Does being a lawyer or journalist stack up with being a physician?

I don’t think there is anything nobler than being a physician. In it’s most prime form it is service to life’s most basic needs.

Certainly there are professions and lives with similar dedication. But lawyers and journalist I can’t reasonably place amongst them. This from someone who favors liberty and transparency in society above most else; certainly things that lawyers and journalists can help foster.

And yet, for all the respect thrown towards physicians by society, even amongst the access crisis and the accusations of greed, you can’t help but get the sense that some people are delusional. I take this from a speech by Gerry Spence:

“[Lawyers] are the most important people in America,” Spence said. “There is no other profession in America that fights for freedom, that fights for what America is about, that fights for justice for ordinary people.” …

… “I want to ask you which would be more important: If all of the doctors in the country somehow disappeared or all the trial lawyers in America somehow disappeared?” he asked. “We can live without medical care, but we cannot live without justice.”

Spence was a prominent trial lawyer, a near celebrity trial lawyer, who may be prone to such hyperbole. But the reality is no American will ever need a lawyer quite like they need an operation for a perforated bowel. Not even if facing criminal charges to potentially include execution as punishment, if for no other reason than the difference in acuity amongst the two examples.

To claim the legal profession as more important than the practice of medicine borders on delusional.

So does the next quote,

Journalism is not brain surgery; it’s more difficult than that,” said Andrew Cline, an assistant professor of journalism at Missouri State University, who has written on the perception of bias in news coverage.

The blogosphere jumped on this quote, as it appeared in an Ombudsman’s article in the New York Times. See or The Happy Hospitalist or Pursuing Holiness.

There are people who do great things with their lives, on par with any healing effort. But a trial lawyer and a mainstream journalist cannot claim their importance to society as such. And the fact people exist who think such shows that, for all the respect it is granted, there may still not be quite enough for exactly what physicians do.

Colin Son is a neurosurgical intern who blogs at Residency Notes.

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  • Solomd

    Physicians are important and provide a very vital service in our society. You know that and I (a primary care doctor) know that. Let the super egos pound their chests to make themselves feel good. You and I need to just do our jobs. Patients will continue to value us, even as Medicare and insurance companies continue to devalue us.


    I will try to keep this simple and short…because the answer here IS simple and short.

    If, for whatever reason, the @#$% hits the fan, journalists and trial lawyers are not invited and not needed in the bomb shelter. Physicians will be there, though, joining farmers, nurses, engineers, mechanics and the other truly productive and necessary members of society.

    • Mike

      Doctor Paul, great post and not sure how I missed it. It reflects my sentiments as well.

  • Taylor

    What a joke!! The world would be a better place if lawyers disappeared. I am 26 years old and I have never needed a lawyer (hope I never do), but how many times have I needed a doctor? Hmm, from birth to now, I’d say at least 30 times and I am a healthy athlete at a normal weight. On the journalism side, no it is not brain surgery. It is far easier and this is coming from a Communication/Journalism major in college. I also interned in the field and then during my senior year at Virginia Tech the shootings happened and it totally changed my view of journalism and journalists. The media, especially national, were disgusting and exploited students to try and get every angle even long after the “story” was over. It was that event and journalists behavior that single- handedly made me change my future career path. I realize that not all lawyers or journalists are bad and have a job to do, but I do not believe they deserve to be equated with physicians.

  • matt

    This is quite productive, physicians. In a time when your profession is in danger of becoming just another federal employee’s union, you think it’s a good idea to go pumping yourselves up at the expense of others. To wax poetic about your own greatness.

    Do you ever wonder why your PR efforts have failed so miserably? Unless Obamacare was/is your goal, of course.


    @ Matt,
    No one is saying “great”, just useful and productive. Please don’t put words in my mouth or in the mouths of the collective.

    Thank you.

  • Steven Park. MD

    Every profession, from librarian to dog walker to physicians to politicians, are equally important. To become a physician is a privilege, and if you think you deserve any respect or honor, you’re in the wrong field.

    • Alice

      I am impressed with this approach and attitude. Of course, we can’t disregard lawyers….I am thankful for the good ones who actually understand the Constitution and can differentiate between what the different “rights” of man are. We can’t elevate doctors above teachers, or moms, or all the others lower on the food chain:)

      Doctors in certain states are using lawyers to have Obamacare declared unconstitutional. We do desperately need doctors, but we need lawyers to keep man in check via civil laws (and other lawyers).

      I like Matt’s posts, amidst a myriad of others. He gives an intelligent counterpoint, and he has clout I don’t have to challenge. Call it a “pissing match” but this is just the place for a good boxing match of peripheral issues. I don’t know Paul well enough to know if I like his posts or not. He seems reasonable. I say this to encourage communication, and we need both sides to do so.

