In my last post, I argued that the quality of the federal judiciary is not suffering from the fact that most judges could make far more money in the private sector. Why would outstanding lawyers be willing to become federal judges in spite of the lower pay? The answer is that being a judge has tremendous non-salary benefits relative to private practice. When these are taken into account, the total compensation of judges (salary + fringe benefits + nonpecuniary benefits) does not seem inferior to that of top private lawyers. Here are some of the relative benefits of being a judge:
I. Power and Prestige.
Federal judges have tremendous power and prestige. Whether or not the judiciary should have as much power as it does, there is little question that judges have considerable influence over law and public policy. Few if any private sector lawyers can even begin to compare.
Being a judge is also generally viewed as more prestigious than being a partner at a big law firm, even one who earns millions of dollars. Few doubt that John Roberts increased his level of prestige when he left his job as a partner Hogan & Hartson (one of the nation's best law firms) to become a judge on the D.C. Circuit.
II. Shorter Hours and Better Working Conditions.
As a general rule, judges work far fewer hours than private sector lawyers. This is not to say that judges are a bunch of lazy slackers. Far from it. But few work the 80 or 90 [update: 70 to 80 is probably more accurate] hour weeks that are routine at big law firms. Unlike private sector lawyers, judges also do not have to answer to clients and do not have to cancel vacations or make other painful, sudden changes in their schedules to accomodate client needs or those of senior partners in the firm.
III. More Interesting Work.
Obviously, this is in the eye of the beholder. However, it is fair to say that many federal judges often get to work on extremely interesting constitutional and statutory cases. Even the most highly paid private lawyers often have to spend a large proportion of their time working on relatively boring issues.
This is not to say that all lawyers would find judicial work more interesting than private practice. Tastes differ. But the key point is that a large number of top lawyers surely do find judicial work more stimulating and that is enough to ensure a high quality judiciary.
IV. Job Security.
It is perhaps an obvious point, but federal judges have virtually absolute job security for life. Even the best private law firms take the risk of going bankrupt or suffering a sudden decline in profitability that could lead to layoffs.
V. Extremely Generous Pension Plans.
As noted in my previous post, a federal judge who has reached the age of 65 and served at least 15 years can retire at full pay. Very few if any private sector law firms are equally generous.
I realize, of course, that many of these same points (except the one about power!) could be made about law professors. They help explain why our salaries are lower than those of law firm lawyers too. Fair enough. For what it's worth, I don't think that our pay is systematically inadequate either. But here at GMU, it is too low, dammit:)!
UPDATE: For the benefit of non-lawyers (and fearful law students!), I should make it clear that the 70-80 hour work weeks I referred to are prevalent only at big firms in several major markets. Lawyers in secondary markets or at smaller firms typically work fewer hours (though still quite a lot). On the other hand, these other types of lawyers typically earn lower salaries than federal judges do. According to the US Department of Labor, the median lawyers' salary (as of 2004) is just under $95,000. I am NOT arguing that judges should be paid the same salary as the median lawyer. But it is important to understand that those lawyers who earn far more than the median (and especially those who earn far more than federal judges) typically work far longer hours than judges do.