A more inclusive vision of the legal profession
September 20th, 2012 by Briana Cummings
Glitz and glamor
One night during my first couple weeks at law school, my First Law Professor Ever — scion of an old-world order who still enjoys a nightly bourbon and cigar — invited my class of about 150 people, plus guests, to the offices of a prestigious New York City law firm for a little soiree overlooking the city.
Somewhere between a sip of wine and a bite of cheese, FLPE stopped us all for a moment to welcome us to the profession. Sweeping his arms toward the sparkling night vista before us — the towering skyscrapers of the Financial District, the East River, the Brooklyn Bridge, the thousands of tiny pinpricks of light below — he finished off his little speech with a stentorian, “You’ve made it! The world is your oyster!”
It was perhaps the setting — in a swanky law firm, with the city at our feet — and his own personal connections to the rich and powerful, more than his actual intended meaning, that conveyed the message that what “You’ve made it!” meant was that we had made it into an elite club, a special place others didn’t have access to.
Whether or not this was what FLPE was trying to say, this message of exclusivity was reinforced over the next several years by the alcohol-filled recruiting events the big law firms held for us at city bars all over Manhattan, the race to secure a job at the firms with the highest rankings, and the constant ranking and sorting at the heart of the law school “curriculum” itself — the rigid grading curve, selections for Law Review, competitions for moot court prizes, etc. etc.
The emperor’s new clothes?
It is by now a cliche that this world of selectivity lures in newcomers with promises of prestige, exclusivity, and wealth. But increasingly — as both the demographics of the profession and the social and economic context around it changes — these promises seem more and more like false gods.
First, unemployment rates among recent law graduates are at the highest they have ever been in nearly twenty years. Less than 65 percent of law school graduates hold positions requiring a law degree. One source — actually two — estimated that only 33.75% of all 2011 ABA law school graduates were in real legal jobs nine months after graduation.
Meanwhile, employed lawyers are the most frequently depressed occupational group in the United States. In 1996, lawyers overtook dentists as the profession with the highest rate of suicide. The ABA estimates that 15-20% of U.S. lawyers suffer from alcoholism or substance abuse. Seven in ten lawyers responding to a California Lawyers magazine poll said they would change careers if the opportunity arose. The rates of unhappiness among women and minorities in the profession is typically higher than those of white men.
Statistically speaking, law students are liable to end up under- or unemployed and/or clinically depressed. So . . . is the world our oyster?
Embracing new dreams
I do think the world is our oyster, but not because, as lawyers, we’ve entered some exclusive inner sanctum of power. On the contrary, I think the world is our oyster because we’ve started to break down the walls around this inner sanctum, gain access to the tools the law gives us, and make them more widely accessible to those who need them. Perhaps this is what FLPE really meant when he said, “The world is your oyster.”
I think this new vision of the kind of power the legal profession gives us is catching on.
On Friday I met with a law professor whose wife formerly worked in career services at an Ivy League law school. While working there, she frequently got calls from alums who were three or four years into their jobs in big firms and clinically depressed. They wondered, Could she tell them how to find a public interest job?
Last summer I met a woman who went to work at a large prestigious firm after graduating from Columbia Law School. She became catatonically depressed in the firm’s hostile environment and left it to go pick green beans in Jamaica. She is now the happy owner of an organic catering business.
Last spring an eighth-year associate at a large New York firm told me he was quitting to start his own company — right when he was about to make partner — because the long hours left him no time to find a wife and start a family, and because, when his grandchildren asked him what he did with his life, he wanted to be able to say something more than that he wrote contracts for big banks.
A few months ago I met a public interest lawyer in a nonprofit in California. When I asked him why he left his large New York firm after four years, he said it was because whenever he worked on a pro bono case with — or against — a public interest lawyer, he was always jealous of them. He wanted their life.
I don’t build my dreams on big fancy offices and a bulging bank account, and, increasingly, I’m not sure how many of my peers do either — at least after a few years in the profession. Like me, it seems, they come to aspire instead to building family, relationships, purposefulness — a well-rounded, spiritually, physically, and emotionally fulfilling life. We don’t want to be kings. We just want to be . . . comfortable.
I can’t count the number of times people have told me that if I don’t think a traditional legal career is my cup of tea, I should find another profession. But I’d still like to believe that the law — which touches the lives of all of us, in so many ways — of any profession, should be a profession that can accommodate my kind of dream, too. If it isn’t particularly accommodating for me yet, or for so many others in the profession, is our only choice to either jump ship or just mold ourselves to its image — or can we instead mold the profession in our image?