Shakespeare May Have Been Right About Lawyers

Caught in the snares of the legal system, not a few Americans have echoed the desire of Dick the butcher in Shakespeare's King Henry VI, Part II to "kill all the lawyers." But economists have their own apprehensions regarding the law, whose practice, they believe, can often interfere with the efficient workings of the economy and inhibit growth. In a recent study, Kevin M. Murphy and Robert W. Vishny of the University of Chicago and Andrei Shleifer of Harvard University tested this notion by looking at college enrollment patterns in some 55 countries.

The three economists were interested in how the percentages of college students studying law and engineering were correlated with economic growth rates over the 1970-85 period. And what they found was a strong positive relationship between engineering students and growth and a "negative effect of lawyers on growth." Their calculations suggest that doubling the proportion of students studying engineering would have boosted the average growth rate in their sample by 0.5%, while doubling the percentage of aspiring lawyers would have reduced it by 0.3%.

Since the U. S. is the world's most litigious society, the researchers believe their study may shed light on America's lagging productivity. In essence, the high pay offered to those who choose such professions as law and--some economists argue--securities trading may result in a misallocation of talent away from careers that enhance growth.

"Lawyers," the authors write, "are indeed bad, and engineers good, for growth." Unfortunately, they aren't planning a similar study of the economic impact of economists.

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