For information on the genesis of these posts and on who “Debra” is, click here and read the intro to “Debra and Ron Post 1.

Ron: When I began to work as the public interest adviser at Harvard Law School in 1983, I knew that there were thousands of capable lawyers who represented those truly needing legal services, what we referred to as the underrepresented in society. Students had no way of knowing that this was the case. What I did was to create a new public interest category “private public interest law firms”, contacted hundreds of such lawyers across the country, and list them in the Public Interest Directory I edited in 1986.Quite soon, Harvard law School students were choosing summer positions with them and eventually taking permanent positions.

The reason so many law students at selective law schools take positions with BigLaw is not that it is a more satisfying option for them. It is simply that BigLaw has convinced the law schools to take your position that it is just too difficult to find better placements for their students (of course it helps that the recruiters for BigLaw wine and dine and provide great resorts for lovely social events for law school career planning staff at the annual NALP conferences).

Debra: All true, but I continue to dispute the “shunted” theory, and I continue to be certain that law students without the gumption to resist wining, dining and social events as they seek to make career decisions are highly unlikely ever to make good lawyers – particularly in the public interest arena.  I also wonder how many better or more satisfying options there are – truly – for rookie lawyers.  There are plenty of rookie MBAs, college grads and other entrants to the work force also on the hunt for careers and, as we’ve discussed above, very few companies and even fewer nonprofits are actually hiring untrained beginners.

I don’t think the fundamental educational question is what law students envision and want.  That’s a personal question each individual has the right to answer for himself, but I think the fundamental educational question is what do we need, as a society, from our lawyers.

Ron: I agree.  I agree. I agree.

Debra: In my view, Karl Llewellyn had the right answer to this question.  In a 1942 speech given in the context of there being little call for lawyers and “no pervading appreciation that law skills can be mobilized to serve” in the war effort, Llewellyn spoke of the special skills of lawyers and the risks of viewing lawyering as “mere monopoly of the knowledge of law” rather than as “vision and sense of the whole, and skills in finding ways, smoothing friction, handling men in any situation, with speed, with sureness. . . .a craft of doing and getting things done with the law.”  That’s what I think society should demand of lawyers and what law schools should prepare lawyers to offer.

Ron: That may take only one year of law school. Take a look at the mission statement of Stanford Law School and perhaps a number of other law schools. What is a fundamental provision and one of the fundamental values of the legal profession – serve the legal needs of the public. We have had twenty years of “selective” law schools funneling 95% of their graduates to BigLaw to represent the 1% of the wealthiest of our society. I believe that is contrary to the public interest. In fact, I wonder if the government should guarantee or provide any benefit for loans that go to those attending a law school that permits that distribution of its graduates. The fact that 80% or more of those attending these law schools do not envision working for BigLaw is just an added bonus ( – :

You and I differ here on a fundamental point. You suggest that each individual is free to make his or her own choice and is solely responsible for that decision. That ignores so many of the factors that pressure law students. We all know (I think) that law schools have never tried to control their costs which have far outstripped the rise in the cost of living. We also know (I think) that the cost could immediately be reduced by one-third by eliminating the useless third year. We know that it is only BigLaw that is given access to law students as the only game that can make (or was able to make) commitments 18 months in advance. We also know that the debt burden on law students when combined with the offers of BigPay from BigLaw leads many of them to believe that BigLaw is the only “reasonable” choice. In so many ways the law school “educated” law students that BigLaw was the place to go (in part because of the indifference of faculty.

Debra:  I must argue with the notion of “funneling.”  Again, anyone who allows himself to be funneled into a career option he considers unacceptable is not someone I’d bet on to be a capable, zealous advocate – in any setting.  Starting one’s legal career in BigLaw is a proven method for gaining experience and developing and honing practical skills and work habits.  For some, it’s a career; for others, it’s a useful first step; for still others, it’s no doubt a bad fit.

I remain staunch in believing that it is up to each individual to choose for himself.  I was not funneled into BigLaw by the University of Chicago Law School or by anything or anyone else.  I made a conscious, informed choice, based on my interests and skills, to be a business lawyer.  Call me coldhearted if you like, but I have no sympathy for anyone who lets himself be funneled into doing something he does not want to do.  We are in charge of our careers, our happiness and our choices; it’s short-sighted and adolescent to attempt to blame someone or something else when we choose poorly.

If 80% don’t want to join BigLaw, then they shouldn’t.  Not only would they presumably be happier elsewhere, BigLaw would have to make some needed structural changes if the well dried up and firms actually had to work to attract new grads.

Furthermore, neither I nor my firms represented only the top 1% of the wealthiest in our society.  Our clients ran the gamut from big to small to individual, and the businesses I helped clients take public, buy, sell, expand & finance created jobs and opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people.  This is clearly in the public interest.  The law firms I worked for as a lawyer, and with as a client, also funneled (to use that term more acceptably) millions of dollars, in time & money, to a huge variety of charities and pro bono causes.  I think it is just as misguided to suggest business and the lawyers who support it are contrary to the public interest as it would be to assert that all solo practitioners are saints dedicated to furthering the public interest.

Ron:  I realize that I have made some negative generalizations about BigLaw and that there are cases where they are incorrect but I think it is fair to say that BigLaw represents BigBusiness and many small firms represent LittleIndividuals. My worldview, of course, is that it is more important to take on the cases of those with claims for violations of their human and civil rights than to work to help form successful businesses but we need both and I am simply trying to level the playing field. I appreciate that BigLaw and BigBusiness contribute to charitable causes but prefer that lawyers who wish to have the opportunity to devote 100%of their time to such efforts. (I don’t need to get into the stories of BigLaw associates who described being told they could not appear at a critical hearing for a pro bono clients because of what seemed to them a meaningless chore demanded of them by a partner.)

Debra:  There are certainly partners who make pro bono involvement difficult (just as there are multitudinous associates with no interest whatsoever in pro bono work), but all of the firms I’ve worked for as a lawyer or with as a client have healthy pro bono programs and are, in fact, casting about for associates willing to devote time to NPO boards, fund-raising efforts, case administration, etc.  We are totally in agreement, however, that lawyers who wish to have the opportunity to devote 100% of their time to such efforts do not belong in BigLaw.