One commenter to my post on why a career in computer programming sucks wrote:
But how many billionaire attorneys can you name? How many rank above Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Sergey and Larry, etc. etc. in any list of income, net worth, or name recognition?
I should begin by pointing out that no one will pay you a billionaire's salary for doing actual work in either computer programming or law. The billionaires mentioned are people who were once programmers but who became entrepreneurs.
To answer this know-it-all's question, I consulted the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans. I got bored with the endeavor after examining the first 75 people on the list, so for the rest of this post we will only discuss the 75 richest Americans, all of them billionaires.
It turns out that there are five law school graduates who are among the 75 richest billionaire Americans:
Sumner Redstone, Harvard JD
Samuel Zell, Uniiversity of Michigan JD
S Robson Walton, Columbua JD
Robert Rowling, Southern Methodist University JD
William Morse Davidson, Wayne State University JD
To be fair to the commenter, the last three don't count because they inherited their money. Any idiot can use a law degree to become a billionaire if he inherits a billion dollars.
It should be noted that 100% of the self-made billionaire lawyers graduated from Top 14 law schools.
The most common way to become a billionaire is to inherit wealth. 23 of the 75 richest Americans inherited their wealth:
S Robson Walton
Barbara Cox Anthony
Anne Cox Chambers
David Hamilton Koch
Charles De Ganahl Koch
Forrest Edward Mars
John Franlyn Mars
Samuel Newhouse, Jr.
Robert Muse Bass
William Morse Davidson
One of the best ways to become a self-made billionaire is to attend an Ivy League school. 16 of the 52 self-made billionaires have Ivy League educations:
Warren Buffett, Columbia
Bill Gates, Havard
Carl Ichan, Princeton
John Werner Kluge, Columbia
Edward Crosby Johnson, III, Harvard
Sumner Redstone (Viacom), Harvard
Charles Bartlett Johnson, Yale
Edward Lampert, Yale
Steve Ballmer, Harvard
Geroge B. Kaiser, Harvard
Leonard Blavatnik, Columbia, Harvard
Ronald Owen Perelman, Penn
Michael Bloomberg, Havard
Stephen Schwarzman, Yale, Harvard
Eric Schmidt (Google), Princeton
Jeff Bezos, Princeton
An additional six billionaires have near-Ivy quality education:
Sergey Brin, Stanford
Larry Page, Stanford
Philip H Knight, Stanford
Charles Schwab, Stanford
George Soros, London School of Economics
James H Simons, MIT
The conclusion is clear. If you want to become a self-made billionaire, get the most prestigious educational credentials.
The best degree to get is an MBA. The following nine self-made billionaires have MBAs, and it's worth noting that eight out of the nine have an MBA from one of the nation's top three business schools: Harvard, Wharton, and Stanford.
Steve Ballmer, Harvard, Stanford MBA
Geroge B. Kaiser, Harvard, Harvard MBA
Philip H Knight, Stanford MBA
Charles Egen (Echostar), Wake Forest University MBA
Leonard Blavatnik, Columbia, Havard MBA
Ronald Owen Perelman, Penn, Wharton MBA
Michael Bloomberg, Havard MBA
Charles Schwab, Stanford MBA
Stephen Schwarzman, Yale, Harvard MBA
Finally we get to computer programmers who have become billionaires. There are nine.
Pierre M Omidyar (eBay)
James Goodnight (SAS)
And one honorary mention:
Leonard Blavatnik has an undergraduate degree in Computer Science from Columbia, but he doesn't owe his fortune to software.
Why are there fewer billionaire lawyers than computer programmers? Because law is a more egalitarian profession. All of the BIGLAW firms are partnerships in which there are many decamillionaire partners but no single billionaire founder. If BIGLAW firms were dominated by a single lawyer who owned one third of the firm's wealth, then there would be a lot of billionaire lawyers.
I will wrap up this post with the following admonition: a young person deciding upon his career should not place any weight on whether it will likely make him a billionaire. There is a near infinitesimal chance of becoming a self-made billionaire. It's hard enough just to make it to the top 10% of a profession.
Important things to consider are how well the average member of the profession does, as well as your chance of making it to the top 10% and and how well they have it. Graduates of Top 14 law schools have nearly a 100% chance of getting a BIGLAW job and BIGLAW starts people out these days with $160K, and there's the chance you could make partner and be making as much as a million dollars a year. It's not billionaire status, but it's not so bad. However, if you have the lucky opportunity to get an MBA from Harvard, Wharton, Stanford, or Columbia, then you should definitely choose that over law.
A much easier way to become a billionaire would be to marry an heiress. This is really a lot easier to do than you might think. I personally dated women whose ancestors were billionaires on more than one occasion. I had more dates with heiresses than interviews with BIGLAW despite graduating in the top 10% of the class.