A post by Ward Farnsworth at Volokh on “rent seeking behavior” reminded me of one of my objections to lawyering:

….there are two general ways to increase your wealth: by creating things people want, or by fighting over prizes that already exist — things other people have created or found. Either strategy might be more successful than the other, and perfectly rational to pursue; it depends on the circumstances. Which do you prefer as your own method of choice? Which do you spend more time doing? Why does it matter?
The difference between these methods of gaining wealth — between, say, competing to build a better restaurant and competing to get to the treasure first (rent seeking) — is that the first one creates wealth, or better-offness, for the world. Customers are made happy, and restaurants gradually get better. Fighting over who gets the treasure isn’t like that. The treasure doesn’t get bigger as a result. In a sense it gets smaller because wealth is eaten up in the effort to lay hold of it.

This reminded me of a life changing event. After spending years running a very popular but commercially unsuccessful nightclub, I was advised (by some attorneys who meant well) that the ideal career change for me would be to sue business owners for non-compliance with the ADA.
“Attorneys fees are there by statute!” I was told.
Great. Now that I was out of business, I could be born again as a despicable parasite and help ensure that other business owners would be put out of business. It struck me that if I became a homeless derelict, I’d be doing more for the world than if I helped ruin other people’s businesses. (It didn’t help much that one of the many reasons my business failed was that the building was cited by the fire marshall for inadequate handicapped access, and there was no way to remedy this without major alterations to the building, which I did not own, for patrons in wheelchairs who never came.)

Think of this on a larger scale and you can see that the more a society spends on rent seeking — on quarrels over who gets what — the poorer it becomes. If that’s all that anyone did, everyone would starve in due course.

Again, I’d have done more for society by becoming homeless.
Farnsworth concludes with a question:

But probably the most interesting question for my current audience is this: to what extent are lawyers professional rent seekers, and to what extent are they something more worthy of admiration and encouragement?

The answer to that depends on what kind of law they practice. The non-parasitic type of lawyer can help businesses succeed, help advance policies which advance economic growth, or (possibly by teaching) help train young lawyers to see the wisdom of not falling into the “rent seeking” trap.
This piece by Stephen Bainbridge made me realize that lots of parasitic lawyers will soon be waking up to the fact that Global Warming looms large as another rent seeking scheme:

trial lawyers are gearing up to turn global warming into their next pot of gold. A coalition of environmental groups and cities are suing the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Export-Import Bank of the United States for making loans to finance oil pipelines, oil drilling, and similar projects that supposedly result in a net emission of billions of tons of carbon dioxide. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans trial lawyers Gerald Mapes and Timothy Porter sued dozens of energy companies, claiming they had contributed to global warming.
Last year, Business Week reported that there were 16 pending global warming cases of these sorts pending around the country. More are surely in the pipeline, so to speak.
Indeed, the prospect of a boom in global warming litigation is prompting law firms to begin setting up units specializing in climate change issues. According to the Dallas Morning News, for example, Dallas law firms Vinson & Elkins and Thompson & Knight have set up global warming units with 41 and 26 lawyers, respectively.

Bainbridge sees the coming litigation as begging the case for tort reform. As things stand, the average family is being drained to the tune of $3500 per year:

This is a classic example of why tort reform is a pressing need. The Institute for Legal Reform offers some chilling statistics: “America’s civil justice system is the world’s most expensive, with a direct cost in 2005 of $261 billion, or 2.09 percent of GDP.
“Tort costs were $880 per U.S. citizen in 2005, meaning the average American family of four paid a ‘litigation tax’ of more than $3,500 due to increased costs from lawsuits and other liability expenses that force businesses to raise the price of products and services. That cost is equivalent to nearly an 8 percent tax on wages.”
These costs are having a dramatic impact on the US economy. A nonpartisan report prepared for New York Senator Charles Schumer and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, found that the “propensity toward litigation” in the United States is “driving growing international concerns about participating in US financial markets.”
Along with regulatory excesses like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the litigation industry in this country is making our capital markets and our economy as a whole less competitive.

It’s all too easy to generalize and say that all lawyers make the world a worse place economically. They don’t. But a lot of them do. And there but for the grace of God went I.
UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds links an interesting post about the campaign donations of large law firms. I hadn’t know that Ken Starr’s firm gave “more to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign than to all of the top Republican candidates combined,” but I’m not surprised.
Go seek the rent, and ye shall find!
UPDATE (08/01/07): Thank you, Glenn Reynolds for the link, and welcome all!
(Now that I think about it, had I listened to the lawyers advising me to go into ADA litigation back in 1994, I might be wealthy and unwise today!