      Iron sharpens iron…….now journalists……….um….surely, the public is partly to blame for creating an atmosphere that doesn’t value the truth? We seem to want our senses stroked in a sea of swirling sensory satisfaction (yeah, I like alliteration:)

  • matt

    “No one is saying “great”, just useful and productive.”

    You’re right. No one has ever gotten anything useful out of journalism or the practice of law. It’s so clear. Must be why physicians are always hiring lawyers to handle their lawsuits against health insurers and trying to get the results publicized in the media!

    • Taylor

      Where does the author say they have never gotten any use out of journalism or the practice of law?

  • Steven Park. MD

    This post reminds me of a great story I overheard by one of my otology colleagues:

    An elderly man was grateful to my surgeon colleague for fixing his hearing problem. “You’re great, doc. You opened me up and I can hear again. You’re like my plumber, expect you didn’t get paid as much.”

    After hearing this, I did a rough calculation of my reimbursement per hour compared to what my plumber charged me per hour for installing the sinks in my office. The elderly man was right!

    Obviously, there are many other variables regarding income including overhead, educational debt, etc.

    My feeling why doctors are so disgruntled is loss of autonomy. It’s inevitable that eventually, medicine will be more cookbook-like, with computer algorithms solving most common problems. It’s already started with government and insurance guidelines, with no time or room for creativity or doctor-patient relationship building. Doctors may end up being mere service providers and technicians.

    Despite all this, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. Find out why here.

    • Alice

      Not sure if the comparison is fair? My daughter’s recent operation was $40,000, my husband’s stents were $65,000, and my daughter’s operation last year was somewhere in-between. A plumber provides everything (traveling time) while our medical bills are broken down. Is it fair to just take the doctor’s fee and comparing two different levels of service without adding on all the tools and materials the doctor used? How would they compare on that level?

      I may be missing something, but the only fair way to compare would be to find out what a doctor charges for a house call with medication delivery? That way you would compare two independent workers completing a job in your home?


    You are right. I am wrong. I apologize.

    This is not the appropriate forum for a baseless “pissing match” between people that don’t know one another.

  • ErnieG

    1) None of the entries said “No one has ever gotten anything useful out of journalism or the practice of law”. You’ll need to read entries better.
    2) No one said that waxing poetically about physician greatness is a good idea, nor that it excludes physicians from pursuing means to prevent them from becoming “federal employee’s union.”
    3) Your rhetorical questions are cheap shots. I am pretty sure you are an attorney, and I am sure many cheap shots can be thrown to attorneys.

  • Ralph

    Matt what is your profession?

  • Mike

    “Kill all the lawyers.”-William Shakespeare in King Henry VI.

    It would seem that no one cared for them back then either.

    Engineers do not like them any better than doctors. If anyone wants to know why stop by with a case of beer some night and we can compare malpractice stories.

  • LauraNP

    Maybe the lawyer works in the soup kitchen every weekend. Maybe the journalist raises money for breast cancer research. It is not the career that makes the man… It is how and if he helps his neighbor. I bet the dude flipping burgers is just as important to this world as you are.

  • matt

    “1) None of the entries said “No one has ever gotten anything useful out of journalism or the practice of law”. You’ll need to read entries better.”

    From PaulMD’s post: “”No one is saying “great”, just useful and productive.”

    “3) Your rhetorical questions are cheap shots. I am pretty sure you are an attorney, and I am sure many cheap shots can be thrown to attorneys.”

    They’re facts, in response to a post you evidently missed.

    Not that it much matters at this point. I just think whoever is advising you guys on PR is failing you greatly.

  • ErnieG

    1) Paul MD’s or Dr. Son never said that “no one has ever gotten anything useful out of journalism or the practice of law”, just that trial lawyers and journalists would neither invited nor needed in a bomb shelter. Your statement takes Paul MD’s opinion about his definition of the “truly productive and necessary members of society” in a “bomb shelter” and misconstrues it to mean that attornies and journalists are essentially worthless. Your interpretation of his statement is incorrect, and most likely a convienent a tool to dismiss the original statement, that when “@#$% hits the fan,” these two professions have lesser importance than the ones listed. I am not sure you understand what was posted (Taylor’s comments that the world would be better without lawyers is refined later in the paragraph- that they are not to be equated with physicians; nevertheless the thread where you make the misconstrued statement follows a direct quote from PaulMD, highly suggesting you are responding to his statement ). Less important activities do not result in worthless products. You could of course have argued that attornies and journalist have equally or more important jobs, but instead took a clumsy approach.
    2) The rhetorical question “Do you ever wonder why your PR efforts have failed so miserably?” soon after you dismiss Dr. Son’s post as counterproductive “waxing about greatness” suggest that the answer is because physicians pump themselves up at the expense of others.
    PR failures from physicians probably have little do with a physician “waxing” about his “greatness” in a blog or anywhere else. There are probably many more accurate reasons for the perceived PR failures. Perhaps the rhetorical question was not so much a cheap shot to physicians, but a reflection of careless chatter.

