Do Lawyers Have a Cushy Number?

The cushy number has a long and honoured place in the history of mankind. Genesis 2 described the very first cushy numbers arranged by the Lord God for Adam and Eve. They were not required to work, and the only limitation placed upon them in terms of consumption was to give a miss to the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Sadly Eve was unable to resist the wiles of the serpent and she, and, a little later, Adam, sampled the forbidden fruit. The Lord God took a very dim view of their offence, and immediately put into effect the relevant disciplinary procedures. By the end of Genesis 3 their cushy number in the Garden of Eden had been cancelled, and our illustrious ancestors became reluctant founder members of the working class.

This article sets out to explore why some jobs are more desirable than others. This immediately raises the question – desirable in terms of what? Desirable in terms of this all important aspect of cushiness.

 Back in 2002 I wrote a book which I entitled A Cushy Number. I was unable to find a publisher – at that time and indeed since then publishers were understandably more concerned to secure the publishing rights for the works of eminent writers such as Mr X and Ms Y – what chance did I have against opposition of this talent?

I did not fail for lack of persistence.  I think that I may have established some sort of record in the number of times that I was told to f***off  and furthermore to stay f***** off. Publishers and Literary Agents are not afraid to come straight to the point.

I eventually placed the book onto the net where it continues to languish in the outer reaches of cyber space. From time to time I get requests from mysterious supplicants in far away places requesting me to furnish them with my bank details to enable them to transmit the huge amounts of cash being held for me as a result of internet sales. I have been advised by those in the know to treat these requests rather like my submissions to publishers were treated – and I have done so.

Back to business. In the book I looked at the features which made for a cushiness in a profession. After careful thought I defined A Cushy Number as a well rewarded sinecure. The word sinecure is defined as an office of profit with no duties. I was  looking for a lot more than an office of profit, although I was quite happy with the absence of duties. I was looking for, indeed I insisted upon, a job which combined the minimum of effort with the maximum of reward.

It must be stressed at the outset that cushy number seekers insist on having both criteria satisfied. They don’t want a demanding well rewarded job although they accept that this would be a step in the right direction. Equally they don’t just want a sinecure. They want a well rewarded sinecure.

In the introductory chapters to the book I examined in some detail the truths and myths surrounding job demand and likewise the truths and myths surrounding job rewards. I looked at the differences and at the (few) similarities between public sector jobs and private sector jobs, and then at the role of nepotism in assessing the cushiness of jobs.

I then subjected a series of professions to the Cushy Number model that I had developed including teachers, doctors, politicians and police men to assess where the truth ended and the myths began, and I came up with a league table of job cushiness.

I now plan – in my dotage – to update my original findings to see which of my conclusions have stood the test of time and which have had to be modified to reflect significant changes.

In this blog entry I present the updated version of the first of my selected professions namely the Legal Profession.

The timing is apposite because the word is that the legal profession is on the brink of a new surge in cushiness as the plethora of opportunities arising from Brexit become manifest.

Do Lawyers Have A Cushy Number?

 “Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, thou shall by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing”
Mathew, 5, Verses 25 and 26   

“It is likewise to be observed that this society (lawyers) hath a peculiar cant and jargon of their own, that no other mortal can understand, and wherein all their laws are written, which they take special care to multiply; whereby they have wholly confounded the very essence of truth and falsehood, of right and wrong, so that it will take thirty years to decide whether the field left me by my ancestors for six generations belongs to me or to a stranger three hundred miles off”
Jonathan Swift,
Gulliver’s Travels

“The King ordered that the fine of four hundred ounces of gold to which he had been condemned, be returned to him. The clerk to the court, the ushers, the attorneys came to his house in grand apparel to bring him back his four hundred ounces; they retained only three hundred and ninety eight of them for the costs of justice; and their valets asked for honoraria”

 “And before I go, gentlemen,” said the excited Mr Pickwick, turning round on the landing, “permit me to say that of all the disgraceful and rascally proceedings -“
“Stay, Sir, stay” interposed Dodson with great politeness. “Mr Jackson, Mr Wicks!“
“Sir” said the two clerks appearing at the bottom of the stairs.
“I merely want you to hear what this gentleman says,“ replied Dodson. “Pray go on, sir: – disgraceful and rascally proceedings I think you said?”
“I did” said Mr Pickwick, thoroughly roused. “I said, sir, that of all the disgraceful and rascally proceedings that ever were attempted, this is the most so. I repeat it, sir.”
“You hear that, Mr Wickes?” Said Dodson.  “You won’t forget these expressions, Mr Jackson?“ said Fogg.
“Perhaps you would like to call us swindlers, sir” said Dodson. “Pray do so, sir if you feel disposed: now pray do sir.”
“I do” said Mr Pickwick. “You are swindlers.”
“Very good” said Dodson. “You can hear down there, I hope, Mr Wicks?”
“Oh yes, sir” said Mr Wicks.
“You had better come up a step or two higher if you can’t,” added Mr Fogg. “Go on, sir, do go on. You had better call us thieves Sir: – or perhaps you would like to assault one of us. Pray do it, Sir.”
Charles Dickens,
The Pickwick Papers

