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Feb. 14 2010 - 11:56 pm | 2,769 views | 1 recommendation | 40 comments

Who has the tougher job–teachers or lawyers?

Last month I argued that people’s unwillingness to pay higher taxes is the main reason why teachers will never make as much money as lawyers. Many readers disagreed, arguing that it’s due to the amount and difficulty of work that lawyers do. Who’s right? Well, as a former teacher who spent three years in two very challenging schools, I’m a little biased, and I know about lawyering only from reading about it or talking to friends who are in the field. So I’ll start this debate with some comments that readers posted and e-mailed to me regarding teacher vs. lawyer salary:

Teachers often get the summer off. Teachers work school hours. Typically, this may be 8-3. Lawyers work lawyer hours. This is a much, much longer day. Teachers have job security. Ever heard of a lawyer with tenure?”

Lawyers get paid more because no one wants to be a lawyer. Being a teacher is awesome. What other job gives you a 3-month vacation every year?”

Teaching is not intellectually difficult. Part of why lawyers make so much more money is that the work is much more challenging to understand. I’m a lawyer and even I wouldn’t understand a lot of the complex business deals that take place, which is where people make the big money. Also, I think there is a larger percentage of attorneys that work 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. Although some teachers do put in a lot of hours, I don’t think that, on the whole, they put in as much time, not to mention they only work 9-10 months out of the year.”

New lawyers at pricey firms tend to work 90 hour work weeks, at a minimum–even in the summer. I’ve been a new teacher and I know it takes a lot of work…but not that much work. I’ve also been to law school, and I’ll take teaching any day.”

If you’re a preK-12 teacher or a lawyer, please post a comment and let us know if you think your job is tougher than the other (give some details since most people reading have never done either job). I’m hoping there will be at least a few career-switchers who moved from lawyering to teaching, or some Teach For America folks who moved from teaching to lawyering, who can give us insight into both worlds like the person who left the final comment above.

My take is that being a teacher can be as tough as being a lawyer, if we think about toughness as being comprised of amount of work and difficulty of work.

The biggest problem in comparing the workload of teachers and lawyers is that teachers generally have a choice as to how much they want to work. Much of this is due to the incentive structure within which teachers work. Teachers are salaried, but in most places those salaries are based on 30-33 hours of work per week. In Chicago, for example, teachers have to punch in their social security numbers on an electronic keypad in the main office before 8am and again after 3pm to prove that they have worked the number of hours required by the union contract. This makes it clear to teachers that they are being paid only for those hours, so some teachers choose to punch in as late as possible and to punch out as early as possible. Most lawyers, on the other hand, are required to bill 2,000 or more hours per year, which sets an expectation of being at work at least 50 hours per week. Lawyers may win this part of the debate, but incentive structure is a big reason why.

(One notable outlier in education is the KIPP charter school network. Their teachers sign a ”Commitment to Excellence” form and give a copy to each student’s family. One of the commitments teachers make is: “I will arrive at school by 7:30 AM and remain at school until the job is done.” If you know a KIPP teacher, you know that they often are at school into the evening, and they take calls from students and parents on their cell phones until 10pm. Students are in school from 7:30-5:00 during the week, and also come in for half-day Saturdays and for 3 weeks of summer school. Teachers are expected to work more, and they are compensated for doing so.)

That said, a good teacher in a regular public school puts in a lot of hours beyond the 8-3 work day. Think, for example, of an English teacher who assigns a 2-page essay for homework. A good teacher might spend 10 minutes reading each student’s essay, editing with a red pen, providing thoughtful written feedback about the overall content, and determining a grade for the paper. Assuming that teacher has 125 students and all of them turn in the paper, that could mean 1250 minutes (21 hours) of grading for one assignment. If only 75 students turn in the assignment, that’s still over 12 hours of grading. And even if the teacher cut down the time to 6 minutes per paper, with 75 students that’s still over 7 hours of grading for a single homework assignment. When you add up all the things that good, commmitted teachers do outside of simply teaching in the classroom–thorough grading of assignments; creating lessons, assignments, and tests; calling parents and making home visits; tutoring students one-on-one; engaging in professional development (extra reading on one’s content matter, attending workshops or classes, etc.)–the amount of time spent working comes much closer to lawyers than one might think.

Difficulty of work is where the comparison becomes harder, because the type of work and work environment is so different in each field. For example, there is a physical element to teaching, which includes like re-arranging classroom furniture, breaking up fights, bending over/squatting down when answering kids’ questions, hauling textbooks and piles of papers around the school, and being on one’s feet and talking almost the entire day. A teacher is going to be physically tired by the time kids leave at 3pm. I don’t know if this is the case with lawyers, but I have never heard any of my lawyer friends tell me they were physically spent from their work at the end of the week.

There also is an emotional element to teaching. An important part of a teacher’s job is to build strong relationships with students, which means learning and caring about them. This takes quite a bit of emotional energy, whether one is an elementary school teacher with the same 25 students all day or a high school teacher who sees 125 different students throughout the day. Teachers constantly are on the lookout for signs of neglect and abuse and are required to report when they believe a child is not being cared for properly (which can lead to an angry parent coming to school to confront the teacher), and often are approached by students who are in various forms of trouble–everything from pregnancy to homelessness to home life issues to gang concerns–and are looking for guidance or help. It can be emotionally taxing to have knowledge of these issues and attempt to provide assistance to students. There is the added weight of knowing that if you are unable to help a student academically or with a personal issue, that student’s future may be pretty bleak. (For those of you who watched The Wire, think about Duquan “Dukie” Weems at the end of seasons 4 and 5.) There certainly are some lawyers whose work includes this kind of emotional component, but even they likely don’t come home each night with personal knowledge of the struggles of dozens and dozens of young people in whom they are personally invested.

