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Being a corporate lawyer is a ‘bulls**t job’, argues LSE professor

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City law jobs are totally pointless

A professor at the London School of Economics has argued that corporate law is a bullshit job.

“Huge swathes of people”, including lawyers, “spend their days performing jobs they secretly believe do not really need to be performed”, argues David Graeber, a professor of anthropology at LSE.

His new book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, is an expanded version of an article Graeber wrote in 2013 in Strike magazine. He cites economist John Maynard Keynes’ famous prediction that we would all be working a 15-hour week, and notes that, clearly, this has not come to pass. The reason for this, the LSE professor argues, is not rampant consumerism (we choose to work to buy all those lovely things out there) but the creation of meaningless “administrative” jobs.

He says we have seen “the ballooning” of “the administrative sector up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources and public relations”.

Graeber is keen to point out that “bullshit jobs” are not the same thing as “shit jobs”: bullshit jobs are often well-paid and well-respected. Indeed, the world has turned jobs on their heads so that jobs that we really need to be done such as nursing, teaching and rubbish collection have increasingly attracted low pay and low status.

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In the original article, Graeber gives the example of an old school friend of his (Graeber is American) who had once been a poet and in a band but, after racking up debts and having a daughter to care for, had become a corporate lawyer.

Graeber says of this lawyer-friend: “He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and in his own estimation, should not really exist.” He adds:

“I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit.”

This last point is crucial: Graeber is keen to point out that his arguments are based on people’s own perceptions of themselves rather than on a scientific evaluation of the jobs. In other words, he is not saying that corporate law jobs are pointless, it is corporate lawyers who are saying this.

In his book, Graeber analyses 250 responses which he received on Twitter to put his thesis together. In a similar exercise in self-definition, in 2015, a YouGov poll was published which asked: “Is your job making a meaningful contribution to the world?” 37% of (an undisclosed number of) respondents said no.

Graeber’s thesis would be supported by another guru of human nature, Malcolm Gladwell, who argued in his bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success, that it was much easier to be successful at something which had meaning. But he was more forgiving because that job only had to have meaning to the person carrying it out. He wrote:

“Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. Once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you grab your wife around the waist and dance a jig.”

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53 Comments

Anonymous

Word.

(33)(0)

slaughteredassoc

Corporate law can be interesting. However, pure legal problems are rare, and it can be pretty frustrating when an interesting, meaty company law question comes along as 9 times out of 10 we’ll send it to someone at Erskine, rather than do the work in-house. That could just be my firm though.

(20)(2)

Anonymous

I make sure my trainees get more than bullshit jobs…

(2)(3)

Anonymous

Says a professor of anthropology.

(129)(7)

Anonymous

He would know, I suppose!

(12)(5)

Anonymous

Congrats on getting the joke

(60)(0)

Anonymous

Graeber’s book on debt is a masterpiece – he is a fantastic thinker and writer. He is obviously far to the left and a bit of a provocateur, and I am a commercial barrister who doesn’t feel my job is bullshit, but I’m still going to give this book a try.

(24)(4)

Anonymous

He is also intellectually head and shoulders above the likes of Malcolm Gladwell.

(7)(5)

Anonymous

Your job is distinct from a corporate solicitor in that you actually read and apply the law – he isn’t referring to you.

(7)(1)

Anonymous

You are miles apart from a corporate lawyer or any solicitor. You give legal advice and argue cases in court, whilst the solicitors humiliate themselves by sitting behind you, taking notes.

(23)(7)

Anonymous

Oh how they humiliate themselves while earning six figure salaries! So much better to be a social science academic making £33.4k in your 40s and barely able to rent a one bedroom flat!

(4)(10)

Not Amused

Well I agree with his premise.

I would just rather we focused on the non jobs paid for with public money or in the charity sector.

Then I could use the 780bn we have a year to actually provide the services we all need.

(13)(7)

Anonymous

who cares about meaning?

you’re in a community of incredibly talented, like-minded people where you have the opportunity to challenge yourself

for me, that’s enough

(5)(21)

Wilf

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro law firm mori.

(18)(2)

Anonymous

Get over yourself, and get real. Incredible talents aren’t wasting time chained to a desk for a measly 65-100k a year. That’s what uninspired pragmatists do.

(8)(5)

Anonymous

Ah yes all those London corporate lawyers making £65k a year …

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Yes, they’re called NQs. Jog on fresher.

(3)(1)

Anonymous

“Uninspired pragmatists”

If ever there were two words that ably describe the majority of solicitors…

(4)(0)

What even

Ha! Graeber’s fatal mistake is to assume that anything we do has any meaning whatsoever.

