Prawf Musings and Query on the Value of Values
posted by Lawrence Cunningham
My Mother, God bless her, had a hard time understanding why I’d trade a higher-paying job for a lower-paying one. This happened in the early 1990s. I had begun my career as a high-paid corporate lawyer at the prominent New York law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore. There I had at least some chance of becoming partner and an excellent chance of becoming partner at some such firm upon leaving Cravath.
Then another future appeared: an offer to become a law professor, first at Cardozo Law School and later at Boston College and George Washington University. The pay at Cravath or another law firm dwarfs the pay at GW, BC or Cardozo (though longer term, when book royalties and consulting fees are added, being a law professor remains a reasonable living).
My Mother wondered: “aren’t you supposed to move up, from lower-paying jobs to higher-paying jobs?” I explained that there are compensating values of the professorial position. Chief among these, for me, were tenure and academic freedom. I was willing to trade the higher pay in part for those commitments of permanence and autonomy.
There are many other such compensating values too. Those who are thrifty by nature may like the budget-consciousness of a school compared to the lavishness of the kind of private practice I had. I valued the earnestness and sincerity of legal pedagogy and scholarship (calling things as I seem them) over the advocacy of law practice (whose bread I eat, his song I sing), true even when I take consulting assignments.
Many find the academy more congenial in the sense of boasting a shared mission and aspiring to morals above those of the marketplace. In contrast to many law firm cultures, I welcomed the opportunity for entrepreneurship: academic entrepreneurship of hosting innovative conferences, writing on unusual topics, pioneering programs, redesigning curriculum, building institutions, leading student learning.
Some like professorial life because it exists at the basic level in the legal profession, the gate-keeping end where new lawyers are vetted and trained. Something about that rudimentary point is more enticing than working to add new clients to an old practice or derive new sub-specialties from there.
I explained to my Mother how some sellers of companies feel the same way and analogized to a situation my Dad once faced. He once had to choose between two business opportunities, one that paid more but the other that put his name on the door, put him in charge and gave him a sense that his business would be around forever. That recall helped my Mom get why I was moving from Cravath to Cardozo.
I wonder how other professors (or aspiring professors) might answer their parents or spouses or kids when explaining why they wish to take a lower-paying job over a higher-paying one. Not only what the factors are but how to interpret them commensurately. If you could earn $60 million in a 30-year partnership career at Cravath but only $6 million in the same time period as a Cardozo professor, does that mean the value of tenure and autonomy and the rest is something like $54 million?