Finally, there is an intellectual element to teaching. Teachers must know their subject matter, explain concepts to students, determine the best way to evaluate if students learned what was taught, and find ways to re-teach the material to students who didn’t grasp it the first time. I think people tend to look at the intellectual challenge of teaching from the wrong point of view. They may look at a kindergarten teacher and say, “Phonics is easy–it’s just sounds and letters. I know that.” But the hard part of teaching is not knowing the content for your grade level, it’s teaching it to the students. Phonics to a 5-year-old can be what calculus is to a college freshman. Similarly, long division isn’t hard to do when you’re an adult, but making it make sense to two dozen 8-year-olds who are seeing it for the first time can be extremely difficult. Lawyers may see things more through a content lens because the difficult part of their job is understanding the details of a particular case and learning/applying related case law. Teaching, however, should be viewed more through a process lens because the primary focus is transferring knowledge of content to students and helping them learn to apply it.

Also, the work of teaching has become more demanding since most of us were K-12 students, largely because of No Child Left Behind and the accountability movement. When I was a student, the teacher’s job was to teach the material; today, a teacher’s job is to ensure that students have learned the material. (Some teachers may have embraced this long ago, but until recently it was not necessarily a required part of the job. Twenty years ago, if a student failed, it was the student’s fault. Today, it is the teacher’s/school’s fault.) Given how many different skill levels, interest levels, and personalities are present in a classroom, this is incredibly challenging work. (Reaching students with different skill levels in the same classroom–i.e., differentiating instruction–is hands-down the hardest aspect of teaching.) Figuring out how to motivate, explain something to, or interest just one student can be difficult. Multiply that by 25, or by 125, and it becomes an overwhelming task. Lawyers obviously deal with complex situations and material every day that most teachers would not understand. However, teaching is intellectually rigorous as well, just in a different way.

That’s where I stand in this debate. How about you?


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  1. collapse expand

    Teachers may have to spend hours editing the papers turned in by school children. Lawyers must spend hours reading and synthesizing cases written by courts. Teachers can come from the bottom half of the college of education. Lawyers largely cannot.

    And you are probably correct. Lawyers never come home at night worried about the troubles of their clients who they are invested in. What an astute point.

    This is not really a legitimate question.

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      Craig – I didn’t say that lawyers don’t worry about their clients at night. What I said is that they don’t deal with that on the same scale as teachers. I doubt that many are personally involved with 125 clients each day, whereas most high school teachers are.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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      Actually, lawyers do come home at night thinking about their work. Cases can be very complex, and raise a lot of issues and difficult choices. I am constantly ruminating about cases after I leave the office.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        brend482 – I don’t doubt that lawyers come home and spend much mental energy thinking about their work. But I think it may take a different emotional toll on a person to come home worrying about the well-being of dozens of children they know personally and have developed relationships with. I no longer teach, so although I may come home and stress about my work, I’m not spending emotional energy worrying about children’s/families’ lives.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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          I am sure that teachers develop relationships with their students and worry about them. Lawyers do as well. You should give this more credence than you seem to. There is a major difference. Most of the time, people see lawyers because there is a problem. Therefore, while a teacher might worry about a student, most of his students are probably alright. For a lawyer, their clients are in a time of great distress and uncertainty. The concerns are real, and often times, far more immediate.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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            Craig – Good point about the fact that people come to see lawyers specifically because they have a problem. As for teachers, I should have been more specific. You’re right–many teachers don’t need to worry about all of their students all of the time. However, for me and the other Teach For America corps members who wrote in, as well as other teachers in low-income rural, urban, and (increasingly) suburban, areas, most of our students are not alright. They live in communities where the stresses of poverty, gang violence, broken homes, etc., can dominate their lives. Many students spend the school day thinking about immediate concerns: where they’ll sleep that night, where they’ll be able to get a meal outside of school, how to get $2.25 for bus fare, or what route to walk home so they don’t cross gang lines and get harassed/assaulted. And if they get past those things, they still have to worry about the fact that they likely are receiving a subpar education and will face a very tough road when it comes to getting into college (not to mention paying for college–for those kids who aren’t top students) or finding a job. Unfortunately, way too many students in America find themselves with these concerns on a daily basis.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
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            I do not teach, but I have, and do volunteer in inner city schools. I know exactly what you are talking about. I am certaintly not trying to say that teachers (the ones who give a damn at least) do not have to see difficult things and deal with children in bad places. I have volunteered in bad schools, and I went to good schools. Even in good schools, teachers were about 50-50. The good ones, and the great ones certaintly put themselves through a great deal of work, thought, worry, etc.

            But to judge professions as a whole, as your article attempts to, it has to be lawyers. Three years of expensive school on a curve, competing against other people at the top of their college classes. 150k in debt. Long, long hours. If you are just to look at the professions by the toll they take on the professionals: Lawyers rule the world in terms of substance abuse, suicide, divorce rate, etc.

            I have had very sucessful lawyers, who have risen to the top of the profession, admit to me things like “I do not remember being outside of my office in the 80’s” and “sometimes I couldn’t recognize my kids.”