English Literature, and, doubtless, the literature of other languages, abounds with dire warnings about the hazards in store for those citizens so rash as to get involved in legal proceedings, any legal proceedings. The extracts at the start of this chapter illustrate the views of four sharp observers of the legal scene down the centuries. In the first extract Jesus turns aside from his main themes of setting out the Christian message in his Sermon on the Mount to warn us of the consequences of failing to settle out of court. Over the last two millennia  the number of people who wish that they had paid more attention to these two key verses must run into millions.           

Swift notes the propensity of the legal profession to complicate all matters which come before them for resolution. This admirable trait, coupled with the facility to procrastinate, ensures that the final bill for services rendered will be satisfactorily substantial. Voltaire described a typical outcome for anyone unfortunate enough to have dealings with the legal profession of his time. Zadig was left with just 0.5% of the fine ostensibly returned to him by his gracious majesty, and even his meagre balance was being targeted by the lesser lights of the profession.                                

The extract from The Pickwick Papers  illustrates beautifully the combination  of provocation and of ensuring that the ill advised outburst of Mr Pickwick was comprehensively witnessed. The Pickwick Papers was Dickens’ first novel.  In his following novels his opinion of the legal process and of the lawyers who operated the legal system got steadily worse. It is abundantly clear that Dickens was not a lover of either the legal system or of its practitioners.   Reading Bleak House, Great Expectations, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, The Old Curiosity Shop and the court proceedings of Bardell against Pickwick, one is struck by the strength of his feeling on and against the legal profession. In fact the list of his novels in which lawyers appear as villains is longer than the list in which they do not appear at all.               

In Bleak House Dickens deals with the legal proceedings associated with the disposal of the Jarndyce estate. Dickens took the view that the legal proceedings of his time were protracted and arcane, and above all, that they existed primarily for the financial benefit of the legal profession. The outcome of the interminable legal process was that the entire value of the estate was swallowed up in legal costs. Reading Bleak House today one is struck by how briskly the law moved in those days and how quickly legal issues were resolved – compared with today. The delays that have always been at the heart of the British legal system remain with us today. These procedures exist, of course, to enrich lawyers and any link between this primary objective and the availability of legal redress to litigants is purely fortuitous.

The relatively new feature which protracts the process still further is the addition of more and more layers of appeal. The procrastination for which the profession is justly celebrated achieved perfection with the availability of the appeals procedures of the European Courts. This might change if the Brexiteers have their way but then again it might not if the Remainers have their way. As a committed Remainer – I remain convinced that sanity will prevail and that the UK will remain in the European Union.

This multiple and complex arrangement of appeals is of considerable significance in our assessment of the legal profession as a cushy number. Quite simply, in many, if not in most, professions, the decision makers get just one opportunity. Their judgement has to be, to borrow a quote from the jargon of the world of Quality Management, right first time. The legal system has been beautifully constructed to avoid any such painful predicaments. Legal cases go slowly, painfully slowly, and expensively, prohibitively expensively, up through the myriad appeal procedures.                

All the lawyers employed (if that is not too strong a word) in this system enjoy a delightful combination of guaranteed income and an agreeable absence of stress. It puts one in mind of Tennyson’s  land of the Lotus Eaters.  The only occupational pressure experienced by the profession is that of worrying about the payment at the end of the proceedings. In really promising cases, that is in protracted cases, this worry extends to payment of fees into their estates, following their demise.                

The behaviour of Dodson and Fogg in the extract from The Pickwick Papers illustrates another unfortunate feature of the legal profession which is very widespread. Lawyers do not enjoy the trust of the wider public, and the profession is by no means averse to incurring the wrath of other professions for its own financial benefit.                

The reason for this widespread detestation is straightforward. Lawyers never lose.  Whatever the crisis, whatever the issue, the legal profession always wins. This may not seem so to a losing barrister but for our purposes we note that, win or lose, the lawyer gets paid.  This of course has always been so. It is easier to imagine the sun failing to rise tomorrow than it is to imagine the legal profession not having first charge on available funds. In the event that funds are not available and, for good measure, guaranteed, lawyers do not start the job.              

