The Ubiquitous Full Employment Act for Lawyers: You’re Not the First (Nor the Last) to Hear About this “Legislation”

By Jethro K. Lieberman

Come on, admit it. You’ve reacted to news that Congress or your state legislature has passed a law protecting red-beaked gnats or requiring warning labels on chewing gum as a “full employment act for lawyers.” And you’ve even been amused. Right? But don’t tell us you thought you were being original.

We just stumbled across a memo from 1988 that summarized a search for the phrase in an early news database (most likely Nexis-Lexis). More than 60 uses turned up, mostly during a two-year period from 1986. The phrase was archly planted in stories that ran in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Business Week, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and many other publications. Often the phrase purported to be the coinage of a source who is quoted. Bankruptcy, we are told in an Institutional Investor story, is a full-employment act for lawyers. The New York Times ran an op-ed by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, who opined that an FCC rule requiring radio stations to be relicensed is a “full employment act for Washington communications lawyers.” A Washington Post columnist said that a local scandal was “rivaling the Wall Street insider trading mess as the best full-employment development for lawyers in years.” And — but you don’t want us to repeat 60 more of these lines, do you?

And just in case their readers were literalists, many of the writers added that their sources “joked,” “are joking” or “referred jocularly to” the benighted laws they mocked.

That was then, you say, and besides, what’s 60 repetitions in a country as full of jurisdictions as the United States (a land whose municipal borders legislation gives new meaning to full employment for map makers)? Surely writers have learned from their elders? Since Google (a full-employment machine for researchers) takes all the hard work out of it, we ran a search just before Christmas. We are guessing you won’t be surprised.

The search returned 34,400 hits for the phrase “Full Employment Act for Lawyers, and an additional 1,800 results for the phrase “Lawyers’ Full Employment Act” — though (let’s be fair), only 225 hits for that phrase in 2009, and many were the extremely sophisticated musings of people who had time to comment on blogs (which, it goes without saying but we’ll say it, are electronic full- employment devices for readers). Of course there are other variants, so the totals would likely rise if we fully employed some students to spend a week searching.

Common topics that attracted the phrases were new anti-hate crime laws, such as the Matthew Shepard Act; civil rights and equal-pay legislation, such as the Lilly Ledbetter Act, the economic stimulus bill, the federal health-care reform legislation, and the operations of the Internet itself. Click here, and here, and here, just to induce yourself into a proper state of boredom so you can actually quit this post and go back to your real work.

Perhaps these phrases have more resonance in 2009-2010 when many lawyers are actively pressing for half employment or any employment, for that matter. But it’s surely either an insult to the motives of law-makers or to our own intelligence to suppose that laws are enacted just to profit the classes of people who must enforce them. Laws in every state requiring children to attend school guarantee hundreds of thousands (whom are we kidding?: probably millions) of jobs for teachers, far more jobs than any law (or all the laws) ever provided for any one set of lawyers (or all the lawyers). Yet we don’t view compulsory school laws as sinecures for teachers but as benefits to children. Right? Otherwise we’d be Marxists. Say, what are the job prospects for unemployed Marxists these days?

Research by: Elizabeth Silva



2 Responses

  1. guest says:

    Two thoughts provoked by your witty blog:
    1. The business people who typically complain about attorney full employment actually hire and handsomely pay many of the expensive litigators, kibitzers, and memo-writers.
    2. The judges who whine about clogged courtrooms frequently have the inherent authority to truncate much frivolous legal activity, if only they bothered to exert themselves.
    Bottom line: Without making excuses for unproductive legal activity, we ought to cast a skeptical eye on the attorney enablers, too. — Paul Barrett

  2. tom powers says:

    Kind of sinister when you think about it — I mean the deliberate spin to dismiss any socially useful legislation as motivated solely by lawyers’ self interest and greed. Protect historically important battlefield sites? FEAFL. Permit required before building on a wetland? FEAFL. But what about mandate for informing parents before abortion? Why is that not FEAFL?