            Teachers have an important, and demanding job. The good ones deserve the appreciation of those that they teach and society at large. But I think lawyers have it a little worse.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Only an idiot would raise his own taxes….and why should teachers make as much as lawyers…lawyers, except for government lawyers, only make money if customers come thru their doors…..it’s called a business

    BTW….all 340,000 california public school teachers, and teachers from 13 other state are exempt from social security taxes…they pocket them instead…1 in 4 public employee across the usa is exempt from social security….which private sector lawyers pay

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    My wife teaches K-12 and has for four decades. Law and teaching are tough to compare. Teachers have more freedom and flexibility than lawyers who often are at a client’s beck and call. That said, teachers don’t bill by the hour. That teachers work 8 to 3 is pure myth. Try 7 to 6 with plenty of weekend hours as well. Easy? Try engaging 8th graders some time. And while lawyers need expertise in specific areas, teachers need to be reading a wide range of things and constantly updating teaching techniques. Good teachers that is. Being a mediocre teacher is easy. Being an excellent teacher, at any level, is a killer. Given summer vacation, I vote to pay all teachers at 80 percent of what lawyers earn. That would give most teachers a whopping raise.

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    I’m not entirely sure where to begin with an analysis, and I don’t have time to provide a complete one, anyway. But I think that without a definition or rubric for determining difficulty of a job, it’s going to be impossible to say which is harder. A pure hours comparison clearly doesn’t do it, because (to step aside from your example) an engineer working an 8 hour day has a harder job, on average, than a sales clerk working 10 hour days.

    I know that teachers have to worry about NCLB, state accreditation, and advancements with teaching techniques, but that’s no more difficult than worrying about continuing legal education (CLE) programs mandated by a lot of states, being required to pass the state bar, and staying abreast of rulings in a practice area or geographic locale. I don’t know if teachers have to have malpractice insurance, but I do know that if the client is big enough (or the firm small enough) an error by a lawyer is grounds for dismissal, same as students failing to satisfy NCLB standards can ruin a teacher at a school.

    As for engaging a large number of students per day, teachers absolutely have that won. But over the course of a typical school year, that number doesn’t fluctuate much, and the teacher has a chance to learn how to engage that student better over time. Transactional (corporate) lawyers have to deal with former business majors (for whom everything is a line item), scientists and engineers (who may or may not consider a larger corporate picture), investors (who don’t care about cogs in the machine), and every type of employee that company has. If there are negotiations with another company (or litigation), those lawyers also get to deal with other lawyers, often with opposing views about what is acceptable in a compromise. Litigators, on the other hand, have to deal with clients, witnesses, hostile witnesses, police, researchers, judges and clerks, and juries (think people just as difficult to engage as students, but older, more set in their ways, and people who can’t be held after class or spoken to outside of the courtroom at all). I would argue that is just as difficult to engage as any reasonable number of high school students.

    (Certain areas of law are, of course, exactly like teaching, in that you have to take a number of concepts and present them in a manner that allows a jury or a client to synthesize the information in a coherent way. Then you get to persuade them that the information they just learned logically allows them to reach the conclusion you want them to.)

    Finally, I think most lawyers would agree that a substantial part of their job is being entrepreneurial. (I don’t know if that is the case for teachers or not.) Especially in the current legal marketplace, there is a premium on client development and retention, as well as the need to learn new legal skills (to create a niche market such that clients need to seek you out). This work is typically not billable and for lawyers unlucky enough to be outside of the firm or government setting at the moment, running a successful solo office requires substantial entrepreneurial investment that I don’t think most teachers experience.

    Of course, this is speculation. I’ve never been a teacher. I have gone to law school.

  5. collapse expand

    I just received the following comment from a reader via e-mail:

    Being a Teach For America corps member, I am definitely on your side. But TFA might not be an accurate representation of the total teacher population in the United States (TFA’s current size is only 7,300). We are outliers. So if you compare an average lawyer to an average teacher, I would say an average lawyer has the tougher job. For the sake of this country and for the future of our children, an average teacher should have a tougher job than an average lawyer. The salary disparity (which you referred to in your previous post) provides incentives for movitated and diligent college graduates to pursue law or medicine instead of education.

    Here’s a 3-minute clip from a poetry slam, in which a teacher discusses his job in response to critical comments from a lawyer:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpog1_NFd2Q

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    This is like asking, “which is better for you? eating or sleeping?” Neither job is particularly easy. But teachers get paid significantly less than lawyers because A: they’re public servants and B: it’s not a profession for people who are “in it for the money,” it’s a profession for people who want to do good things with their lives.

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      Regarding the money:
      A lot of lawyers are in it for the money, yes. More accurately, however, a lot of law students are in it for the money (most law schools list eye-popping salary statistics on all informational brochures). A relatively small subset of lawyers crack the six figure range that television would have you assume every lawyer makes. Unfortunately, a lot of lawyers have to be in it for the money because law school debt is (generally speaking) non-dis-chargeable via bankruptcy.

      Most of my law school classmates claimed that they wanted to work in government or for non-profits upon graduation. By the time we graduated, that wasn’t realistic for most of them. Law school debt is generally recognized as a barrier to working in public service (see http://new.abanet.org/marketresearch/PublicDocuments/lrapfinalreport.pdf). Presently, assuming 30K/annum of tuition and around 10k/annum for living costs, a typical grad has 120k or more of law school debt (plus whatever housing, car, or undergraduate debt he or she might be carrying) and generally can’t be an idealist any longer.

      [I don't mean to imply that teachers aren't worth as much or more than lawyers, but I know very few teachers with debt totals in the 200k range before they even finish school.]