  • matt

    “Your interpretation of his statement is incorrect, and most likely a convienent a tool to dismiss the original statement, that when “@#$% hits the fan,” these two professions have lesser importance than the ones listed.”

    I’m very happy that’s your opinion, and I support your right to hold it.

    “You could of course have argued that attornies and journalist have equally or more important jobs, but instead took a clumsy approach.”

    I certainly could, but I don’t see much point in it. People who say things like that aren’t really interested in reasoned debate. It’s really more stunning to me, at a time when you guys need more friends than ever, that you’d be putting out this kind of nonsense.

    You may find it clumsy, and that’s great too. The fact remains though, that unless you’re a physician who believes Obamacare is good for you, then you’ve failed miserably in the PR/lobbying area. And this kind of thing is just another example. But feel free to believe otherwise.

  • medical student

    Really? A post begging for more respect? You’re in for a long, horrible seven years, buddy.

  • John

    What about scientists? Are scientist not as noble as physician’s? An example so as to not get berated; Can you separate the early great writers, scientists, philosophers into distinct categories? No, I do not think so. Sure there are some examples but many of these profound thinkers were scientists who were also physicians that wrote poetry or painted great works of art.
    The point I am getting at is that would it not be better to label the qualities of the profession noble rather than the profession itself. The profession will surely change over time but a man with intellectual curiosity, a humanitarian outlook, the desire to contribute to mankind, to create and be creative, to think critically and use proper judgement will always be nobler than any profession in my book. There will always be a mix of different people with corresponding motives in any profession and those professions will change over time. Arbitrarily ranking professions based on the idealistic view of that profession seems silly, however I will say that I did like the blog very much.

  • ErnieG

    1) I never stated that my opinion was PaulMD’s opinion, nor argued the validity of that opinion, only that you’ve mischaracterized PaulMD’s statement to mean something different. This mischaracterization is clumsy.

    2)Colin Son speaks for himself. There is no central cyborg thought machine that decides what type of nonsense gets put out, nor does his opinion somehow reflect some type of PR/lobbying move, or characterize a thought process that leads to poor PR. “Obamacare” passed because the major player in health care payment reform (which this healthcare bill was really about) are not physicians, but the gov’t (via Medicare/Medicade), and Obama was more concerned about passing anything rather than something useful. (His lack of vision about what he wanted, reflected by his dithering about a public option, and his near abandonment of the project after the Mass Senate race, suggest he really was more concerned about leaving a legacy. It was hard to say what Obama wanted out of this healthcare bill, and he did a pretty good job of alienating physicians). The real problem with health care is that it is expensive, and that expectations from health care are unrealistic- the lower life expectancy in the US, a common marker used by pundits to note the “failure” of US medicine, has very little to do with the quality or access to care, but rather lifestyles that promote obesity.

  • Dr. Mary Johnson

    Just when you think you think you’re out, they pull you back in.

    I could rag all day on the lawyers . . . I live in North Carolina land of Nifong and Edwards and Sleazely . . . that’s a given.

    (Sorry Matt, the only “friends” you’ll find in the legal profession are the ones who bill you by the hour.)

    But the journalists in this country are worse than a bad joke – they most certainly have not been the medical profession’s “friend” in these days of Obama. I live in a mill town where stories are routinely quashed by both local daily newspapers because those stories might embarrass the big advertisers (in my own case, two local “non-profit” hospitals) . . . or the government.

    Indeed, I got sucked into blogging by a couple of high-minded, progressive journalists who told their audience that “citizen jouranalism” would revolutionize the landscape.

    The problem with that theory turned out to be that the newspapers simply cannot have the public thinking that babies might die at the local hospital because doctors (and non-profit executives) care more about their pocketbooks than patient care . . . or that the mission of expensive, tax-payer-funded public programs can utterly fail because everyone in a position of oversight is brain-dead.

    PAULMD was spot-on.

