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My parents’ generation revered two professions – doctors and lawyers. There’s an old joke that goes “Under Jewish doctrine, when does a fetus become a human? When it graduates from medical school.”

So naturally, my Jewish parents were thrilled when I announced my decision to go law school. They were, well, slightly less thrilled, when I told them after earning my JD that I had no intention of actually practicing law. When I packed up my beat-up Jetta and left Iowa for San Francisco – with no apartment, no job, no girlfriend and really no prospects – they were miffed.

And even after a found my first dot com job, settled into a nice apartment, and actually started making enough money to pay the bills, I think my parents still had some small hope that I would one day wake up and run back to the world of law.

Why did my parents want me to be a lawyer? Traditionally, a law job meant a couple of things – high pay, high status, and job satisfaction. And, of course, the same has always been true for doctors as well.

These things are still true, for the most part. But in a lot of ways, the world has changed. Though I admit that today’s parents aren’t yet at the point where they are bragging about “my Son-in-Law, the Internet marketer”, I do think that the gap between “doctor/lawyer” and “marketer” has narrowed – and will continue to narrow in our society. And when you look at the data on income, prestige, and job satisfaction, the day may yet come when “search engine marketer” is whispered with quiet respect at the local Hadassah luncheon.

High Pay: A Draw

First, high pay. According to, an “Attorney I” (which I assume is entry-level) makes $100,793 in San Francisco- not too shabby. also reports that a “Managing Attorney” (which I presume is equivalent to a partner?) averages $218,470 in the Bay Area. For doctors, the average Internal Medicine doctor in San Francisco makes $182,527, while a Heart Transplant surgeon averages $494,395!

No question, these are impressive salaries, but . . . let’s dig in a little deeper. First, when you adjust doctor salaries for inflation, you find that salaries are steady or even declining. In fact, from 1995 to 1999, while “professional/technical worker” (which would include marketers) salaries saw an inflation-adjusted salary increase of 3.5%, physicians actually saw a decrease of 5.0%. From 1990 to 2000, the inflation-adjusted salary of doctors went from $130,000 to $132,800 – a raise of 2% over ten years! And when you consider that it takes a general practitioner at least 5-7 of post-college training and another 3-5 years to specialize, this means that lawyers – and Internet marketers – have anywhere from 2 to 10 extra income-earning years, further reducing the financial benefits of a medical career.

As for lawyers, it’s true that lawyer salaries increased substantially from 1990 to present (with one study suggesting that salaries have doubled on an inflation-adjusted basis over two decades). Keep in mind, however, that the average lawyer in a “large private practice” law firm (where you would make the big bucks) works almost 2,600 hours a year, which means that a lawyer making $150,000 a year would be paid $57 an hour, and would be working an average of 52 hours a week (assuming two weeks of vacation).

Now compare lawyer salaries to online marketing salaries. An “Internet marketing manager” in San Francisco averages $100,337 according to I’m assuming that to become an Internet marketing manager you need at least 3-4 years experience – about the same amount of time it takes to get through law school and pass the bar. A “Chief Marketing Executive,” on the other hand, in San Francisco averages $283,722.

Though I couldn’t find any data on how much marketers work, I think the 52 hours worked by attorneys is probably going to be pretty close to accurate. Of course, none of this takes into account the potential windfalls of stock options and profit-sharing that occasional make even the most junior marketer into a multi-millionaire.

At any rate, what you can conclude from this data is that the salary differential between an Internet marketer, lawyer, and doctor isn’t that significant. If anything, it looks like Internet experts may soon surpass the average doctor and lawyer in pay and, as noted, the chance of becoming the next Google millionaire also needs to be taken into account.

For salary, then, I score this a tie between the three professions.

High Status: Advantage, Doctors

So what about status and prestige? Well, these days, neither lawyers or marketers get much love. A recent Gallup poll survey found that, on a scale of 1 to 100 (with 100 being the best), Americans gave doctors a 65 out of 100 for “honesty and ethical standards” while lawyers got an 18 (below building contractors – hasn’t anyone watched The Sopranos?) and “advertising practitioners” only received an 11 – higher only than car salesmen and telemarketers!

In this instance, chalk up a victory for the doctors – graduate from medical school and you can be assured of the unwavering respect of your peers (and perhaps more importantly, your parents’ peers). Lawyers and marketers, however, may want to keep that business card in their wallet.

I will say, however, that search engine marketers are likely to have a higher status in society that the average “advertising practitioner.” First, SEM is among the most non-obtrusive marketing around. Whenever I tell someone I do Internet marketing, the first thing I usually hear is “you mean, pop-up ads.” Once I explain the difference between a targeted text-ad and unwanted pop-ups, the level of respect rises dramatically.