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        Student loan debt is a ridiculous excuse for not going into the “idealistic” work one might have intended at the start of his/her academic career. It’s a given that schooling beyond undergraduate education is expensive, but, in today’s world, it is a necessity for many careers. Social workers need Masters degrees. Therapists (school counselors, marriage/relationship counselors, drug/alcohol abuse counselors) all typically require a Masters degree, if not more. And new teachers (at least in New York) are now required to have a Masters in Education (or be enrolled in an MA program at the time of hire). But I’ve never heard anyone from any of these fields claim at the end of getting their degrees that they have too much debt and can’t do the good work they originally set out to do. Comparing the profession of law to the profession of teaching does seem a bit like comparing apples to oranges. But, there does seem to be a different mentality in individuals who choose law and individuals who choose teaching…mainly one tries their hardest to keep their “idealistic” dreams.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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          Just to quickly reply, many Master’s programs can be completed in one year or one and a half years. A law degree requires three years plus bar preparation and paying upward of $1,000 just to take the bar. And unlike teachers, up until recently most lawyers could not take advantage of government sponsored loan repayment programs. So when the total education debt-load is 120,000, and government interest jobs offer to pay 50,000, it is hard in many cities to work in those positions while paying back loans. I don’t think you should insult someone for choosing to have a better standard of living until their loans payments are under control. Luckily, thanks to President Obama, many new graduates can work for the government for 10 years and have the remainder of their loans repaid. Also, they can have their payments reduced to 10% of their income. Lawyers previously did not have those options. So it’s quite difficult to compare their debt load to teachers.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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            I wasn’t trying to insult someone for choosing to have a better standard of living until their loans are paid off…but you said it yourself, they are choosing, and choosing to make more money over their original desires to help. Teachers, on the other hand, are wedded to their profession by virtue of the degree they have. Any investment that they make towards their careers, they make well knowing that they aren’t going to be rewarded (or even repaid) monetarily. But they still do it because they believe in the work. I agree it’s hard to repay $120,000 of loans on a $50,000 salary, but one must know that information before embarking on such a venture. So the excuse of suddenly changing your career-intentions upon being granted a degree because you didn’t realize how much it would cost just seems to show poor preparation. While it is true that many Masters degree programs are between a year and two years, there is also the extra expense on top of it. Just like a lawyer’s bar exam, teachers are required to take three certification tests before getting into the classroom plus additional child safety/school violence workshops. All their fingerprinting and certification expenses are paid out of pocket, all before setting foot into a classroom. So every profession requires those extra expenses, just like a law students needs to pay for the bar exam and prep for the bar. As for the government sponsored loan repayment programs,they are for students who choose to go into teacher education programs now, not people who have already graduated and are still paying off their loans, just like the new law school repayment programs you mention. Hopefully programs like this will encourage all young idealists to go into public services, in both fields of law and education. While it is different to compare the professions, student loan debt is student loan debt, and the career one chooses to repay that debt really does reflect the individual’s ideals.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Not being a teacher or a lawer, I cannot speak from experience, I can tell you , though, that the number of attorneys that work long hours is in the single digit percentage. I have had to work with many attornies through the years , and they are very likely to show up at work after 10-11 am and leave for civic funtions by 4pm. The only late hours I have seen put in were for political purpose to position themselve for board, government, or judicial openings.
    I can reflect on this, as well, by experiences with several relatives that are attorneys (and have been for years).
    No comparison!!! Teachers should be the higher paying…..they actually contribute to our society vs living off of society and contributing nothing!

    • collapse expand

      You are wrong. Nothing you say is even remotely true. Nice try though. Seriously, the profession which is statistically shown to work longer hours than any other works 11-4? Riiiiiiiiiiiiight…….

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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      You say you are not a lawyer, but then think you can speak on whether we work long hours. Let me tell you as a lawyer most of my collegues work on average 50 hour weeks, and many work 60-70 hour weeks. I think you must have worked around older attorneys or partners. For partners, much of their job is brining in new business which comes from going to meetings and functions. So please know what you are talking about before you insult people. And please tell the victims of domestic violence that I helped (pro bono) leave dangerous relationships that I did nothing to help my community. I am sure they will appreciate it.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I am a former teacher, and now I am in my last year at Harvard Law School. I taught elementary school in New York City public schools for three years, and spent last summer at a large firm.

    Teaching is the hardest job I’ll ever have. I left my apartment at 5:30 am to get to work by 6:30 am. I usually stayed until 5 or 6 pm, went home to eat dinner, and then worked on lesson planning and grading until 10 or 11 pm. When you consider that lawyers get to work between 9 and 10, and take long lunch breaks, those hours aren’t that different. When I was teaching, I spent one day each weekend doing lesson planning.
    When I got to law school, people asked me if it was really hard, and I always replied, “It’s great, I can go to the bathroom whenever I want!” That was never the case while I was a teacher.

    Our society needs to ask what we value more– helping companies save more of their money (what most corporate lawyers ultimately do) or giving kids a shot at equal opportunity and full participation in American life (what teaching is about). Salaries should better reflect those priorities.

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      Ha. I think you are in for a rude awakening. Potential associates from Harvard are wined and dined during the summer, coming in at 10 and taking long lunches, only to find the honeymoon is over once you sign on the dotted line. Wait until the 90 hour weeks take their toll and your long-anticipated vacation is cancelled because a partner needs you to be available.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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      I am doing the same!! Heading to law school next fall. People are not aware that teachers do work 80 hours a week, similar to a lawyer. I am leaving the field because I’ll be damned if i work like this the rest of my life and don’t get paid for it.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    There is a fundamental misconception about how much lawyers actually earn. Very few lawyers make $100K. A first year government lawyer earns a salary in the mid $40s, and a private sector salaries are typically in the high $30s to mid $60s. Compare this to a first year teacher salary in my state–low $40s. Once you factor in the cost of law school ($120K+, or $1500 per month for 15-20 years) and the lost opportunity cost (many attorneys were making a good living before studying three years in law school), one must look more than a decade down the road to find a lawyer actually taking home more than a teacher.