(48)(2)

Anonymous

I write as a corporate lawyer. Much of it does feel like bullshit, but that’s not to say it’s unnecessary – if clients want to do what they want to do, they need us to help them navigate all of the hoops. Whether what they are doing is valuable to the economy or society is another question.

(24)(2)

dolla dolla bills y'all

I want to leave but I’ve gotten used to not worrying about price tags when shopping.

(26)(1)

Anonymous

I see merit in his view but a thesis based on Twitter sources is questionable research.

(17)(0)

Anonymous

The Octopus disagrees – it is not a bullsh*t job.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

What is anthropology?

(9)(2)

Anonymous

Study about poems.

(1)(0)

Jamerson

I agree in the sense that the administration side of a corporate lawyer can be bullshit at times and in fact unnecessary. This includes filling out certain applications and formatting contracts and letters.
However I do not agree that corporate law is bullshit overall because people need professional advice on their rights and obligations under contracts etc. Therefore the best person to employ for that role is a corporate lawyer who has specialist knowledge on the law and how best to get a solution for their client.
Therefore Graebr is only partially right to a very very small extent.

(6)(4)

Anonymous

I would sell myself for a training contract

(6)(0)

Anonymous

Please DM me.

(10)(0)

Anonymous

LOL

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Corporate law is obviously bullshit 99% of the time. No research is needed to show that. Common sense will do.

More interesting is the ‘bullshit anxiety compensation effect’. Taking yourself and your job ultra-seriously, and buying into the absurd deference within corporate firms, is the usual way to try to cope with the knowledge that what you are doing is almost entirely pointless and artificially to inflate your sense of self-worth and significance.

(19)(1)

Anonymous

Word

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Jobs are about earning money. It’s not about meaning.

It’s about food on the table.

If you want to look for meaning, help out with a charity shop or a Church on your weekend.

(9)(2)

Anonymous

Or get a more worthwhile job.

(6)(1)

Anonymous

My job: employment barrister directly assisting those in a legal mess, in Court and the Tribunals, mostly on the claimant side.

Probably 10% of my practice is pro bono as this makes me happy and fulfilled.

I’d say this is what people are getting at when they talk about jobs having meaning, though granted not as much meaning as someone running a soup kitchen or food bank.

It’s the difference between a ‘job’ as a corporate desk jockey and a ‘vocation’ as an expert barrister I guess.

(17)(2)

Anonymous

He is right. There is no intellectual element to being a corporate lawyer, or indeed working in any non-contentious department of a law firm: you just cobble together pro forma deals, using boilerplate documents, and never encounter the law.

(16)(3)

Anonymous

You have like no idea what corporate attorneys do, do you? Instead of filing motions, some of us are sitting in engineering meetings talking about what user data can and should be collected, how it should be secured, stored, deleted, etc. Pretty sure that’s not useless if you want an Echo in your bedroom.

(8)(4)

Anonymous

A bedroom is the worst place for an Echo.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Lol at “never encounter the law”. Laws are not only encountered in courts. You might wanna expand your view on the legal industry beyond just litigation.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Surely in the same line of thinking being a doctor is a bullshit job then? Corporate lawyers are needed because no one knows everything about everything. Instead of learning how a contract works you pay someone who has already done the learning to work through the kinks. In the same vein, I don’t know how to do knee surgery so I’d pay a doctor to do it if I ever needed. However, hypothetically, I could very well learn how to do it myself and cut out the doctor.

(0)(5)

Anonymous

Inflated sense of self importance there, comparing a corporate solicitor to a doctor.

Really it’s more like this:

Consultants: QCs
Junior doctors: barristers
GPs: jobbing common law barristers/generalist criminal barristers
Nurses: law firm partners
Hospital porters: junior solicitors
Hospital cleaners: trainee solicitors.

(8)(9)

Anonymous

Makes sense, since Nurses basically run hospitals and actually help patients in a human sense and when it really matters.

(7)(4)

Anonymous

And nurses famously operate on people and cure them of diseases… lol

(5)(0)

Anonymous

Any legally aided “human rights” work would fall into the bullshit jobs category harder than corporate law, unless you get meaning from screwing over your society and leeching off that same society for your (admittedly paltry) fees in the first place.

(0)(4)

Anonymous

Wrong. Legally aided human rights work, a ‘social’ job that impacts directly on people’s lives and which isn’t over staffed with administrative dogsbodies, is quite the opposite to what he is referring to.

(7)(0)

Anonymous

I lived in a country without the rule of law for a period of time. From that experience, I concluded that living in a law-based society like ours, with all its inefficiencies, is much much better.

