Is Engineering a Better Career Than Law?

I watched a video a few years ago by Stanford Technology Ventures Program director Tina Seelig, “What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20″ and pondered what advice I’d have for an inquisitive young person. The video was so popular that she figured out what she did wrong, made the corrections, and wrote a book about making your place in the world.

My first advice would be to avoid earning an engineering degree. When I graduated with a computer engineering degree in 1986, a new engineer earned $29,000; a barrel of oil costed $22; an ounce of gold costed $350. Today, a new engineer earns $58,000; oil costs $88 and gold costs $1400, so goods require 4 times as many dollars to buy with only twice as many dollars.

If Not Engineering, Where is the Greatest Demand?
Governments of most nations have grown tremendously, especially the United States, so the greatest demand is for lawyers to interpret laws and write studies to justify the creation of new laws and regulations. For instance, many lawyers must have been involved recently in the Startup America Partnership. President Obama allocated $2b for the initiative, even though the federal government is spending $1500b more each year than it receives, so it must have required the skills of a very clever group of lawyers to persuade the President to spend more money.

Nicolas Shea, head of Start-Up Chile, says of Startup America, “It was inspired, partly, by Start-Up Chile. I’m 100 percent sure about that.” Perhaps some of the project legal consulting was performed in Chile, too.

The Analysis is More Complex Than I Imagined
Like Tina Seelig, I looked deeper and refined my thoughts. Specifically, I read, Unbillable Hours: A True Story, a memoir of young lawyer Ian Graham.

Litigators have to become quick-study experts in the subjects of their cases, learning in a few days or weeks minute and complex details that experts in the topic spend years mastering.

That’s what I loved about being a software engineer, too. People explained their business to me in great detail and taught me how the world works. It was a great education completely free of charge! But, there’s a downside to being a lawyer.

I spent the first four months of my legal career numbly looking at documents I did not understand, on subjects and for deals I knew little about, with almost no thought required. I felt like Yossarian, the antihero of Catch-22, idly censoring all adjectives out of soldiers’ letters home. I hadn’t expected to be coddled, and I knew I would be working hard. I just didn’t know the work was going to be so meaningless and boring. I wasn’t like a medical intern who works long hours but sees patients and the tangible results of his or her work. I had almost no sense of the client, of what was at stake, of the bigger picture or the strategies of any of the cases or deals I was working on.

….As a junior associate, the only skill required seemed to be a very high tolerance for boredom.

Software engineering jobs often require maintaining code poorly written in haste and without much documentation, but sometimes creative work is necessary. Engineers are rarely fired and when they quit, they often pursue better opportunities. Lawyers are more likely to leave the profession.

When I left Latham, in October 2006, only five of the forty-seven members of my first-year associate class of 2001 remained at the firm. Two of those left within the next 6 months.

….Although during my time at Latham I was often frustrated by the nature of the work and the intense demands of the practice, in hindsight I realize how much I learned there and how much I grew as a person. In the end, big-firm law practice just wasn’t for me. As a big-firm lawyer, you don’t cure anyone, you don’t build anything, you don’t create or own anything. You are a middleman, dedicating your life to resolving the problems of, or enriching, corporations.

The market for lawyers is so bad that many lawyers are reviewing documents for temp agencies. Ian Graham convinced me that being a lawyer today is worse than being an engineer, so that raises an important question.

Who is More Valuable than Engineers and Lawyers?
Josh Kauffman claims that the net has made teaching more lucrative. He tried computer engineering and was not inspired; and he tried business, again without finding inspiration. Finally, Kauffman found his niche by helping people master useful skills.

I started my website,, as a side project when I graduated from college. Instead of spending an enormous sum of money on graduate school, I decided to educate myself, and share what I learned with other people interested in doing the same thing.

Two years ago, I quit my job at P&G to teach business full time. I’m essentially a business professor — but I don’t have an MBA, I don’t have a PhD, and I don’t work at a business school. I teach craftsmen and professionals how to master the fundamentals of business on their own terms, without spending years in school and without racking up six-figure debts.

That seems right to me. Even the best colleges like Stanford and Harvard are overpriced for the educational value delivered, so perhaps freelance adult education has the most opportunities to transform us in the near future.

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2 Responses to Is Engineering a Better Career Than Law?

  1. Jacob says:

    I think a career in biosciences and the biomedical research field is no doubt one of the most stable and high paying jobs, although that also requires an extensive academic background and most importantly not elastic to economical turbulence.

    Biosciences has advanced to quickly and dramatically within the last 20 years from drosophilia genome sequencing to innovative organ farming and selling as well as selectiv fertility (the movie Gattaca(1997) is becoming a realistic debate). Every year government invest billions into the industry and expansion in the industry has been stellar.

    After the age of information technology it will be the age of scientific technology and engineering.


  2. William says:

    I would advise great caution in pursuing a career in law. The demand is very low, the number of unemployed licensed attorneys in the US is staggering, the hours are very long (especially compared to a relatively easy career like engineering), and although the money is “better” in law that is only because lawyers work much more than engineers. A typical engineer might work 40-50 hours a week, but a typical lawyer has to work a minimum of 70 hours a week and it is very common to work 80-100 hours a week. Going to law school in the US is nearly twice as expensive as getting an engineering degree and takes 7 years. (7.5 years before you get your license (which means that it takes twice as long to become a lawyer and the engineer will be earning money while the lawyer will be getting into more debt to go to law school)). An engineering degree gives you earning capacity at 21 or 22 years old that most lawyers would only dream of at 26. Later on in life, if you manage to survive grueling hours, you will make more with law (sort of, depending on how bad a lawyer you are, the average income for lawyers is only slightly higher than that for engineers, although top attorneys make much more), but you have to ask yourself do I really want to do the extremely boring and long hours of work done in law for the paltry extra compensation? As a lawyer you will be extremely limited in the number of careers you can pursue other than lawyer. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. I am a lawyer, and I did not get an engineering degree in undergrad, but if I could do it all over again, I would have gotten an engineering undergraduate degree and I would have also gotten a part time MBA while I worked. That combination will leave you with many many many many more opportunities than law. Also remember that law is a licensed profession, which means that you will be stuck in one or two states where you have a license, and your ability to move will be highly dependent on being able to pass incredibly difficult exams. The bar exams are absolutely the hardest thing I have ever tried to do, compared to anything else, even the actual practice of law. Finally, when you look at the US, there are over 159 law schools. However, because of the fierce competition and ranking systems, no one should consider going to any law school below the top 14, unless you happen to want to practice in a small market like Flordia, and go to a state school. But small markets are dangerous because they too lack demand, and are often ruled by nepotism and connections. The national market is nearly impossible to penetrate without either an elite school diploma or an extremely high GPA. You could still manage to make it into a national law firm or practice without a top 14 school, but you will slowly go bald from stress due to the insane amount of work that you will have to do and you will look 10 years older than you really are. Also your girlfriend or boyfriend, if you have one, will break up with you, this will happen many times. Additionally, you will drink a lot more alcohol than common for any other profession, and you will constantly have feelings of inferiority because you will never be in the top of your class and it will drive you insane.

    Welcome to the practice of law :-P