You’re young; you’re strong; you’re a fighter. You dream of big money, shorter hours, real courtroom experience, and the feeling of lifetime membership in an elite group. Either you want to be a Biglaw partner or a member of the street gang MS-13.
In researching my latest legal thriller, SPEAK OF THE DEVIL, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the world’s most dangerous gang and the world’s most prestigious law firms. Here’s a comparative analysis of the riches that lure kids in, the perks that make them stay, and the organizational structure that makes it almost impossible to quit.
Now, I know your firm’s litigation department just won some National Law Journal award for the take-no-prisoners style in which it litigates even the most trivial of civil discovery disputes. But National Geographic calls MS-13 “the world’s most dangerous gang,” and this gang really takes no prisoners — its preferred method of alternative dispute resolution is to cut off someone’s head. This is no West-Side Story Sharks and Jets. MS-13’s motto is “Kill, Rape, Control.”
Yet both the street gang and the law firm can be a young person’s path to power, money, and prestige in this world….
MS-13 was born out of the Salvadoran civil war, when a flood of refugees arrived in Los Angeles only to fall prey to established street gangs. A few newbies banded together for protection, calling themselves La Mara Salvatrucha (loosely translated: “Look out for us Salvadoran gangsters”). The gang went viral, growing into an international organization with an estimated 50,000 members and cliques in almost every major American city.
By comparison, the flood of liberal-arts majors into American law schools was sparked by a combination of: (a) TV shows that made the practice of law seem sexy, and (b) the low-paying jobs otherwise available for those of us with squishy liberal arts degrees. Joining a law firm can protect you from the brutality of a career in telemarketing.
If you’re thinking about joining the gang, however, be warned — the initiation ritual is almost as pointlessly sadistic as the third year of law school. Boys who want to join the gang must be “jumped in,” that is, beaten by every gang member for a count of 13 seconds. New members are left with broken bones, lost teeth, and concussions — although thankfully no law-school loans. Girls who want to join the gang must be “sexed in,” that is, have sex with every man in the gang.
Still, some of the skills necessary to rise up through the gangster ranks are the same skills honed by Biglaw litigators. Fearlessness. The ability to demonize your adversaries. A willingness to set aside moral qualms and do whatever it takes for your side to win. Prospective gang members also benefit from proficiency with a machete. Proficiency with Word, Westlaw, and the Bluebook are not as useful.
Once you’re in the gang, your days of document review and drafting discovery motions will be over. The gang turns a profit by robbing and providing “protection” to local businesses for cash. Many of the female members sell their bodies to fund the gang. My civil litigator friends often say that every case presents the opportunity to learn about a new industry — well, this is your chance to learn about the extortion and prostitution industries. A litigator is already a mercenary, and you might even feel like a prostitute at times. You’ll fit right in.
Both career paths have their challenges. MS-13 members must kill rival gang members on sight — or be killed by them. Cooperate with the police and your own homies will kill you. No law firm outside a John Grisham novel poses this sort of danger to its associates; the worst you can expect is boredom and the indignity of being 30 years old and still having someone edit your cover letters.
Once you’re in MS-13, you’re in it for life. Not even a Biglaw partnership comes with such guarantees these days. A popular MS tattoo is a three-dot mark, which symbolizes the three places where gang life can lead you: the hospital, the prison, or the morgue. Gang members who try to leave are killed; but on the other hand, your chance of landing a speaking role at trial is much greater as an MS-13 member than as a law-firm associate.
In both cases, talented young people choose a life that requires an all-in mentality, a fair amount of brutality, and very, very late nights. And they have to be so indoctrinated that MS-13 members are willing to kill others, while Wachtell associates are practically willing to kill themselves.
Are there any horrors of law firm life that I forgot? Tell me in the comments section. For more on the world’s most dangerous gang, and one lawyer’s fight against them, check out my latest novel, SPEAK OF THE DEVIL.
Book Review: ‘Speak of the Devil’ by Allison Leotta [Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
SPEAK OF THE DEVIL [Amazon (affiliate link)]
For twelve years, Allison Leotta was a federal prosecutor in D.C., where she specialized in prosecuting sex crimes. She now writes legal thrillers drawing on her experience, and has been dubbed “the female John Grisham.” Her latest novel, SPEAK OF THE DEVIL, was released in August and was named one of the Best Books of the Month by Apple. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer called it “sexy, brutal, and surprising,” and Fresh Fiction says it’s “absolutely a must-read.”