A tale of two briefs

(by Stef Wertheimer)
Work. It''s one of my favorite topics, and yesterday''s news – both the local and foreign press -- had several articles on the topic that I have been mulling over with interest.
A few Israeli newspapers reported on a recent Israel Bar Association study that focuses on the country''s phenomenal rise of lawyers.  It appears that Israel leads the world in the per capita rate of attorneys: 1 for every 167 Israelis. While I like to see Israel ranking high on charts that show achievements, I find this one very discouraging. One article pointed out that more Israelis have become lawyers in the past 10 years than in the first 50 years of Israel''s statehood. Today more than 46,000 individuals (the equivalent of the entire population of Eilat) are practicing law. Moreover, 45 percent of them are 40 years of age or younger. This is clearly a trend that is spreading like wildfire.
Before it lays waste to our society, I would like to call for a reversal of this trend, to inform our young people that there are other ways for them to expend their energies and talents. After centuries of ghetto life, where our livelihoods were restricted, Zionism tried to point us in a new direction, one that involved cultivating the soil, making the desert bloom, and creating things that this new country needed. It tried to teach us that there was a dignity in manual labor.
Acquiring skills that enable one to produce something of quality can provide a life of immense gratification. Coming up with an idea of how to create an item and then sell it on the world market will demand and unleash the best of one''s creativity. Entrepreneurship confers dignity and a chance for life-long challenges and growth.
Certainly Israel, like every other country of the world, needs people who are trained in jurisprudence. But to siphon off thousands upon thousands of our bright young people into a profession that produces nothing is a distressing situation.
To understand what Israel''s #1 ranking in this field means, let''s look at some comparative data. Japan provides the most extreme comparison, with a figure of about 1 lawyer to every 5,518 people, according to a 2008 article in The Japan Times. You might argue that the homogeneous nature of Japanese society is the reason for its low number of lawyers. So let''s look at a few more nations with mixed populations. The same article states that only 1 in 1,363 people in France are lawyers, while in Germany the figure is 1 in 577 and in Britain 1 in 477. And what about the United States, which some claim is the world''s most litigious society? There the figure is 1 in 285 – still a far cry from Israel''s 1 in 167.
What do these comparative figures say about our respective societies? Japan – one of the world''s strongest industrialized economies – has by far the fewest lawyers, perhaps because its brightest and most creative people are engaged in producing goods and not taking one another to court. France, Germany, and United States are also industrialized nations. While other factors are clearly at play, I would venture to speculate that a rough correlation exists between a country''s productivity and its number of lawyers, with the most robust producers requiring fewer attorneys. I wonder, in fact, whether America''s manufacturing decline over the past several decades was matched by an increase in the ranks of its legal profession?
And that brings me to another of these columns, this one by the Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman in the International Herald Tribune. Unlike the articles on lawyers, this one brought a smile to my face. Krugman wrote of America''s debacle that resulted in the loss of 3.5 million manufacturing jobs in only 7 years, from 2000 – 2007, producing a slump that then eliminated millions of more jobs. Krugman hailed the weaker dollar and its beneficial effect on exports. He also praised the Obama administration for its decision to intercede to save the American automobile industry. That effort worked, revitalizing a critical component of America''s economy. Now industries such as Caterpillar are bringing their production facilities home from abroad, and there is talk of a "manufacturing renaissance." Krugman writes that "Americans are, once again, starting to actually make things." If Israel is as smart as it likes to think it is, it will follow this same path. Let''s convince some of our youth to stop thinking about those briefs that are the stuff of lawsuits and begin manufacturing briefs that we can wear. Israel''s future depends on it.
The author is founder and Honorary Chairman of Iscar, Ltd. For the past 50 years he has been involved in establishing technical education programs and is chairman of Zur Lavon organization for technical education. Lynn Holstein contributed to this article.