Earlier this week, Conor Friedersdorf, writing for The Atlantic, poured a big bottle of haterade all over the legal profession. More specifically, he criticized the way “Ivy League” lawyers are recruited, and the “palpable sense of entitlement” they exhibit even when they don’t take Biglaw bucks and instead work for the government. Here’s the set up:
The details of how elite law and business consulting firms recruit astonish me every time I hear them. Even getting an interview often requires attending an Ivy League professional school or a very few top tier equivalents. Folks who succeed in that round are invited to spend a summer working at the firm, the most sane aspect of the process.
But subsequently, they participate in sell events where they’re plied with food and alcohol in the most lavish settings imaginable: five star resort hotels, fine cigar bars, the priciest restaurants.
And here’s the money shot, one that is careening around the legal blogosphere like Billy Joel trying to get back from the Hamptons before the hurricane hits:
Though it isn’t defensible, it is unsurprising that a lot of people who eschew offers to work at these firms, favoring public sector work instead, imagine that they are making an enormous personal sacrifice by taking government work. The palpable sense of entitlement some of these public sector folks exude is owed partly to how few of “our best and brightest” do eschew the big firm route (due partly to increasing debt levels among today’s graduates, no doubt).
Really? You want to do this now? You want to talk smack about the people on the bottom rung of this totem pole, while willfully ignoring the clients, partners, law schools, and state governments that generate huge sums of wealth off the backs of the palpably entitled?
Fine. Let me take off my glasses, and we’ll step outside…
First of all, let’s table Friedersdorf’s downright anachronistic view of summer associate recruiting. I don’t need to tell you guys that the days of five-star bottles and pliable models are long gone. But they existed once. And, who knows, if the American economy recovers and India magically sinks into the ocean, those days might come once again.
But even if we accept Friedersdorf’s premise about recruiting, what is wrong with that way of attracting talent? What is wrong with private companies doing whatever it takes to get top associates to join their firms? Would Friedersdorf prefer if new law school graduates were placed in steel cages and forced to fight to the death for the opportunity to work — you know, like they have to do now? Is that somehow morally preferable? If you’re talented, and more than one person wants to hire you, then people have to compete for your services. That’s what recruitment means.
I’m sure that there are any number of hardworking Americans whose eyes flash with righteous indignation when they read about the “lavish” summer programs Biglaw recruits enjoy. But, to paraphrase President Bartlett, “their indignation would be a lot more interesting to me if it wasn’t so covered in crap.” It’s not that these Americans object on moral grounds to the excesses of associate recruitment; it’s that they wish their services or talents were in such demand that somebody would take them to a four-star restaurant to close a deal on a new job. It’s just jealousy; I feel the same way whenever I read anything about any professional athlete — how much they make, whom they get to bone, whatever. I hate them because I want to be them.
Luckily, no matter how fat, lazy, and slow I get, there’s nothing I can do to convince the Washington Redskins to give me a $100 million contract. I know this. Not so with people who want to “live the dream” of being a highly sought-after attorney. Shockingly, some people will read about the life of a summer associate and think “wow, that could be me if I just went to law school.” And so they come, in droves. Not because they love the law, but because they think they’ll love the life.
And that actually creates another “problem” that Friedersdorf points out:
The prize firms are after: talented people, to be sure, but also the ability to tell clients, “We can put together a team for your company that is entirely made up of Ivy League graduates.” Apparently this is enormously appealing to companies, which makes sense, given that law firms and especially consulting firms are often used as a kind of responsibility deferral system…
Well, sir, there wouldn’t be such a premium on Ivy League lawyers if there weren’t so many crappy lawyers and law schools out there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that only Ivy League lawyers are worth anything, and I’m not saying that every law school ranked below #50 should be decommissioned and turned into a homeless shelter. I’m saying that when you look at 200 accredited law schools, God knows how many unaccredited law schools, state bar exams of varying degrees of difficulty, and a world where even the hardest state bar can be somewhat easily mastered with about eight weeks of test prep — you are going to get some crappy lawyers. Awful lawyers. Lawyers who have no business being anywhere near a sensitive document, a courtroom, and a wealthy person in need of legal advice. If there were as many terrible doctors as there are terrible lawyers, we’d still be trying to get “doctors must wash their hands” signs posted in operating rooms.