As a transactional lawyer, I help clients to identify issues upfront and then advise them how to negotiate them with their counterparty. I find meaning and satisfaction from this, given the alternative is for all business relationships to be built solely on trust, fear and leverage. Which is much more inefficient, entrenches power and creates an awful environment for start-up companies.

(8)(0)

Anonymous

Right, but anthropology authors (at an economics school) are critical to society.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

American Corporate Lawyer here. 100% B.S. When you are trapped by $150k in student debt you don’t have a choice.

(1)(0)

Anon

looks like *someone* was dumped by a corporate solicitor

(0)(0)

Anonymous

or for a corporate solicitor.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Well, there is plenty of inefficiency in the General Administration side of running any business — particularly at scale. I guess that groundbreaking discovery is worthy of many large-dollar national education grants. Or, maybe not.

This epiphany seems to constitute much of the broader point, with “corporate law” jobs (that phrase itself evidences a fairly significant lack of knowledge) playing the poster child here. Hey, who doesn’t love to bash a lawyer? So, calling corporate law a BS job is great for headlines and trolling — nothing better than free press. But, substance and informed research… not so much.

Another significant theme seems to be the idealist view that wanting or having stuff equates to rampant consumerism, which apparently is, at least to publicity hounding anthropology professors, evil incarnate. (Never mind the ironic fact that much of what anthropology professors do is to attempt to divine information about civilizations and people based on…wait for it… their STUFF.) And since, “corporate law” jobs, by definition, support the administrative side of making or dealing with stuff, it must all be BS. Right?

Unfortunately, it’s kind of hard to meet the basic needs of human life, let alone watch TV, without some measure of stuff. So, the argument that any administrative work that supports any business that makes, sells, or otherwise has anything to do with stuff must be BS is… BS. Only someone who lived their entire life in an ivory tower (or a cave) without even a rudimentary understanding of how their world works could actually believe such an irresponsible, immature, and illogical theory. Whether this fellow actually believes this or not, I have no idea.

Let’s test it out. What if we take this fellow’s advice and eliminate all the BS (i.e., “corporate” law) jobs?

Eliminate All Contracts. Now, neither money, things, nor services move. Or, if they do, then disputes run rampant, but without a court system (a bastion of BS), we are presumably left with beating each other with clubs to resolve our disputes.

Or, use contracts, but make the business folks handle them without any legal assistance. First. There is nothing efficient about that. Just try it. Second. Without a legal system, you’re quickly back to the same result – people beating each other with sticks. In this case, even if you had a legal system, it would soon be so backed up (even by today’s standards) that you might as well not have one.

In one deft swoop, we’ve managed to bring all modern economies to their knees. (Ah, the whiff of agenda? “It’s Dr. Evil to you. I didn’t spend 30 years at university to be called mister.”)

Eliminate All HR Functions and Employment Law. Clearly a kaleidoscope of BS. Unfortunately, employment relationships are now reduced to handshake deals at the level and sophistication of hiring a local teenager to mow your lawn (well, if you had a lawn mower — which you don’t because the manufacturer no longer exists and gasoline is no longer available, either. See above.).

BTW, legal protections for employees are now gone, too. Minimum wage, anti-discrimination, etc. cannot work without creating BS corporate legal (and HR) jobs. But, since we’ve already trashed all of the first world economies, the loss of employment law feels like a footnote at this point.

Eliminate All Corporate Law (I mean actual corporate law). Uh, oh. Now corporate financing is limited to what you can get your relatives and buddy Ted to loan you on a handshake. And, if your friend Sam ran off with the money you gave him to start that new lawn mower company, I guess you’ll have to self-repo his… uh, mud hut. Getting that lawn mowed is even further away. But, then again, who cares when modern society is burning to the ground. (I wish I could at least get a few marshmallows before the fire goes out.)

I could go on, and on, an on. That’s how insipid this theory is.

Yes, I have a dog in this fight. I am a lawyer. I have worked as a litigator and as in-house counsel handling everything from tech deals to HR to M&A. There is a lot of BS in the bushes. As an in-house lawyer, a big part of my job and motivation is to minimize the BS, not encourage it. (I don’t get paid extra to spend my weekends working on things that don’t move the needle.) I’ve also held business roles. Plenty of BS there, too. But, again, while there are plenty of exceptions and folks who just didn’t read the memo, the general motivation is to minimize the BS.

Modern human interaction and modern human doings are fraught with BS. Balancing conflicting interests often results in inefficiencies (aka BS). If the alternative is to live in a hut, hunt and gather for dinner each day, resolve disputes with a club, and barter my carrots for a sharp, pointy stick to cut the grass (because money and mowers don’t exist), I’ll put up with some modern day BS. Call me crazy.