    There is also a misconception about the hours an attorney works. Billable hours including only substantive legal work, and administrative tasks and professional requirements are excluded. Further, actual billable hours are often reduced to appease clients requesting fee reductions, and these hours are truly “lost.” In other words, billing 2000 hours does not mean working 2000 hours–it takes 60-70 hours per week to bill 50+ hours. Essentially, a 2000 hour year means working 10+ hours per day, 6 days per week. Further, since clients often wait until the last minute to request assistance, an attorney’s workload includes being on call 24-7 and the occasional all-nighter.

    I don’t understand why teachers are “underpaid” or should be paid in line with lawyers. While lawyers are paid for the complex tasks they perform, the salary is also set to compensate for far more hours worked, far less vacation and an educational debt the size of most teacher’s mortgages.

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    I don’t think the “difficulty” of the work or perceived value of the work is the issue.

    The main reasons lawyers are paid more are:
    1. Lawyers work harder. The “2,000 billed hours” does not even count non-billable/administrative time, which is hundreds of hours per year.

    2. Lawyers typically have attended more school at higher cost. A law degree is three years of school, meaning three years of lost income, and costs over $100,000. Someone who gets a $50,000 per year job after college is $250,000 ahead of where he/she would be if he/she went to law school, after three years.

    3. Teachers have better benefits such as cheaper healthcare and taxpayer subsidized pensions. I paid $3,000 for health insurance covering just me last year. The partners cover all of their insurance out of pocket. Those benefits are tax-free for teachers. Lawyers’ higher salaries are taxed. So a teacher making $40,000 with $10,000 of benefits the lawyer doesn’t have is only $30,000 behind a lawyer making $100,000 who pays an extra $20,000 in taxes, not $60,000 ahead.

    4. Teachers are unionized and lawyers are not. There is job security for teachers and the salaries are uniform, but lower. Some lawyers make a lot more money, but some make a lot less, less than teachers.

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    Compared to being a lawyer, being a teacher is almost a part-time job. I will give you an example. My son recently stayed home on a Monday because teachers were doing something. As a lawyer I would have just stayed late or worked on the weekend to get the work done. Then we had the big snows and classes were cancelled for a week and a half. Then it was President’s Day so there was no school. Now Spring Break is coming up and there will be another week of no classes. All this is happening in a two month period, right after the generous Christmas break, in another three months they will get the whole Summer off. As a busy solo, I am lucky if I get one week off a year.
    I once worked for a company as an in-house attorney. One of the executives was the CEO’s brother-in-law, he used to be a principal. That guy was out the door at or before 5pm every day. One time there was an emergency, and he was called after 6pm at his home. He was so angry to be called after work, even though it was his responsibilty, and he took home a six figure check. He has since went back to teaching.
    Teachers do an important job but teachers do not work the hours lawyers work.

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    As a lawyer myself with teacher parents, I have a pretty good perspective on this. First of all, I do not think we can make a true comparison on which job is “tougher” because they are both hard, in entirely different ways. They are simply inapposite comparators, and that makes this debate difficult.

    That said, however, there are some factors people are forgetting to examine:

    1) As a comparison, while lawyers must submit to the whims of demanding clients and superiors, teachers must do the same with parents and supervisors. Neither is easy.

    2) I saw that some people noted that a lawyer’s hours reflect his salary. One thing these commentors may be overlooking is that most lawyers have 6 figures of debt when the graduate. And, working 90 hours a week for $160,000 does not really amount to a huge hourly pay when one divides it. Comparing hours worked to salary is therefore not really useful.

    3) Finally, as some people pointed out, while the work of a lawyer may be more mentally challenging, I think that it is a pretty even call for which work is most emotionally challenging. While teachers have to deal with parents, kids, and administrators, lawyers have to spend hours away from their families, working for little praise and getting screamed at by clients and partners.

    Bottom-line: Both jobs are difficult, but teachers are underpaid for what they do.

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    I am a new attorney, and the child of a bi-lingual teacher and would like to weigh in. I think comparing both jobs is like trying to compare apples to oranges but I will try. Here are some differences between the two.

    1) Lawyers are paid more but are generally distrusted by the public. We are also more vulnerable to litgation based on our work. I would have to say that based on this that new teachers may have an advantage over new lawyers. Although both professionals are underappreciated, the new lawyer has to not only worry about not being respected, but also about getting fired AND sued for any mistakes that could be interpreted as malpractice. It is very nervewracking.

    2) Emotional investment definitely depends on the industry in which an attorney works. All teachers have to deal with the emotional drain trying to help children in terrible situations. Many transactional attorneys don’t have to deal with this level of emotional attachment with their clients. However, they do have to worry about the problems associated with their work. For example, will a merger result in a high number of layoffs, or whether they can save a large company from dissolving. This can be stressful on a macro scale.

    In my experience as an law student/attorney working for non-profits and indigent clients, my stress level is similar to a teacher. I do not have to deal with 125 students a day. But I did have to deal with several clients a day coming to me because their lives had completely fallen apart (divorce, child custody issues). And unlike teachers, my primary job duty is to fix their home problems. I know from experience some teachers avoid dealing or hearing their students problems. A family law attorney just can’t do that. Working to use the law to help fix complex emotional situations is very stressful. Clients often come in angry or crying, and can sometimes lash out, even violently. I think teachers may win on this point, but I think both lawyers and teachers deal with high stress from dealing with students/clients. However, as an attorney, you are obligated to keep your clients’ gut-wrenching emotional stories to yourself. This can take a very heavy toll over the long run.