Second, let’s not forget that Google is consistently ranked among the world’s most-respected brands (#1 in 2003, #2 in 2004). And what is Google’s revenue model – search engine marketing. So I’m going to suppose that telling someone you create ‘ads on Google’ will rank you even higher.

Of course, I can’t find any emperical evidence comparing the perception of search engine marketers to lawyers or doctors (hey – someone at a survey company, do a study!), but my sense is that we SEMers will still fall way below doctors, but are at least equal if not ahead of lawyers in respectability!

This category goes to doctors, with second place a draw.

High Job Satisfaction

Job satisfaction among lawyers has always been low. What’s interesting is that satisfaction rate is also dropping quickly among doctors as well.

For lawyers, the American Bar Association has released studies over the last 20 years that suggest that only 20 to 25% of lawyers are “very satisfied” with their job, with complaints about “pressure at work”, “balancing work and family”, and “potential for advancement” being the biggest reasons for dissatisfaction.

The degree to which young lawyers have opted to leave law seems to be increasing. According to one source “Most startling was a 1990 report by the New York Times that approximately

40,000 lawyers left the practice of law yearly, a number that roughly corresponds to annual admission of students to law school.”

But the idea that many lawyers are luke-warm to neutral about their career-choice isn’t that surprising to me. What is more surprising is that doctors are increasingly getting fed up with the practice of medicine. USA Today notes: “An unscientific online survey of 865 physicians by The Doctors, a medical-liability insurance carrier, found that 70% would not encourage their children to become doctors, an about-face from when their parents all but herded them into medical school. Since 1977, Harris says, the prestige the public assigns to medical doctors has slipped from 61% to 52%, and the nation may face a shortage of 85,000 to 200,000 doctors in 15 years.”

A study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 40% of doctors wouldn’t go to medical school if they had the choice over again. The study explains: “There were various reasons for the newfound dissatisfaction, including the profession’s increased fragmentation, the emergence of managed care, the dilution of physician decision-making authority, and society’s increased skepticism toward the competencies and motivations of all professionals. When combined, those factors were making medicine less satisfying as a profession than it once had been, and in turn this became a matter of concern for many in the health policy arena.”

Again, when it comes to hard data on Internet marketers (forget finding it on SEMers at this point), I admit that my argument becomes a bit diluted, simply because the SEM industry has not been studied for as long and to such a degree as medicine and law.

But when you look at the anecdotal evidence, I gotta believe that we SEMers have a lot more job satisfaction than our lawyer and doctor brethren. After all, who doesn’t love foosball and ping-pong rooms, stocked kitchens with snacks, free lunches and dinners, Aeron chairs, casual work environment, lots of free schwag, and being able to move jobs with ease if your company takes your Aeron away?

More than anything else, however, I suspect that a lot of SEMers get job satisfaction from the job culture at Internet companies (or even better, if they work from home in their pajamas). I was a speaker at a career forum at a local university a few months ago. I was one of two representatives from the “corporate world,” the other was an executive from Pacific Gas & Electric. During our presentations, she mentioned that PG&E had had trouble recruiting recent college grads in the Bay Area – and she blamed me and my ilk for recruiting them away from her. But, she said, they had created an internal task force and were going to fix this problem by emulating the Internet companies (which I assumed meant the proverbial ping pong and snack room).

My thought was this: a ping pong table isn’t going to get people to go work for your utility. At the end of the day, they’re still working for a giant bureaucratic, non-innovative, non-cutting edge company, doing a mostly irrelevant role with little chance of rapid advancement or salary increase based on merit (unless a 3% raise is considered rapid). As I noted in a recent post about Yahoo’s culture, you can’t paint the walls purple and automatically create innovation!

I look around me and I see a lot of people who have come to the world of SEM by choice – some are former lawyers, PhDs, mathematicians, etc – but very few of them were pressured into this career by their parents, or simply to make money.

Now granted, as our industry matures, the industry will change. We’ll become more standardized, less innovative, and less fun. Even PG&E was once cutting edge (creating energy is pretty revolutionary, really). For now, though, I think that job satisfaction among SEMers is very high.

Tally: one vote for SEM!


My parents have finally come around to liking my career path. Now that Google and Yahoo are household names (even in Iowa), my Mom can lunch with her friends with pride and talk about her son “who had a meeting at Google yesterday.” And as the Internet becomes more and more a part of the fabric of American life, I suspect that the prestige of our careers will only increase, along with the salaries.

In the end, though, I’ll know we have arrived when I stopped by the local deli and overhear “My son-in-law – the Search Engine Marketer . . .”