If you don’t agree with any of that, by all means, buy this book (but first, acknowledge that without a ton of “corporate law” BS, the book itself and your purchase of it would not have been even remotely possible) and read it by campfire light (no marshmallows allowed) next to a shelter that you created by hand from sticks and mud. Happy reading.

(4)(1)

Anonymous

What do Corporate Lawyers do?

(0)(0)

Anonymous

The Short Answer:

In the U.S., a “Corporate Lawyer” typically handles corporations law; i.e., the law pertaining to the formation, governance, and funding of a company. This focus in turn often includes mergers and acquisitions (M&A), although there are attorneys who focus solely on M&A, as well. In this context, a “Corporate Lawyer” may be either an in-house lawyer (works as an employee of the business that he/she supports, not a law firm) or a lawyer employed by a law firm.

Having said that, I think that the lay use of this phrase often (mistakenly) incorporates a wide variety of legal matters faced by a company (e.g., contract law, employment law, commercial law, intellectual property, etc.). Thus, this lay useage can cause confusion and misunderstanding with respect to what the attorney in question actually does.

The Longer Answer:

In my experience, as a lawyer, the term “Corporate Lawyer” is used two ways. (Please note that this answer is specific to the U.S.)

First. “Corporate Lawyer” is sometimes used as a generic term that can mean “in-house counsel” (that is, a lawyer who is an employee of the company that he/she advises) or an outside (law firm) lawyer who focuses on business law or other matters faced by businesses.

In the in-house instance, titles such as “Corporate Counsel” (not “Corporate Lawyer”) are typically used in the U.S.

Typical titles of law firm lawyers in the U.S. include Partner/Shareholder/Member, Associate, Attorney, and Of Counsel. Lawyers employed by law firms typically refer to the specific legal areas in which they primarily work and do not usually use the generic term “Corporate Lawyer.”

As a related aside — in the U.S., there are only a few specialties (e.g., patent law) recognized by the American Bar Association (or State Bar Associations). As a result, exept for these few exceptions, lawyers are generally prohibited from advertising themselves as experts or specialists. (Of course, lawyers that promote themselves to the general public can really push the envelop on this sometimes, but that’s another topic.) So, a law firm lawyer will typically not refer to him/herself as a “Corporate Lawyer” (at least not in writing).

In both cases, I believe that above are lay uses of the term. Perhaps other attorneys may have differing opinions and experience, but from my viewpoint, either of these uses can lead to misunderstandings of what the attorney in question actually does. The reason for the misunderstanding is that in the above instance, the attorney may handle one or more of a wide range of legal areas (e.g., contract law, commercial law, employment law, antitrust law, regulatory compliance, litigation, intellectual property, real estate, tax law, etc.). The “Corporate Lawyer” referred to above may or may not actually handle corporate law. Compare this with a true Corporate Lawyer (i.e., a lawyer that focuses on corporate law), below.

Second. A lawyer who focuses on corporations law is sometimes called a “Corporate Lawyer” for short. In my view, this is a much better use of the term.

Corporate law typically includes law relating to the formation, governance, and funding (public or private) of companies. It also includes areas such as mergers and acquisitions. (Yes, this is the short, simple explanation.)

So, for example, if you want to form a company, a “corporate lawyer” can help you decide what form of entity to choose and help you form the company. This includes forming a governing structure (e.g., a board of directors), creating corporate records relating to formation (e.g., corporate bylaws, articles of incorporation, and intiial incorporator/member/shareholder/board of directors resolutions), and filing the necessary forms with the relevant state(s).

If you want to fund the company, the corporate lawyer can help assess the options for funding, make introductions to potential investors, help structure the funding and related deals. (There is typically a lot of legal work that goes into these deals that covers many legal areas, so often other attorneys are (or should be) involved.)

Once the company is formed and funded, the corporate lawyer can help you comply with legal requirements for maintaining and governing the corporate entity (e.g., regular board of director and shareholder meetings, meeting notices, meeting minutes, resolutions, handling of equity, etc.).

And, when you’re ready to grow through acquisition or for that big exit, the corporate lawyer can help you sell or merge the company.

Many other areas of law come into play in M&A (and in supporting a company), but the corporate lawyer primarily focuses on the formation, governance, and funding unless he/she has additional expertise (outisde the Corporate Lawyer role) that applies. Corporate law is very complex and often changes.

Probably more than anyone ever wanted to know, but I hope that helps.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Somebody should ask the junior associate running the show up in Newcastle for his shit-under-his-nose opinion.

(0)(0)

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