Doctors and lawyers: no longer prestigious?

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I live in an immigrant-rich community in northern New Jersey. My Asian-American friends who grew up in this country tell of being informed from a very early age that their parents wished them to become either doctors or lawyers. Oh, okay, or concert violinists. It had to do with the comprehensibility of those jobs; while the workings of a hedge fund might be difficult to explain to Grandma Takeuchi back home, she understood what a G.P. did, no prob.

But also it had to with the undeniable and unassailable prestige of those professions. Doctors and lawyers were the leaders of society, the doers of (highly compensated) good works. And it was easy to convey that prestige: simply hand over a business card, and the prefix or suffix made your standing clear.

That may no longer be the case in our culture. Check out this story in the New York Times called “The Falling-Down Professions,” by Alex Williams. It lists the various ways white-shoe law firms are trying to hang onto its exodus of young associates. I know plenty of young lawyers who burn out on the fast track; my sister-in-law was an associate at Skadden Arps, one of the world’s top law firms, before it lost her to a British firm with more family-friendly attitudes. In her NYT blog, Shifting Careers, Marci Alboher discusses ways lawyers are “tackling one of the biggest obstacles to lawyers’ work/life satisfaction: the billable hour.”

As for doctors, Williams writes,

As of 2006, nearly 60 percent of doctors polled by the American College of Physician Executives said they had considered getting out of medicine because of low morale, and nearly 70 percent knew someone who already had.

Williams muses,

Make no mistake, law and medicine — the most elite of the traditional professions — have always been demanding. But they were also unquestionably prestigious. Sure, bankers made big money and professors held impressive degrees.

But in the days when a successful career was built on a number of tacitly recognized pillars — outsize pay, long-term security, impressive schooling and authority over grave matters — doctors and lawyers were perched atop them all.

Now, those pillars have started to wobble.

For doctors, the headaches stem in large part from the crumbling monolith that is American health care and the sticky web of the insurance companies. As one doctor tells Williams,

In a typical complaint, Dr. Yul Ejnes, 47, a general internist in Cranston, R.I., said he was recently forced by Medicare to fill out requisition forms for a wheelchair-bound patient who needed to replace balding tires. “I’m a doctor,” he said, “not Mr. Goodwrench.”

So maybe Grandma Takeuchi is the only one who swoons anymore at the sight of a Dr. or a J.D. So what? What’s prestige mean, anyway, when it comes to assessing the value and gratification of a job? Don’t we, in this day and age, gauge work in ways other than what impresses the neighbors?

Take salary. Doctors and lawyers still make a good buck, for certain. says doctors’ pay ranges from $118,000 to $198,000; it says lawyers make anywhere from $73,000 for associates to $130,000 for general counsel (though I’ve never known any lawyer in either of those ranks to make that little; they must be surveying in Alaska or something). But Terri Cullen of the Wall Street Journal (no, pals, she’s not related to my husband’s clan) suggests even plumbers make a better living.

What about sexiness? Doctors and lawyers ranked ninth and tenth, respectively, in’s poll on the sexiest jobs.

Know who came in fourth? Journalists. That’s right, me. I may never wow Grandma Takeuchi with my career choice, or even bring home serious scratch. But I’m sexy, dammit. Uncombed, baggy-eyed, crumb-covered me.

Would you, or do you, hope your progeny will join the medical or legal professions? Do those jobs convey prestige to you anymore? Or are you more impressed by a neighbor’s kid who lands a job at Google?