  • imdoc

    OK colleagues, don’t hate me for this but for free society to function, we need lawyers and journalists. Doctors certainly are critical to quality of life, but good doctors exist in dictatorships as well as free countries. I do agree much of the nobler mission of both attorneys and journalists has been lost, but if we look at the origins of democracy it was great writing and ideal of justice which gave us the American experience. The greatest credit however goes to the veteran because that is who ultimately backs up the “words”…

  • Dr. Mary Johnson

    I don’t “hate” you imdoc, you’re right. But the reason this country is in the crapper right now is because we don’t have those kinds of lawyers and journalists (the ones who fostered the origins of democracy and ideals of justice) running the show. The news has become a nightmare of agenda-driven tripe mixed with “reality” TV, and our lawyers have turned the Constitution upside down . . . not-to-mention our coutry into a near-socialist mish-mash where no one is responsible for anything.

    I daresay the Founders – and those veterans who died for the ideals – are rolling in their graves.

    • Alice

      Mary said: I daresay the Founders – and those veterans who died for the ideals – are rolling in their graves. [end quote]

      This made me wonder what a soldier’s salary is compared to a doctor (or throw in lawyer or journalist).

      Look at John Adams and his legal expertise, among other, absolutely, brilliant lawyers….and doctors, and journalists. These people can change history, but now people rewrite history with little uproar in the media. Who is the media? What foundation supports this?

      I blame Americans…..and to throw a monkey wrench into the conversation……I blame some of this mess on the public schools and all the Dewey proteges being cultivated, and we sit like frogs acclimating. Surely, the public controls what we believe to be true and vote accordingly? How else do you explain the liberal mess that has been created with young voters….and some voting on aspects…..not issues or convictions? None of that is doctors or lawyers fault…….it’s parents, it’s academia..

      The media reflects us.

  • skeptikus

    Hmmm . . . . the number of lawyers in a nation correlates quite well to the degree to which such nation respects human rights and offers effective, transparent government.

    does the number of doctors in a region correlate to health outcomes? Uh . . . what do the studies based on the Dartmouth Atlas say? There’s no correlation–and, indeed, to the degree it exists, it’s negative.

    Who’s more important? Let’s make an evidence-based decision.

  • Mike

    Much of the problem with lawyers, in my opinion, is that there are so many of them. The universities are churning them out like Cocker Spaniels in a puppy mill. For every doctor who graduates I bet 5 or even 10 lawyers are graduated. They will often need to create their own employment opportunities and the medical industry, particularly physicians, are perceived as having money. They will go to where they think the money is.

    • Matt

      Mike, if your claim is true that you’re sued because you’re perceived as having money, how come the vast majority of malpractice never even sees a claim file, much less a filing in a courthouse?

      Your claim makes little sense, not least because the number of plaintiff’s malpractice lawyers, the people representing ordinary folks like you or I, is exceedingly small. The cases are difficult, time consuming, and expensive.

      If you were just suing someone to make a quick buck, you’d be better off in auto claims.

    • Alice

      Guess we need to regulate how many doctors, lawyers, journalists, and online posters a country can handle? Ack!

  • Mike

    Matt, if you are attempting to validate your profession certainly there are better ways than arguing that it is not happening.

    • Matt

      No need to validate it. It’s validity is confirmed every day, often by physicians. That’s a pointless argument anyway – anyone who starts crowing about how great their profession is compared to others is a fool. People are individuals, and there are good and bad actors everywhere.

      I was merely pointing out the factual deficiencies of your statement.

  • Mike

    Matt, I do not feel the need to crow about my profession, Mechanical Design graduate. I must admit though, that when contemplating the bomb shelter scenario in this story and considering the aftermath, and you starving in a cold dark house, I see my profession as much more practical. Should that ever happen, God forbid, try to hang on because sooner or later someone will want to sue the guy who dropped the nuke and we’ll need you then.

    Yes, lawyers are a necessary evil but, in my opinion, when the law becomes so complicated that we need someone with a graduate’s degree to understand it something is wrong. Sadly, again in my opinion, the law has become so complicated that it lends itself to manipulation and misuse and no longer serves justice.

    • Alice

      I read this week a quote about the whole Constitution being six pages long, while the health care bill is over 2000 pages long.

  • Mike Bryant

    It’s really all relative. Even if you were on your way to the needed operation , if you were getting robbed, I bet a cop would be very important. The bigger point may be how much we depend on each other for so many things.
    The vilification should stop and we could look more at our individual value. There are many thing each of us can and can not do. A plumber redid my two day handyman work in about a half of an hour. I loved the achievement of putting in a garbage disposal , but I’ll stay in court.

  • Chris Johnson

    It’s unhelpful to compare apples with oranges, which is what this is.


    I share your sentiments and enjoyed your input. Funny!

  • Mike

    Thanks Dr. Paul.

  • Teach

    The situation is that individuals are all points on a picture, and like pointalism some make bigger dots! As an individual that have worked with enough people, I would rather some one work as a journalist or lawyer, than an individual who just lazed off goverment.

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