It’s a story so common that it’s almost a cliché to bring it up. Idealistic young people show up at law school full of commitment to the public interest or something similar, time passes, and three years later they’re all heading off to S&C, to Proskauer, to the best Biglaw job they can find. Or they clerk for a year and then go to one of these firms. If they don’t get teaching jobs, you’ll see them sharing offices in the highest-paying law firm they can find.
It happens all the time. And, for the most part, it always happens for the same reason: money. Oh, individuals will tell themselves they gave up on their low-paying dreams for all sorts of reasons. But they’re just trying to make themselves feel better. It’s always about the money. ALWAYS.
Trust me, if it wasn’t always about the money, I would not be able to guarantee a traffic spike whenever I put “bonus” in a headline. Or whenever I write about law firms paying first-year associates more than $160K.
Right now, at Harvard Law School, there is a group of students trying to push back on this transformation of idealistic Harvard Law students into materialistic lawyer drones. It’s a really nice, heartfelt effort, one that we don’t see nearly enough of on campus.
I’m going to be sad when reality wears them out like a Colombian prostitute on some Secret Service agents….
The HLS students’ effort is called “Firmly Refuse,” and their signs have been popping up all around campus. They’re striking in a kind of “here’s what delicious cigarettes do to the lungs of people” kind of way. Here’s one from their Tumblr account:
One of the interesting things about HLS is that there is very little institutional or peer pressure warning people against taking the Biglaw money. If you go to Berkeley, there is at least one crunchy guy at Pete’s who will call you a “sell-out.” In Cambridge, it’s all about “Oooh, which ones did you get?” I guess most people at Harvard sold out long before they showed up.
The group penned an op-ed in the HLS Record:
As firms wrestle to move their recruiting dates earlier and earlier, Harvard Law School must take a stand. It must, if you will, firmly refuse. Refuse to let fear and intimidation pressure students into foreclosing their professional ambitions. Refuse to let firm recruiting overshadow the educational experience of law school. Refuse to ignore the personal, professional and moral about-face that takes place during 1L year. HLS and OCS have a responsibility to respond with more than complicity as, year after year, 1Ls undergo this silent transformation.
Still, the blame for our silent transformation—and our lack of agency—cannot rest solely on the administration’s shoulders. We are willfully blind to the privilege that comes with attending Harvard Law School. And we are all too willing to scalp our sense of agency and morality to the highest bidder. An HLS degree provides incredible personal and professional opportunity. With such opportunity comes a commanding ethical responsibility—one we cannot renounce for a myopic, monetary brand of success.
Good luck with the whole “redefining success” thing.
I’m half-serious: I really do wish them good luck. Look, my job exists in part because so many people decide to abandon their dreams and take the money. And they end up miserable. Truly miserable. The other night I was hanging with a very good writer who nonetheless is in law school and on a path that will surely lead her to Biglaw. She didn’t see it that way, and she had 15 different arguments about how she was going to avoid the Biglaw trap. But I know better because I’ve seen hundreds of people say the same thing. I’m like the freaking Borg Queen: I know that resistance is futile.
But when she ends up doing it for “just a couple of years,” or “just to pay down some debt” until she does what she actually wants to do, it’ll hurt my heart. Every week, I try to help someone avoid making the critical mistake of thinking that these firms give you all this money in exchange for anything less than all that you have.
Reality is a bitch. Reality is rent. Reality is paying back your creditors. Reality is making more money than pretty much anybody else you know. When I got my first Debevoise summer paycheck, it was more money than anybody in my family had ever made in one pay period. My whole freaking family. I don’t think I would have cared if my firm had asked me to club a baby seal and liberate my money from its still beating heart — we were talking about more money than I had ever seen.
Don’t act like I’m the only one. When you’re dealing with this kind of money, you think to yourself that you owe it — not just to yourself but to your entire goddamn family that sacrificed who knows what to put you in a position to have this opportunity — to at least try to do whatever it is they’re asking you to do in order to make that much. You can almost hear Forrest Gump’s mother saying, “Well baby, just try beating the bag out of the ambulance-chasing moron who claims that your client’s exciting ‘flammable pajamas’ aren’t suitable for children under ten.” When somebody is handing out cash, the natural reaction is to try to figure out how to get some, not to close your eyes and pretend you don’t see the money.
People who go into Biglaw are not making a callous decision and they’re certainly not making an irrational one. It is. ALL. About. The Money. Everybody has a price beyond which they’ll shove ethical responsibilities right up somebody’s ass.
Even freaking Spiderman wrestles with trying to profit on the side from his spidey skills, because being poor sucks. Firmly Refusing wants HLS students to act like Batman… which is really only an option for the kids who have Bruce Wayne’s money to go home to. (And yes, in this analogy “Superman” is the kid who clerks for SCOTUS and then teaches, while Daredevil goes to a crappy law school because he’s too blind to read the U.S. News rankings.)
And so Biglaw goes on, easily able to snatch the top talent from the best schools just by offering more cash than anybody else. It’s not complicated, and it’s not reflective of a deep moral chasm in our times; it’s the economy, stupid.
But Firmly Refuse should continue to fight the good fight (like others have before them). That’s what I try to do. You know you can’t stop the whole system; there’s just too much money involved. But if you can save just one lamb, maybe that will be enough.