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: As I have mentioned often, 95% of the women (and the men) who have graduated from “selective” law schools (not the best, just the ones difficult to get into) start out overrepresenting the 1% wealthiest of society while most of society has no access to lawyers.
Debra: I’d like to see the data supporting that statement, which seems unlikely to me. Even if you’re correct about that, however, there are plenty of lawyers in the US and plenty of law students in US law schools. Different societal incentives – like decent paychecks, prestige, availability of training, etc. – would benefit public interest law positions just as they would benefit teachers, social workers, day care workers, nurses and every other underappreciated career in our overly money-focused society. But the choice of where to devote one’s career efforts remains, thankfully, a personal one. Requiring anyone to pursue a career path he does not want to pursue is as wrong and short-sighted as barring him from going after one he does want to pursue.
Ron: I think that the law students/lawyers that I know most intimately are those that graduated from law school since 1986. From 1984 to 1994 I spoke to individual students, made presentations to classes of students, spoke at student conferences, worked with NALP career planners and spoke to faculty at law schools. There is no doubt in my mind that upwards of 80% of law students at the selective law schools had no interest in working in BigLaw. Much of what you criticize associates for can be attributed to the reality that so many of them never wanted to be there in the first place.
Debra: Then what on earth were they doing there? Who held a gun to their heads? If they didn’t want to be there, it was incumbent on them to be elsewhere or to make the best of the situation in which they put themselves, not to whine about having made a poor choice. (I feel compelled to note as well that they were happy enough to collect their outsized paychecks.)
Why would BigLaw have any responsibility whatsoever to tailor itself to the whims of a bunch of highly paid whiners without either the long-term commitment to the practice or the brains, courage and initiative to choose what they actually wanted in the first place?
Ron: That is the subject of my book and many others. The fault begins with the deficient education system (public primarily) which has failed miserable in teaching critical thinking but has done a magnificent job in training kids to be lemmings. Just do what you are told to do to get to the best college, do the best to get to the best law school, do the best to get to the best law firm. Hold on, I hate it here, what happened?
Debra: All I can say here – and I say it with all due respect – is baloney. I remain certain that anyone without the strength of character, initiative, critical thinking skills and balls to make his or her own decisions will never make a good lawyer – regardless of where he or she starts out after law school. My law school classmates seemed to have no trouble thinking for themselves 30 years ago, and I have reason to believe (based on my own two 20-something children and the majority of their friends) that young people are no less capable of doing so today.
Ron: My book, Lawful Pursuit, Careers in Public Interest Law, is a guide on how to avoid those aspects of law school that will pressure you into a job in BigLaw and divert you from what you hoped to do when you entered law school. Those aspects include no mission of the law school, no teaching of skills, no teaching of values, no teaching of career planning, a massive on-campus interview program, no feedback about the dissatisfaction of alumni/ae in BigLaw and high debt.
Debra: This is great. I’m sure your book is very helpful. To suggest, however, that the current system is some sort of evil cabal seeking to swallow innocents who have no opportunity to escape its clutches is disrespectful to the intelligence and free will of law students.
Obviously, the BigLaw approach is not for everyone, but it’s specious, I think, for anyone to slam BigLaw for its failure to babysit with people unwilling to do what it takes to succeed there. And, honestly? It wasn’t that hard. With a true interest in the work and a zeal to learn, improve and excel, it was quite doable, as well as highly rewarding and satisfying, even for a woman like me who was (and is) also a wife and the mother of two kids.
Ron: While there were some for which this was a good choice, over the years there were surveys and articles about the extraordinary high degree of dissatisfaction of associates in BigLaw.
Debra: You know the media – it loves a negative story more than a positive story every time. In addition, survey results can easily be skewed by the nature of the questions asked. There is always room for improvement in any institutional setting.
It is also a characteristic of post-baby-boomer generations that they are not willing to work as hard as baby boomers. This is a healthy thing in many ways, but the generational differences in BigLaw between management and new hires remain large and largely unresolved. I’ve worked with hundreds of people who, all things considered, were – and are – content with their BigLaw choice. The overall discontent may well be overstated, however virulent in any individual person. Even if it’s not overstated, it would hardly be surprising, would it, if you’re correct about 80% of post-86 LS grads not wanting to be in big firms in the first place (and, I guess, there just for the money).
