

                • It’s not “strawmanning”, It’s called wisdom and common sense. Your fallacy is called “putting words in my mouth,” which is a form of the straw man trick. A degree may have a major impact, but it is all secondary to the other factors I mentioned. An idiot with a degree is still an idiot. A brilliant, charming individual will find success 99 times out of a hundred. Nobody loses a job because they have a law degree. They lose jobs because they make it obvious why they couldn’t get legal job. I’m very tired of hearing that nonsensical claim that a law degree is an impediment to employment repeated as fact. Take 100 equally competent and interactive applicants, 50 with law degrees and 50 with only college degrees, and the law grads will be hired more, in better jobs, making more money.

                  “For example, if people generally don’t want to hire JD’s in non-lawyer jobs, then anybody with a JD is sharply handicapped.”
                  And if people would rather hire horses than humans as sales clerks, the same principle applies. It’s a value added, and unless the applicant can’t make the case that it is—lawyers are supposed to be trained advocates, the degree is always an edge. A hoard of losers who are unemployed for different reasons spread this ridiculous falsehood, and confirmation bias did the rest.

                  • NOTE: I had to ban Barry after this his previous replay to my earlier warning. If I tell a commenter to stop the obnoxious attitude or else be kicked off, the answer “I think you deserve the obnoxious attitude” is a death knell. I’m not debating whether a commenter is misbehaving. My word goes. That response suggested that more of what I told him to cut off was coming, and I’m not going to tolerate defiance.

      • “When the employment problems of laws grads and their difficulty paying loans have been publicized to the skies?”

        And have been denied just as loudly, by people such as you?
        Ethically, how sound is your position?

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