It never occurred to me to study law at university. I mean it literally never entered my head, I was only even vaguely aware of the possibility. When I arrived at Sidney Sussex College, I discovered all these people working for hours in the library, engaged in what seemed to be a massive test of memory recall, and I wondered what motivated them to do it? Years later, in investment banking, I realised there was a sort of underground army of corporate finance lawyers who got pretty well paid, though nothing special by banking standards. And they had to produce fantastically detailed contracts, often through the night, to allow the bankers to announce their deal by breakfast.
I met a former corporate lawyer a couple of years ago doing an MBA in Cambridge, and his goal was to find some alternative to being a lawyer, anything really, it was such a desperate job. His fallback was to return to corporate law, which would allow him to pay for a nice house, car, foreign holidays etc, but at the expense of long days of boring work.
I was reminded of this by two random events in the last couple of days. One was re-reading the start of one of my favourite novels, “The Mill on the Floss” by George Eliot. The owner of the mill, Mr. Tulliver, wants his young son Tom to become educated so that he can learn the complex, puzzling and evil ways of the law. But Tulliver doesn’t want to go so far as Tom actually becoming a lawyer himself:
“I wouldn’t make a downright lawyer of the lad – I should be sorry for him to be a raskill.” (p.56, Penguin edition). Raskill means rascal, a word seldom used today but with a stronger meaning that it has now. Tulliver, we later learn (p.63) believes that “rats, weevils, and lawyers were created by Old Harry [the devil].”
Tulliver’s views pre-figure the loss of his Mill arising from high litigation fees. His hostility to lawyers is understandable.
And yesterday I heard a classic recording of the American folk singer Woody Guthrie singing “Pretty Boy Floyd“, about the gangster and folk hero of the 1930s. It has the much-quoted lines:
“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.”
(Guthrie’s guitar was famously painted with the words “This machine kills fascists”, not that I would any way want to imply that lawyers are fascists.)
Robbing “with a fountain pen” is directed at the banks, since the mass foreclosure on farm mortgages during the Depression was a source of great bitterness that has echoes to this day. But of course it’s the lawyers who write these contracts.
There is an old joke that goes something like this. A Russian and an American are sharing a passenger compartment on a train. There is also a lawyer in the compartment. The Russian is drinking from a bottle of vodka. Eventually, in drunken disgust, he says “we have so much of this stuff in Russia that it’s worthless”, and throws the bottle out of the window. The American thinks for a moment then picks up the lawyer and throws him out of the window.
Maybe lawyers, like many physicians, follow their parents into their profession. Otherwise, I don’t know what makes people do it.