Before any lawyer raises the practice of no win no fee litigation which is slowly creeping in, the point needs to be made that this development is a symptom of the opportunism of the profession rather than its wholly illusory altruism and wholly imaginary thirst for justice. In all these cases the lawyers have a look at the gist of the matter at the outset and quickly divide them into those with a high probability of payment, and the others. Those with a payout probability below around 98% will be promptly consigned to the dust bin. There will obviously be a spread here depending upon the attitude to risk of the lawyer in question. Conservative lawyers will look for a success probability of 99%. Dashing adventurous lawyers may go as low as 97%. This latter group will take the view that they can add any losses to the bills of their other clients.                

Public antagonism towards the legal profession is especially marked among the medical profession which rightly sees them as parasites feeding off the errors of their own profession. Doctors and especially surgeons are attractive targets for lawyers, with no credit allowed for all the operations which were successful.  One mistake and litigation follows as surely night follows day. The response of the Surgeons to this assault on their purse and their professional pride is to limit their activities to safe surgery, that is to operations with a safe margin of error. The long term victims will be those patients suffering from ailments which might be cured by high risk surgery: – for what surgeon today will carry out a risky operation?              

Contrast the risks faced by the two professions. With surgeons one slip of the knife and the patient may finish up in the morgue, thus triggering much dreaded litigation. Lawyers have established a huge safety net of appeal procedures to protect them and us from their errors and omissions. This may be just as well when you consider the frequency with which previous judgements are reversed and prisoners are released as the result of one of the multitude of appeals. Sadly far too many decisions are corrected only when the unfortunate prisoner has served a long sentence.                

Lawyers are perceived by the rest of us as, to quote Matthew again but in a different context, “ravening wolves” waiting for us to slip up, thus enabling them to move in, exploit our difficulties to the full and slip away leaving us much poorer, but none the wiser.  They are ever present in times of distress, in times of conflict, and in times of confusion. They wax fat on our collective misfortunes.                

We are or we feel we are bullied in work- we need a lawyer. We fail to leave clear instructions as to who gets what when we shuffle off the mortal coil- lawyers are sent for. Our marriages are falling apart – a job for the lawyers. A dispute with our neighbours over the height of the Leylandi – bring on the lawyers.               

Some years ago a sympathetic New Labour minister took pity on the plight of miners whose health had been damaged by the conditions under which they worked. A government  scheme was set up to compensate those so affected. To all outward appearances the scheme was set up to compensate miners because of their wholly justifiable grievances.  Those in Government responsible for launching the scheme duly launched it and moved on to other matters. So far so good.

The affected miners and the wider public are indebted to the tireless work of Mr Andrew Norfolk of The Times as he investigated and then revealed precisely who got what out the available funds. And who did get what? You are ahead of me. Yes:- the lawyers acting for the claiming miners got the lions share and a few lucky miners got what was left after the lawyers had gorged themselves. The respective portions obtained by the two parties, lawyers and sick miners was roughly the same as the portions noted by Voltaire at the start of this article.                  

Let us now look at the cushiness of the profession. We will begin by looking at the demands of the job. We can immediately dismiss the idea of a lawyer under stress. This is a contradiction in terms, like a truthful politician.  Some TV dramas portray lawyers as sharing the distress of their clients in criminal cases. This recalls  the comments of Mr Jim Wicks who was the manager of the boxer Henry Cooper in the 1950s. Whenever Cooper lost a bout Mr Wicks would appear in front of the cameras and report sadly that “we did our best, but we took a lot of punishment and we were not good enough.”  The thought used to strike me that the distribution of the punishment had been decidedly lop sided as between fighter and manager. Thus Mr Wicks, thus lawyers who have acted for convicted criminals. Any despondency expressed by lawyers following a court defeat is wholly synthetic, all part of the play acting which goes with the job.               

What about performance measurement. Efforts have been made for thousands of years to measure the performance of lawyers, all to no avail.  If you doubt this, try suing one and see where it gets you. What about job security? Are lawyers, like many people employed in the commercial world, worried about redundancy, falling markets, cancelled orders and bleak prospects?  Not in the slightest. Their only concern is that their ingrained professional indolence might keep them from the cornucopia generated by the ever growing mountain of laws, rules, regulations and red tape generated in the main by the legal profession.               

