As many readers of this blog will know, I am a lawyer by training. Many years ago when I began life as a student I believed I would go on to be a solicitor. About a year into my studies I decided I would be a barrister instead, and so I embarked upon the necessary activities in the King’s Inns (the professional body for barristers in Ireland) – those ‘necessary activities’ consisting principally of sitting exams and eating dinners (you had a take part in a minimum number of dinners per year, with pretty terrible food). Well, life never goes the way we expect, and by the time I had finished I knew I wanted to be an academic. And of course in some ways I have left that profession also, but not quite – I am just now writing a new academic monograph.
As a lawyer of one sort or another, I became one of that great army of respectable people: a member of the professions. For decades all over Ireland, ambitious parents were anxious that their children would become lawyers, accountants, architects, surveyors, doctors or vets. These were the career choices that would secure a social rank, lots of income, independence and sophistication. This was the life to aspire to. And for decades the CAO points have reflected that, attaching a premium to programmes of study that opened up the gates to these careers. By contrast, you could launch yourself on a trajectory towards being an engineer, a research chemist, even a senior manager in industry on the back of much lower points; these latter career choices often seemed insecure and poorly paid to the same ambitious parents.
The problem is that a country that provides itself with too many people in the professions has to pay a high price. If the most desirable careers are in such areas as law and accounting, then the work that creates the wealth that will pay for all these professionals will have to be done by people who either had lower academic attainments or who were willing to swim against the tide of popular fashion. In Ireland we are only now beginning to take seriously the significance of having an entrepreneurial culture, and more importantly, the need to have actual entrepreneurs to start up businesses or improve them or make them world class. But the effectiveness of any entrepreneurial culture can be seriously undermined by excessive litigiousness (a product of too many lawyers), over-complicated accounting and auditing (too many accountants), problems in the planning processes (too many architects), and so forth. Too many people in a profession leads to that profession aggressively selling the importance of its services, which are then typically directed towards slowing down or impeding the actual business of doing things. On top of that, the professions are notoriously incestuous, and every new generation of professionals tends to spawn another one following in its footsteps; a very significant proportion of students studying a professional degree are the children of parents at least one of whom was also in the same profession.
Of course I am caricaturing a little, and members of the professions are needed to make the wheels of the economy and society turn. But not when there are too many. And not when we tell our young people that those who provide legal and financial and other advice are more important to society than those whom they are advising and who are getting on and doing things. We have our priorities wrong.
It is time for us to think again about what the professions are. They are not there in order to be the pinnacle of the social pyramid. They are not there as an end in itself. They are there to provide a service, in other words to support those whose activities are the primary drivers of progress and prosperity. They are important, but their importance is secondary. A country that does not grasp this will find it hard to recover and maintain a vibrant economy and a prosperous and fair society.