Yes, a career in commercial law has earning potential. We still don’t recommend it.

Going into law isn’t going out of style. Law ranks among the top five career options for students1 and is one of the most popular degree courses at undergraduate level.2What explains its persistent appeal? While people go into law for a number of reasons,3 many are motivated to make a difference through public interest and pro bono work.4

Law is also one of the highest paying professions, however, so working directly on social justice issues isn’t the only way you can do good as a lawyer. If you enjoy commercial work and can secure a place at a high-paying firm, you can also have an impact by donating some of your earnings to charity. We call this earning to give.

If you target your donations to highly effective charities, this could be just as high-impact as public interest law. Newly qualified lawyers at top-ranked firms can expect to earn upwards of £70,000. Donating 10% of this take-home pay5 would be enough to save somebody’s life by buying anti-malaria bednets.6 If you are one of the approximately 5% who makes partner, you could earn over £1m each year – enough to fund a whole team of researchers, advocates or non-profit entrepreneurs.

In this profile, we explore the pros and cons of law for earning to give. We focus on high-end commercial law – where the money is – and hope to discuss public interest law in a separate review. It’s based on the legal training and experience of the primary author of this profile, Natalie Cargill, as well as conversations with lawyers from a range of practice areas. We’ve also drawn on academic literature, surveys by the Law Society, and publicly-available salary data.

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In which career can you make the most difference?

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Introduction

Previously, we introduced a way to assess career opportunities in terms of their potential for positive impact, but which careers actually do best on these criteria? In this post, we’ll apply an adapted version of this framework to some career paths that seem particularly promising for recent graduates. Using what we’ve learned over the past two years of research and coaching over 100 people, we’ll provide a ranked list of options.

Summary

  • If you’re looking to build career capital, consider entrepreneurship, consulting or an economics PhD.
  • If you’re looking to pursue earning to give, consider high-end finance, tech entrepreneurship, law, consulting and medicine. These careers are all high-earning in part due to being highly demanding. Our impression is that software engineering, being an actuary and dentistry are somewhat less demanding but also highly paid.
  • If you’d like to make an impact more directly, consider party politics, founding effective non-profits, working inside international organisations, government or foundations to improve them, and doing valuable academic research.
  • If you’d like to advocate for effective causes, consider party politics, journalism, and working in international organisations, policy-oriented civil service or foundations.
  • Some career paths that look promising overall are: tech entrepreneurship, consulting, party politics, founding effective non-profits and working in international organisations.
  • Some paths we think are promising but are largely neglected by our members and would like to learn more about are: party politics, working in international organisations, being a program manager at a foundation, journalism, policy-oriented civil service and marketing.

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