Re-assessing the professions

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.

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7 Comments on “Re-assessing the professions”

  1. Jilly Says:

    It was ever thus in Ireland, apparently. Senia Paseta’s book Before the Revolution focuses on the rise of the Catholic middle classes in the late 19th and early 20thC, and she traces the establishment of Catholic university education as being crucial to this: but also provides detailed evidence that this led immediately to an overstocking of the professions, specifically law. There are fascinating contemporary accounts of qualified barristers hanging around the Law Library with nothing to do and barely enough money to live on…

  2. Aoife Citizen Says:

    This is the second time I have been surprised to see you include architects in your list of the professions. They don’t seem to me to suffer the vices the others do, there are low barriers to entry, until recently you didn’t even have to be an architect to call yourself one and you don’t need an architect to build a building, they don’t seem to command due respect and their economic existence can be very marginal.

    Leave architects alone: as for the rest, oh yes, I’m right with you. Maybe you could replace architects with pharmacists on your list.

    • Aoife, I agree that in some respects architects are different from the various other professions; but not quite without issues. Pharmacists? Yes, I agree, and there are some others also.

  3. Vincent Says:

    Ah. The professions. The little lovies.
    The one main problem with the professions is that they think that as they can work in The USA, OZ, Canada etc, they should be payed as if they live in those places.
    From the beginning the Civil Service pay grades was pegged to the Imperial service sitting in Whitehall, that the tax base to support this balderdash was tiny in comparison mattered not at all. And add to this, the very odd farming method developed during the period when we had to pay two tithes and the speculative investments of merchant princes in the Land demanded the squeezing of the small ’til the pips screamed. Oh, that is something that is absent from the christian brothers histories, that with the large landowners, investors leased huge tracts and than sub-leased below. And with the Land Acts, the UK government chopped the heads from two groups. And the pity is the second stayed put. While FF set up to be a bulwark against this shower of Papal Knights spattered round the Island, has become little more than a duplicate of them. The other night, with John Bowman, you saw Mr O’Brian a former Mayor of Clonmel for FF. And when Bertie forgot that his office worker was not there to protect him, that it should be the other way round.

    You would think that with the increase in numbers the cost would fall, and in some areas this is true. Getting an architect these days is not the fleecing arrangement it was in former days. But your (old) profession as with the Medics their pricing is based on a footfall of 200 million people not 4ish million.

    At the moment, my mind is a tad mushy, I’m reading that Ryan report. Something I cannot do at a sitting. But even as little as I’ve read, one thing is certain, the professional religious are far from being the only ones with a Case to answer. Legal and Medical could do with serious look also.
    ET, I believe that the sooner oversight of their respective professions is removed the better it will be for the Citizens of this State. Enough of these private farming licenses.

    • Wendymr Says:

      Vincent said:

      The one main problem with the professions is that they think that as they can work in The USA, OZ, Canada etc, they should be payed as if they live in those places.

      I’m not sure what you mean by that, but if it’s what I think – that ‘professionals’ are more geographically mobile than the rest of us – that’s actually not true. Unlike people in non-professional occupations, people in professions need a licence in order to practice – which is why you will find, in some countries, internationally-trained doctors and lawyers and engineers driving taxis or working in supermarkets. International mutual recognition agreements are not always what one expects them to be.

  4. Aidan Says:

    I am surprised that you have listed engineering as an exception to that list. The boarding school I went to funneled us all into the professions based on a kind of prestige ranking and I still think back to those ludicrous CAO forms where people from Galway would have UCG course ranked 1 to 10 with Medicine first and Engineering courses were always high up that list too. Arts was nearly always the bottom. As French and Irish were my best subjects by far I, of course, took an Engineering degree 😉
    Actually, from my engineering degree year many people became accountants and actuaries. As long as economics dictates that those closest to the cash flow earn the most money the knowledge based professions will spill talent to the services.

  5. FPL Says:

    I can see why you left the law when you make statements such as the one quoted below.

    “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.”

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