Justice Holmes said, "The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience." But the professions in America are a fusion of both. The logic comes from the intellectual discipline taught in postgraduate professional schools of law, medicine and business. The experience comes from the work professionals do in the real world. For most of our history we prided ourselves on our reliance on experience, on being pragmatic. But in the past several decades, the professions and their logic have become increasingly important.
Since the 1930s, the legal profession has developed the regulatory state, the medical profession has developed a vast system of medical research, and business school graduates have shaped our great corporations. These are awesome achievements. Yet everywhere there are unmistakable signs of discontent--discontent with a common theme. The professions have become too much the creatures of their logic, and need once again to draw more from their experience. Consider the complaints:
"We have 15 times more lawyers per capita than Japan," writes Charles Peters, and he is echoed by dozens of others trying to explain America's low rise in economic productivity. There is widespread agreement that the legal profession is absorbing too many of our best brains and using them in economically unproductive ways. Lawyers are "paper entrepreneurs," in Robert Reich's phrase, parasites who partake of the wealth others produce. Even Derek Bok, president of Harvard and former dean of its law school, talks of the "flawed" legal system and calls it "grossly inequitable and inefficient."
No one disputes that American medicine is the world's best. Yet the medical profession is the target of an increasing volume of criticism. Doctors and hospitals are too impersonal, too interested in symptoms and diseases and not interested enough in human beings. Such criticism comes not from cranks, but from as eminent an authority as Dr. Lewis Thomas, head of the Sloan-Kettering cancer research center. People are beginning to resist the kind of life-prolonging but painful and demeaning treatments available in intensive care units. They are less interested in what a machine or a research doctor can do and more interested in how it affects the patient.
American business executives were named as the chief culprits in the nation's decline in productivity by two Harvard Business School professors--Robert Hayes and William Abernathy--in the Harvard Business Review. The problem, they say, is that executives concentrate on improving short-term financial performance rather than building long-term productive capacity. They are driven by analyses of present-day markets rather than by visions of possible future markets. Other critics add that they are concerned more about profits in the next quarter.
These criticisms are on the verge of becoming conventional wisdom. But no one has noted the common thread: professionals have become more like professors than practitioners. The logic of the professional schools has become more important to professionals than the experience of everyday life.
Lawyers have become more like law professors: researching problems endlessly, more interested in raising provocative theories than in reaching practical solutions. Doctors have become more like research professors than like the general practitioners of yore. Business executives have become more like professors or consultants, good at analyzing and manipulating assets, and quite uninterested in how those assets are produced.
Now the recession seems to be providing a corrective. Clients and constituencies of all these professions are rebelling. Legal clients are trying to cut costs, patients are seeking more sensitive care, corporations are looking for managers who can organize production efficiently. Young lawyers are working in shopping centers writing simple wills and divorces for standard fees, medical students are becoming general practitioners again, and business school students want to learn about assembly lines.
In easier times, clients were willing to indulge their professionals in their theoretical concerns. Now, in hard times, clients are demanding that professionals get back to work in the everyday world. The change is overdue. The professions' preoccupation with logic has helped to improve and reform the world, but it has also put professionals dangerously out of touch with the gritty everyday world.