What about the amount of time required to do the job? We  believe that the meagre time commitment is best illustrated by noting that the fairly small barrister branch of the profession has always provided and continues to provide an astonishingly high number of politicians at both local and national level. We have noted already that the facility to carry out other, often time consuming  activities is a classical hallmark of an under worked and under stretched profession. Note that time consuming does not mean demanding. The most obvious time consuming activity is that of clock watching.                

Barristers and moonlighting go together like politics and mendacity. This most attractive feature of  ample opportunity to pursue other lucrative activities will become more and more significant as we complete our review of a range of jobs. Demanding jobs provide just about zero opportunity for extra curricular activities and we must accordingly mark down as low demand those which provide this opportunity.               

Taking all these points together it is clear that we looking here at a very low level of job demand.  The level of demand varies slightly from branch to branch within the profession, but we are looking in all cases at a low level of stress, an absence of performance measurement and complete job security as long as criminal conduct by the lawyer is avoided. Sadly, this last feature is by no means unknown and the percentage of legally qualified criminals is disproportionately high. The level of temptation in the profession is high and occasionally lawyers succumb to this temptation.                

What about the reward side? The picture here is slightly complex.  Members of the legal profession are employed in jobs ranging from the public sector at one end of the spectrum to small, possibly one or 2 man practices at the other with a swathe of corporate lawyers somewhere in the middle. Let us pick our way through this variety of legal jobs and arrive at a job reward index for the profession. We know that there is no such being as a poor lawyer. But some lawyers are richer than others. Lawyers in private practice will receive a premium as compensation for the additional risks and hazards of the private sector.               

Lawyers, other than the top QCs, tend not to be fabulously rich but all will be solidly well heeled. Sadly nothing in this life is perfect and lawyers in small private practices will normally have to forego the automatic prize of a FISIL ( Final Salary Index Linked pension).  This unfortunate feature can usually but not always be compensated for by fee adjustment but this is not always so.                 

We now apply the formula arrived at earlier to establish the profession cushy number index. The job demand is low and the job rewards are high.  This is a most promising start to our search for A Cushy Number. Accordingly any child which shows a talent for dissembling, procrastination and the theatre could be steered towards this profession. Lawyers still have some way to go to achieve the ultimate goal of the perfect cushy number but we can be sure that, between slumbers, they are working  on two key problems. How to do even less work in return for even more money.               

The legal profession is noted for endemic nepotism. This nepotism may be direct or indirect. In direct nepotism the children will first of all receive legal training and will then inherit the parental legal practice. Indirect nepotism will result in lawyers steering their children towards the richer pastures in this Garden of Eden. We can be confident that the job is a cushy number when such a cynical, calculating, grasping, breed ensure that their offspring follow their choice of career.               

There are two strong contenders for the title of cushiest numbers within the legal profession. The jobs of lawyers employed in the public sector will be considered in a future blog article.  

Let me whisper a word or two about left wing lawyers.  Here we have a most agreeable combination of a cushy number with a social conscience. You have really hit the jackpot when you have a low demand job which is very well paid AND a reputation as a defender of the poor and an ardent warrior in the class struggle. Mr X, QC and Lord Y, QC spring to mind as well known members of this group. Please note – no names, no litigation. We fully endorse the comments of Christ as set out in Mathew, 5, verses 25 and 26.            

Finally a  word on the cushiness of the legal profession across the pond. Suffice it say that all the points noted in this blog apply in the USA – only more so. This can be explained by noting that the early settlers from Europe to America comprised the most energetic and enterprising elements of their countries of origin. Obviously the legal eagles within the wider group of settlers were similarly energetic and enterprising. We can assert with confidence  that American lawyers share all the characteristics of their European fellow professionals but with added vigour, an arguably regrettable combination.                

One example of these qualities in action in the USA is the treatment of those convicted of crimes which may be punishable by the death penalty. American lawyers grasp that the income to be obtained from dead criminals diminish sharply with their demise. Accordingly in the USA the practice has developed of keeping convicted criminals on death row for two decades or more, all the time under sentence of death – and from time to time the death sentence is carried out. This splendid tactic combines maximising the revenue potential of the criminal  for both defence and prosecution lawyers, with an outcome pleasing to those in favour of the death penalty, a not insignificant group of voters.      

I would like to end on a conciliatory emollient note and stress that none of the above strictures apply to my friends in the legal profession – all of whom embrace and embody the noble qualities of Portia, the admirable advocate in “The Merchant of Venice.”


Author: holdenforth

50 years in management - mostly as a sharp-end man. Occasional contributor to Tribune.

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