    3) If you speak with criminal attorneys or trial attorneys, they will tell you the exhaustion of being in court all day. However, since teachers are in front of students everyday, I think they definitely win on the physical fatigue aspect.

    Hope this sheds some light. My mom is a bilingual teacher in Camden, New Jersey. She works very hard and her job is difficult. She is definitely facing problems with the No Child Left Behind program because she is expected to bring student test scores up when many of her students have come from South America with little to no schooling. However, if I had to choose in this debate, I would say attorneys have a harder job then teachers. This is because we are not only underappreciated, but hated by the public. Additionally, our duty of confidentiality and potential malpractice liability increases the stress in our profession.

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    I am a former Teach For America teacher, and I would like to contribute my perspective.

    On an average day, I arrived at school between 6:00-7:00 am. I often worked until 9:00 or 10:00 pm. On Thursdays, I had required Master’s Degree classes and didn’t get home until 11:00 pm. I worked weekends, I had students and parents calling me on my cell phone at all hours, and I had stacks of papers to grade sometimes multiple feet high. The task of meeting the individual academic and emotional needs of 35 different children was something I found absolutely intellectually rigorous, compared to any standard. What’s more, the physical exhaustion after a day of teaching is just incredible–even after 3 years on the job, I would just collapse at the end of every day. My feet never got used to the pain.

    Granted, not all teachers work this hard, but this amount of work is, I believe, necessary to be an excellent teacher (although it lessens as the years go on).

    A final thought, and something that might seem silly but I think is important–teachers can’t pee whenever they want to. From 8-3 every day, there are 30 kids waiting for you to perform for them, to facilitate every moment of their day. To teach them, answer their questions, resolve their fights, control their behavior, and tell them what to do and not do. You can’t leave, you can’t sit down, you can’t think about anything but those kids. And then they leave, and you are absolutely, mind-numbingly exhausted, and it is at that moment that you get to start your work for the day–planning your lessons, preparing your materials, calling parents, cleaning and organizing your room, filling out paperwork, holding conferences, grading papers, researching teaching strategies, completing professional development. Teaching is isolating–when you close that door, there is no one to help you–and there are countless external forces that seem to be working against you.

    I remember what I thought about teaching before I became one–that it all sounded easy, fun, and satisfying. Making bulletin boards, organizing school supplies, planning fun lessons didn’t seem like it be that hard. But the reality is just so different, and anyone who says that teaching is easier than X, Y, or Z profession either has never taught, or was not a very good teacher. To say that you had a relative, spouse, or friend who was a teacher is nice, and you certainly have more perspective than others, but until you have actually done it for one day, I just don’t think you have any idea.

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    I’m a current Teach For America teacher and both my parents are lawyers, so I think I have some good perspective on the challenges of both jobs. I would say that when you add in the time planning and grading a good teacher probably puts in the same number of hours working as many lawyers.

    Good teaching also requires a high degree of intellectual rigor that is often overlooked. Teaching students to read, do mathematics and science requires a high intellect. Good teachers mus also be good at analyzing student data to see how and what their students are learning, and what the teacher needs to focus on more.

    It is true that most lawyers did better in college than most teachers did. However, this does not mean that teaching does not intellectually challenging, just that many teachers are less prepared for the intellectual rigor of teaching than lawyers are for practicing law.

    I think one of the main distinctions between lawyers and teachers, is that bad lawyers get paid less or can be disbarred. Bad teachers often have tenure and job security. In many ways the 5-10% worst teachers both drag down student achievement and public confidence in teachers. I think this is the main reason teachers make so much less money than lawyers.

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    This is a good discussion. I have to agree with he apples and oranges comparison – 2 fruits, but only one’s citrus. Both good lawyers and good teachers work very very hard. Some things to consider in the “comparison”:

    1. Believe it or not, lawyers, new teachers are also scrutinized and can be fired or sent to the “rubber room” (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/08/31/090831fa_fact_brill). Yes, in the latter scenario teachers still get paid, but from the stories they are also quite frustrated not to be in their chosen profession. Some deserve not to return to the classroom and some should never have been removed.

    2. There are states – such as Texas – where teachers receive fine compensation – not 6 figures, but quite livable. Most states place teachers in lower middle income status, and Arkansas does worse (http://www.teachersalaryinfo.com/average-teacher-salary-arkansas.html). Yes, they get benefits, and the job is always touted as including summers off. I don’t know many teachers who get the summer off – especially early in their careers: they have to continually take classes for certification (so many pursue a masters int he process), I waited tables with a teacher who did this in the summer and during holidays because he needed the money to pay bills (by the way, law school isn’t the only expensive type of education out there), and some teach summer school (again – need money!). As both lawyers and teachers progress in their careers, their hours/week can go down depending on career trajectory. Mediocre teachers probably don’t log a great many hours whereas mediocre lawyers have to find another gig, but fine teachers and lawyers burnt he midnight oil.

    My brother is a lawyer and his wife is a teacher. He’s astounded that all she does in the evening is grade and do lesson plans. I think he honestly had no idea how hard school teachers work. Because of his salary, they do have some time and money in the summer to take nice vacations in addition to all of the child rearing obligations. If both were teachers, they’d stick closer to home.

    3. I would never argue that all professions should make nearly the same amount of money. However, I do feel that the salary range for teachers – high in the poverty category to low int he middle class income bracket – contributes to the presence of teachers who are not working their hardest or who are simply not that qualified. It’s not that there aren’t brilliant teachers working in schools (I’ve had the privilege of studying with many), but many terrific teachers leave the profession for greener (read greenback) pastures. Someone has to fill the vacancies, and the new hire may be great or may be a detriment to the teaching/learning cause.

