Home / General / If lawyers make too much money why is Matt Bruenig panhandling on the internet?

If lawyers make too much money why is Matt Bruenig panhandling on the internet?



Updated below

I don’t have any comment on the substance of the Matt Bruenig/Demos kerfuffle, but I do have something to say about this:

This GoFundMe was to raise funds for me, Matt Bruenig, and my family. I reside in the District of Columbia. I had a little gig at Demos Think Tank until I lost it on Friday due to my rude tweets at Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress. I started this GoFundMe to replace the income I would lose as a result of the termination. I had counted on that income to handle the costs of a child on the way (leave and child care) and I am grateful that my comrades have come through to keep me financially stable in light of the unfair situation.

Apparently outrage at Bruenig’s firing from his “little gig” was intense enough to net him nearly $25K in a few hours, before he shut down his GoFundMe appeal.

A couple of years ago, Bruenig made some shall we say naive (I’m trying to be nice) arguments about why “lawyers” make way too much money.

After I pointed out that quoting a median income of $113,000 for “lawyers” was misleading for a bunch of reasons, (short version: (a) more than 40% of current law school grads are never becoming lawyers at all, which seems very relevant to the question of whether people with law degrees make too much money; (b) the $113,000 figure doesn’t include the large plurality of lawyers who are self-employed rather than salaried, and the mean earnings — the median is much lower — of the 50% of lawyers in private practice who are solos are $49,000) Bruenig wrote a reply in which he claimed, shall we say rather implausibly, that I was making these arguments to protect the income of law professors.

He also said this:

Campso’s next move is to say that new graduates aren’t the same thing as established lawyers. After my mind was blown by this observation, I regrouped and then thought of this: people getting legal credentials now will be established lawyers in the future and the more credentialed people we can flood into the market, the more long-run downward pressure on these exorbitant salaries there will be.

Right now, it is objectively great that supply is outpacing demand for lawyers, especially for entry-level lawyers. That means downward wage pressure and less money spent on lawyers. But I am saying we need to ramp it up further. We need absolutely merciless downward salary pressure on lawyers until they reach a much more reasonable and decent median salary. This is a long-run project, but one worth undertaking, and one reducing credentialing requirements will aid. We might have to sacrifice some of those sweet rents Campso lives off of, but it’s worth it.

Bruenig graduated from law school in 2014, and got a job as a lawyer for the NLRB. This outcome is in roughly the 99th percentile of desirability for recent law graduates. While an entry-level NLRB lawyer has a salary of “only” around $70,000, it’s a fantastic job outcome because of the hours, the work, the benefits, and most of all the job security. The large majority of the 15% of law graduates who get big firm jobs with big starting salaries — and essentially 100% of law graduates with Bruenig’s political commitments — would trade places with Bruenig in a New York minute, because:

(a) They’re probably getting paid little if at all more per hour

(b) Their work consists of something like trying to help somebody pave over Lake Tahoe

(c) They have crummy benefits (relatively minor factor but still); and, most germane to the issue at hand

(d) They can be fired at any moment for essentially any reason, and almost all of them will in fact be fired eventually (“asked to leave”), or quit voluntarily, because the conditions of their employment — hours, Lake Tahoe etc. — are literally unendurable to them.

And that’s for the 15% of grads who get big-money jobs. As for the 85% who don’t, almost all of them would consider Bruenig’s day job a unicorn-type outcome.

It’s apparently not such a great outcome for Bruenig, even though his wife is a staff writer for the New Republic[edit: she’s now an assistant editor for the Washington Post], and their household income is surely north of $100,000, even subtracting whatever income he got from moonlighting for Demos. Of course people are free to make charitable contributions to somebody in Bruenig’s shoes, although I suspect that he wouldn’t have gotten $25,000 out of his new fan base so quickly if he had been a little more straightforward about his actual situation. They might have been even less inclined to donate if they had known he thinks (or perhaps thought?) “lawyers” make way too much money, and that he has one of the best jobs a lawyer can get.

BTW when I first read Bruenig’s complaints about lawyer incomes, I assumed they were based on some sort of efficiency-based argument that legal services would be more widely available if lawyers got paid less. This is actually not true — again, the mean earnings for a solo practitioner are already less than $50,000 per year — but at least it’s a superficially plausible basis for the claim. But far from it. From my exchange with him two years ago:

Campos: Amazingly, you expressly deny that you want to lower the wages of lawyers for utility-regarding reasons. Apparently you’re simply offended that lawyers on average make more money than the average working person! Given that, what *should* the median wage of practicing lawyers be? The same as that for the working population as a whole? Less? More? And what’s your justification for your goal, assuming you’ve thought this through to the point where you have an answer to this absolutely central question.

Bruenig: I never argued I was interested in improving access to legal services. You imputed that argument into me for some reason when I have never written it anywhere. I just want lawyers to make less money. That’s the only thing I have ever argued.

Update: Someone who knows Bruenig sent me the following, which I’m posting with the writer’s permission:

I write as a longtime admirer of your work puncturing the sacred nonsense of the powerful, in the hope that you might see Matt Breunig in the same way.

I did not think your post on his professional situation was constructive, and it came at the cost of a high degree of privacy invasion. Breunig told me personally that the reason he launched the gofundme thing was that both he and Liz had to take unpaid leave for the baby, and he was planning on relying on the Demos income for that. To me, that’s good enough–evaluating where precisely he falls in the distribution of young lawyer wellbeing is outside my province. And hitting back at some obvious trolling beef you and he had from years ago isn’t all that great a payoff. The only reason I personally didn’t donate was that I didn’t find out about the whole mess until after he closed it.

Breunig has done excellent work deploying cogent analysis to decimate the received wisdom of the fake social scientists of the right and center–the pinnacle of the DC establishment on domestic policy. We’re worse off for however much his influence has diminished.

I think you should take down the post–not because you’ve crossed some sort of clear line, but simply out of decency.

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