In this world, firms are looking for some basic quality control. Maybe an Ivy league credential isn’t the best way of separating the wheat from the chaff, but it’ll do in a pinch. Of course, everybody who didn’t go to an Ivy League institution needs to point out that it’s highly possible that Ivy League lawyers are crappy too. Fair enough. But since we actually can’t know in advance who’s going to become a good lawyer or a criminally negligent one, firms and clients are using the Ivy League to do a little pre-screening for them. You can’t really blame them.
But hey, if you’re making $160K a year and living the good life, you’ve heard all of Friedersdorf’s criticisms before. In fact, you’ve probably already sent him an email, with this subject line: I’m Rich, Bitch.
But out of nowhere Friedersdorf also levels some snark at government lawyers. Jesus. Picking on government lawyers is like kicking puppies. They’re cute, they’re not hurting anybody… sure, sometimes they might pee on your floor, but come on, they work for the government. They’re trying their best.
That last paragraph is, by the way, exactly why government lawyers walk around with what Friedersdorf imagines is a sense of entitlement. He’s wrong; it’s not “entitlement” that he’s seeing. It’s the huge freaking chip on their shoulders that they develop because many of their law school friends make tons of money and constantly throw that cash in their faces. Friedersdorf gets to that point in a follow-up to his initial article:
The core of the problem is that rather than comparing themselves to their fellow Americans, appreciating that they’re better compensated than the vast majority of them for doing relatively enjoyable work, and being cognizant of their privileged position and the special trust it entails, this subset of professionals compare themselves to a tiny elite, correctly judge that they’re worse off, and justify all manner of behavior accordingly.
Yes, yes, yes… and somewhere in Bangladesh a child could be saved from starvation based on what I just ate as a snack. But I don’t compare my career success to that child. You know why? ‘Cause I’m not a low-expectation-having mutherf***er. I was born into a middle-class family, in a safe suburb, to two parents, both of whom graduated from college. I could compare myself to some black guy who was born to a crackhead and is now in jail and say, “Oh gee golly, I’m doing so well,” but that would be weak. From my starting point, I’m not supposed to go to jail. I’ve had every advantage handed to me, and so the only people that it’s actually worth comparing myself to are others who had the same kind of opportunities that I had. (Yes, I’m failing in that comparison, please shut up now and let me get back to my point.)
Similarly, these government lawyers aren’t supposed to compare themselves to “their fellow Americans.” What does that even mean? A government lawyer is doing better than a subsistence farmer in Idaho? And that’s supposed to make him happy? What kind of country would we be if people were satisfied once they achieved “mediocrity”?
And speaking of farmers… there’s not a lawyer alive who hasn’t once daydreamed about chucking it all and becoming a farmer or rancher or surfer or something that allows them to get the hell out of their stuffy office at least once in an 18-hour day. Being a lawyer might be good work, but it’s not fun, and it’s not easy. It’s only natural that when you are doing something difficult, something that not a lot of people can do, you hope to be well-compensated for it. And when all your friends are extremely well-compensated for basically doing your same job, how is that supposed to make you feel?
In closing, Friedersdorf writes:
One thing that’s surprised me as I’ve watched folks in my age cohort move from college to professional schools to highly paid careers is how rapidly they shift their baseline for what is normal. People who were happily buying Natural Light and eating microwaved Maruchan Ramen a few years back earnestly insist that their $165,000 salary isn’t so much when you think about it…
Look buddy, nobody is “happily” drinking Natty Light and eating ramen. Nobody. Oh, they’ll say they’re happy doing it, because that’s what you say when you are in that situation and trying to convince yourself that life is still worth living. But I could go to every law student in America and offer to switch out their ramen for a well-prepared steak, and they’d be eating it right out of my hand.
The vast majority of Americans want as much as they can get. Lawyers are no different. And I don’t necessarily see anything particularly astonishing about that.