    By the way, both professions bait potential employees with perks: teachers get the summer off (ahem sometimes), benefits, short work days (cough); lawyers make huge paychecks – either be one or marry one!, are respected,*, you might get on TV!, and again lured in with future income.

    4. *Lawyers are reviled by society. So are teachers. Sadly, I’ve heard people blaming society’s ills on teachers – lack of quality education, teachers are too liberal thus immoral, “my teacher *gave* me this bad grade and ruined my chances to __________.” On the plus side, I’ve also heard good things about both teachers and lawyers. So a) this point is moot and b) oh yeah, people like to bitch a lot, and c) “a” and “b” are redundant.

    5. Both lawyers and teachers have important vocations. Ideally, lawyers help those who need assistance with domestic issues, crime accusations, business law problems and the like. Just as ideally, teachers guide our youth to the path of learning – hopefully lifelong learning. Students come from such a variety of backgrounds – income, family support, basic and random genetic makeup for intelligence, talents present and lacking, whether or not english is their first language – and teachers are charged with transferring knowledge to these citizens of the present and future. Without a thinking public, there will be no lawyers. Without lawyers, there would probably be a lot more people needing representation that will go without, and may end up incarcerated whether deserved or not.

    Anyone who works hard deserves a piece of the pie. Hard workers in any profession contribute to society. To say essentially “nyah nyah nyah; I work harder/more than you so I deserve the goods more” reveals that you feel you are working too much. The 40 hour work week simply does not exist for most employed people in the U.S. Perhaps if we looked at more jobs as important in their own right as opposed to a job/pay system that is equated with class and IQ, we might get a more diverse workforce: one that fosters intelligence and forward thinking in any scenario. Or perhaps that’s against human nature. Still, the idealist in me hasn’t been squashed to death by my OK teaching salary.

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    One additional challenge I forgot to point out in my post is that teachers enter the profession and are expected to do the same job as a 20-year veteran on day one–the same amount of planning, the same number of classes and kids, the same expectations in terms of increasing student achievement. I may be wrong, but I don’t think most lawyers enter their first year of practice with the expectation of doing everything that veteran lawyers are asked to do.

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      They do not teach many practical legal skills in law school, especially the higher ranked schools. Yeah, pretty much first lawyers are expected to do everything a senior lawyer is supposed to do. I qualify this by saying that most people are going to work for a law firm, and have some what limited responsibility. I worked at one firm and I was in charge of the REO department. I had 100-200 pending real estate files that I was personally responsible for, in addition, I had to do court duty for evictions. One of the paralegals in my department that had her own 100-200 files used to shake and cry uncontrollably because of the stress.

      As a solo, even a first year you are held to a high standard, maybe they will consider your first year status as a mitigating factor in discipline, but basically you are held to the same standard as someone practicing many years. Make a mistake such as miss a filing deadline, and you could get sued, or receive discplinary sanctions by the Bar, including up to losing your law license, fun stuff.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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      I concur with joeswall.

      Passing the bar in a given state tells the public that you are competent to practice in that state. As far as malpractice goes, attorneys are supposed to be held to an identical standard, though as joeswall says, relative newness may mitigate some discipline. Even so, I’ve seen judges verbally tear new attorneys apart for incompetence or for failing to know court rules.

      It’s true that many law schools offer clinical programs now to give students practical skills they can use in practice, and obviously summer programs give students a leg up as well. However, students who never work for a firm, never set foot in court, and never worked in a clinic are expected to understand filing, discovery, negotiation, and motion drafting skills as senior attorneys. They are just as susceptible to malpractice suits as any grizzled firm partner.

      Generally, your statement is probably true – most brand new lawyers aren’t expected to do the same work as a lawyer with 20 years of experience. But the Bar holds us to that standard, and if we’re not lucky enough to find a firm or a mentor to help show us what to do, we can potentially lose our licenses. Many new lawyers seek firm life not because they like the idea, but because working for a firm is essentially the only way to get experience without destroying your legal career. Very little of the practice of law, whether the stereotypical litigation tasks seen on The Deep End or more esoteric segments such as admiralty law, are learned in any useful way in law school. In patent law, for example, the first time the Patent Office responds to a filing is on average more than 18 months later. Without at least one experienced set of eyes checking, a new attorney could do serious damage to a client’s business (not to mention bank account) and not find out for years.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        joeswall & ford – Thanks for the insights. One of the reasons I posted the unanswerable question of who has a tougher job was to stimulate conversation about what the two jobs actually entail. Too many times our discussions about work in these fields consist purely of hearsay or examples of extreme situations, so it’s been nice to see the detailed comments that you and others from both professions have offered over the past few days.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Although I have been both a lawyer and a teacher (and I was an RN first) I also find it very difficult to compare. I have also worked in bookstores, restaurants, made sandwiches, done office work, libraries, etc. While being a lawyer was satisfying on some intellectual levels, I soon became disenchanted with the level of compartilization needed to keep functioning–legal fictions (corporations are the same as you and I for all purposes) are very difficult to sustain and the outcomes are often very unappetizing, what does “is” mean? Often there was no search for the truth, but what you could get away with. Most of my legal work was for the federal government, so my work hours were generally 9-5 (but I often took home work and traveled) I have great respect for federal employees and compared with what I saw in the private sector if I were to be a lawyer again, I would want to do it there. I also taught high school in public and private schools AFTER leaving the law. Public school as a new teacher was like being thrown to the wolves. Teacher certification was worse (requiring much more paperwork) than being admitted to the Bar or having a security clearance for federal purposes. I got no credit for prior education or experience (I could not use my general psychology for certification, I had to have an educational psychology class) I passed exams, but gave up on classes for certification (they were useless) and taught at a private school. Physically I had to be on my feet all day and deal with teenagers, come up with engaging lessons, grade papers, document everything, do parking lot duty, lunch duty, deal with picky parents etc. and make a pittance compared to being a lawyer, but I was much happier. As I told my students, at no time had teaching required me to do anything I felt was illegal, immoral or unethical. I once got upset with a class as a new teacher. An older student in the class remarked that if he were me he would want to kill himself (because the underclassmen were being such jerks). I smiled and answered him that I would be ok, because it was developmentally appropriate for a 16 year old to act like a jerk. I had had plenty of experiences with adults acting worse. It was much better than the time I cried because a superior ordered me to write rules that I truly believed were contrary to everything I knew about the law and Congress’ intent, and furthermore, made no sense and would lead to chaos (mid 90s)(e.g see special purpose entities-those vehicles favored by Enron to commit fraud) Although you didn’t ask, I enjoyed nursing, but often economic realities caused conflict with what I thought a nurse should do and what the hospital tried to do. In all of my jobs there have been very intelligent, committed people and total idiotic jackasses, no profession holds a monopoly on smarts–they involve different types of intelligence and sometimes just common sense (law seems to be the most lacking in common sense). In fact, when I considered law school, one motivating factor was that I knew a number of not very intelligent jerks that passed the bar exam and if they could do it so could I.