Ron: I am confident restating that the percentage of those deeply unhappy at BigLaw has been extraordinarily high over the last two decades (and probably higher today during the current economic downturn.) I also agree with you that there are probably many who are content at BigLaw but, as you have said, it’s not about them. It’s about the needs of society. Fortunately, there is a coincidence and overlap of those who are dissatisfied and those who want to help deliver legal services to the public.
I spoke to the entering class at Notre Dame Law School. I asked about their career plans. The plurality wanted to represent women and children. Does any law school ask them (or the men)? Does any law school care? What if the answer is that a majority want to represent women, children and men in human and civil rights areas such as housing, education, family, healthcare, environmental, employment discrimination, plaintiff injury and gay rights?
Debra: I question the notion that a plurality of law students have the career goals you’ve described. They may say they want to represent women and children (although that surprises me too), but I doubt they mean in the direct representation way you’ve outlined. If they do, they’re not likely to find satisfaction because that’s a very romantic – and quixotic – notion of how to improve the lot of women and children in the world.
Ron: And yet that’s the career path that thousands of lawyers around the country have followed. In fact, I was a divorce lawyer from 1970 to 1990 but thought that the adversary system was a totally inappropriate way of handling a divorce so in the mid-70’s we started something called divorce mediation. Others in legal services and in organizations have taken on major reform in areas such as gay marriage.
Debra: It’s a fine career path for people who have developed the necessary judgment, perspective and experience to do it capably. My question is where you think new lawyers will develop those qualities and gain that experience. On the job without supervision? Yikes!
The creation of jobs, the formulation and implementation of sensible and beneficial education, healthcare, housing, daycare, environmental and other policies, and the zealous representation of victims of civil rights abuses cannot be effectively undertaken by green law school grads with no experience of business, economics, the means of production or the mechanics of capital.
Moreover, while many of the lawyers who have followed this career path have undoubtedly helped individuals, which is great, I am certain that to effect lasting reform, it’s necessary to have lawyers working systemically in addition to one plaintiff/client at a time.
Ron: That is correct so much of what I have written is focused on the deficiencies of legal education. I urge is the restructuring of legal education so that students are taught by qualified instructors and perform the skills they need during law school. With that training, they will have the confidence (that few graduates have) to enable them to begin to look for mentors and support to represent individuals on graduation.
Debra: No disagreement here. Law schools could do a much better job. But whether it’s apprenticeship of the kind you describe or of the BigLaw variety, new grads must still be exposed to a variety of clients, colleagues, cases, opinions & practical experiences in order to develop the judgment that characterizes all capable practitioners.
BigLaw is an obvious and proven place to gain this exposure, as we’ve discussed. With initiative and patience, new grads could, I’m sure, also develop it elsewhere. I have my doubts, however, that new grads without enough initiative to make good choices for themselves or to take advantage of what BigLaw has to offer them in this regard will somehow manage to do what it takes to research, identify, seek and find it in the big outside world.
Law schools could do a much better job of grounding students with this sort of knowledge, but they can’t provide the perspective and judgment that come from practical experience with a variety of business clients and legal and financial colleagues. Neither can practicing solo. Small firms that do sophisticated legal work and large firms are the only places I know of where this kind of experience is readily available to anyone who wants – and is willing to do what it takes – to grab it.
Ron: With the media laser focus on what happens in BigLaw, what do we really know about the abilities of the hundreds of thousands who practice in firms of 5 or less lawyers?
Debra: Speaking from the standpoint of a business client, we have neither the time nor the money nor the inclination to interview, discern the relative skills of, or try out any of these thousands. If they can find a way to demonstrate their fitness and suitability to handle our matters – as the “BigLaw refugee” firms can and do – we’ll hire them, but otherwise we don’t need them. Even if they’re superior to BigLaw, which has not been my experience, the cost-benefit ratio of determining that is out of whack for a business client. Going with BigLaw’s proven track record for delivering results and negotiating mutually beneficial cost & service arrangements with them is the efficient, cost-effective choice, as well as the path of least resistance.
From the standpoint of a new LS grad, how is he going to determine outside the ranks of BigLaw where the mentoring and training will be first-rate and where it will falter? Say what you will about BigLaw, virtually no one who succeeds and remains in that environment is a poor lawyer with only one area of experience. The same cannot be said of every lawyer practicing on his own. It would be a craps shoot to pick a mentor from among those ranks.
Let’s not forget, too, that slick ambulance chasers do as much to harm the reputation of the profession as smug BigLaw fatcats – and there are more of the former. A knee-jerk bias against BigLaw is as flawed as a knee-jerk bias for it.