Elizabeth Warren’s $2 million — and mine

Elizabeth Warren disclosed that she made $1.9 million since 1985 doing legal work for companies like Travelers Insurance. To put this in context, you need to understand what consultants and lawyers do and who they do it for.

My experience as a consultant and analyst — an illustration

When you work for a law firm, a consulting firm, or an accounting firm, all sorts of requests come across your desk. The sales group at your organization finds business where it can. They sell your services. And then your management asks you to help the clients.

You have a limited amount of say in whose those clients are.

When I worked for Forrester Research, I drew a line. I would not work for gun companies, cigarette companies, or baby formula companies. It was a very short list.

I did work for other companies that some of you might have a problem with. These included large tech companies, social media companies, huge media conglomerates, cable companies, telephone companies, financial services and investment companies, health insurance companies, liquor and beer companies, pharmaceutical companies, Chinese companies, and outsourcing companies. I did not work for Fox News, but if asked, I would have (back then, it wasn’t the same company it is now).

None of these companies were immoral. Certainly, a lot of them participated in some questionable activities, but these were huge companies. I think in any large company, somebody somewhere is doing something wrong.

Also, the advice I gave was to help them make good business decisions. If a company asked for my help to do something unethical, I would tell them not to do what they planned to do, because it was unethical and would get them in trouble. I would not provide advice on how best to execute their planned unethical strategy.

Because of confidentiality agreements, even if a company had plans to do something unethical, I was duty bound to say nothing about it. (To be fair, I never saw anything in 20 years as an analyst that I would have felt duty bound to blow the whistle on. Companies don’t tend to reveal that they’re about to do something awful.)

What about those companies I just wouldn’t work for? That was not a public declaration; making such a declaration would likely have lost me my job. I was asked to work for one of those companies only once. I made up an excuse and asked a colleague if she would step in for me, and she did so as a favor to me. The client got service, and I got to maintain my ethics.

If I had publicly declared that I would not work for the company because of its policies, I wonder what would have happened? It’s certainly possible that I would have been fired, not just for my decision, but because the company would not want to set a precedent that consultants could object to legitimate assignments on moral grounds.

What about Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg?

Warren deserves credit for clarifying her past work. And $2 million over 27 years may sound like a lot, but we’re talking an average of about $70,000 per year of legal work since 1985. This is pretty minimal for an Ivy League law professor.

(I made way more than that over 20 years as an analyst and consultant. If you think analysts make $70,000 a year, you’re pretty far off.)

Pete Buttigieg is in a similar situation because, earlier in his career, he worked for the consultancy McKinsey. He has disclosed what he can, which includes the type of clients that he worked for (health insurer, retailers, US government departments) and the type of work he did (modeling and analysis, a lot like the work that I did).

I have absolutely no problem with the legal work that Warren did, the consulting work that Buttigieg did, or similar work other candidates may have done. McKinsey has done some questionable work, but I don’t hold Buttigieg responsible for that. If you are smart and have the right kind of degree, you can make good money doing this kind of service work. This is honorable work.

As a consultant, you can certainly object when asked to do anything that violates your ethical standards, as I did. But most of the work you do is going to be for large companies, and those companies may have divisions or parts that are doing things you object to. You wouldn’t last long if you took an absolutist ethical position on that.

So be careful if you’re objecting to past behavior of presidential candidates. Those that are completely pure, according to whatever lofty standard you may think you can set, probably haven’t accomplished anything worth praising, either. The question is, what will they do if they get elected, and is that better than what the other guy is going to do?

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  1. Numerous people who accuse these consultants of “lining their pockets” with 70K a year also find it normal that a baseball or hockey player makes 100 times as much…