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    i boil it down to money. make the cost of teacher education the same as law school; make the salaries of teachers equal that of attorneys.
    how do you think the competition between aspiring teachers will change? bottom half, i think not. and what do you think will happen to education in general if teachers were paid as much as attorneys?
    you might say lawyers solve other people’s (legal) problems. teachers teach others to solve their own problems. let’s face it, there are many ways to help people, but being a lawyer happens to be a profession that pays well, relatively speaking.
    lawyers work hard because they have to. teachers work hard because they want to.

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    I know I come late to this discussion, but as a lawyer considering becoming a teacher (and having a sister as a teacher), I have been doing lots of thinking on which job better suits me. I think they are apples and oranges and what one person might find hard in one job varies significantly. I do think for the most part that teachers work hard and have many challenges (I’ve been observing classes considering making a switch to teaching) but there is little doubt that lawyers tend to work longer hours, never get a break in the year where they can actually forget about what they have been working on because a completely new project is coming in a couple months, etc. That doesn’t mean anything about who should get paid more, or whether teachers are underpaid. But I do think this discussion presumes something about compensation. It only considers salaries. My sister always points out that she makes much less than I do. However, most public school teachers get a guaranteed pension and health insurance after 25-30 years of service, which could be something in the range of 50-75% of their salary. That means a lot of teachers could retire at 55 and live out the rest of their life with those perks. You should do some research on buying annuities to see how much money you would have to pay in a lump sum to have a guaranteed annual income of 40k or 50k per year for your lifetime–regardless of the ups and downs of the market. My suspicion is that you are dramatically underestimating the amount teachers earn because you are not counting this in the compensation. Nobody goes into teaching for money so teachers are usually not as focused on personal finance issues and really have no idea how much that guaranteed payment would cost them in the form of annuity. Most lawyers (unless they too work for the government) will save their money in various retirement and non-retirment accounts but they are subject to the ups and downs of the market, which can devestate you just a couple years before you intend to retire. Unlike a lot of government workers, I think teachers deserve this given the salaries they make. As for many other government workers, I don’t see how the states will continue to pay these pensions into the future, because a guaranteed pension is an enormously valuable and expensive form of compensation….

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    I was a teacher who is now becoming a lawyer…GUESS WHAT?? Being a lawyer is much easier. Although the preparation is difficult, when I leave I am done for the day. Teaching is a career (that by the way is not 8-3, try 5am-8pm with minor breaks and weekends)that follows you. As a lawyer your held accountable for your client who at times can be unruly, however as a teacher, your accountable for students and parents. These are people that you literally have no control over, and yet are constantly blamed for their actions. Teachers are constantly scrutinized for test scores while the main culprit is poverty. What’s worse is that teachers do not get paid for the amount of work that they do and have to face countless outsiders thinking we’re off at three. Summers are usually spent planning for the year ahead, and working another job due to the low salaries that teachers get paid. Many people who do not know teachers or are one do not understand how difficult the career has become. When I left the field you know what I told my boss? And I quote, “If I am gonna spend my life working 80 hours a week, I’m going to do it in a career that actually pays me fore it.”

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    About Me

    I'm a Teach For America alum and spent three years as a high school teacher on the west and south sides of Chicago. I've conducted research on turnaround schools with a team from the University of Virginia, consulted for school districts across the country, and done work with New Leaders for New Schools, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and DonorsChoose.org. Currently I'm finishing my PhD from UVa's Curry School of Education.

    My work has been published in Education Week, the Phi Delta Kappan, and a number of academic journals, and I'm a co-author of the book Teachers' Guide to School Turnarounds. I also contribute monthly to GOOD, the website "for people who give a damn": www.good.is/community/MichaelSalmonowicz

    Learn more about my writing: http://sites.google.com/site/salmonowiczpubs

    E-mail: michael.salmonowicz@gmail.com

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    Contributor Since: September 2009
    Location:Chicago, IL

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    I am a contributor for GOOD, the website “for people who give a damn.” You can read my June column here. Past columns can be found here.