Working For the Man, Pt. I
I've been meaning to write some sort of response to Matt Yglesias' post deriding the attorneys representing the Saudi government. I was all set to bluster a defense of the practice, but I've decided not to. Instead, a frank admission of the obvious: almost all law firms make a lot of money representing clients who engage in legally and morally questionable conduct. That's one good reason, after all, that they would need lawyers. And lawyers make their money by denying, excusing, and defending this conduct.
I'm not just talking about the Saudis (whose retained legal counsel, when you count all the various royals individually, encompass much of the DC legal scene, including my firm). I'm talking about tobacco, firearms, pharmaceuticals, insurance, oil, etc, etc. It is guaranteed that behind every big corporation, hated by liberals, stands a law firm (or two or three).
This ought to be a real problem for a lot of young, liberal attorneys and law students, and yet I think most rationalize it away without much regret. The firm I'm going to for the summer, without giving too much away, has a client list guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of any decent liberal.
And yet when Matt made his post, my immediate response was to defend these attorneys, defend the work they do, and chastise him for being naive. I still think he went too far:
I have a very hard time seeing how they live with themselves. Worse, though, is that one imagines they just show up at social events all the time, have friends, etc., when they really deserve a good shunning by regular people.
But his underlying point is quite valid. One of the reasons I was most hesitant to come to law school at all was because everyone gets sucked into working for law firms (read Broken Contract for a spot-on account of this phenomenon). Only when I knew that I'd be serving in the Army JAG Corps, and thus unable to "sell out," did I give in and come to law school.
And what has happened? I've become quite enamored with this law firm. I love the people. I am really interested in the work they do. White collar criminal defense, for example, really interests me. And what is it? What is it really? A few years ago I would have told you it was defending rich people who have stolen money they didn't need and want to use their wealth to get away with it. But it turns out, if you rationalize away the moral questions ("everyone deserves a lawyer"), you can have a lot of fun and make a lot of money doing it. And to your average law student, steeped in debt and bored to death, that is a pretty attractive deal. Irresistible, in fact.
I'll resist of course, because no matter what I want, the 4-year Army committment says so. Even without it, I like to think I would have opted for a more crusading path. But I can't say that for sure. And it is sad to think that I might need to fall back on the fact that I can't work for these law firms, rather than have the strength and courage to turn down the money and prestige out of moral conviction. No more rationalization from me.
UPDATE: Waddling Thunder has some interesting thoughts:
It's not even a moral question for me - the moment lawyers begin making self righteous judgments more than very occasionally about who we are and aren't going to represent zealously, we endanger the rule of law.
I don't really disagree with this, and insofar as the "zealously" is supposed to indicate full and vigorous representation of clients we've already agreed to represent, I agree completely. But I think WT is looking at a different stage of decision-making than I was, though perhaps he's giving a better response to Matt Yglesias' original post. The stage I'm thinking about is when a law student decides where to practice. I think that got pushed aside by WT's modifier of "if I practiced the requisite kind of law." If I'm working in Legal Aid, or at the ACLU, or in the US Attorney's office, or in the Army JAG Corps, or in hundreds of other jobs, then there won't even be an opportunity for the Saudis/Enron/Big Tobacco/et al to try and hire me.
So I was thinking not so much about the discretion an attorney would exercise in which clients to take, but in which jobs to pursue in the first place. I'm not condemning those who choose law firms, heck, that's all my friends. But I do think that something bad is going on, which is this: thousands of law students show up to law school with some notion of potentially doing public service or public sector work. Only a handful do. And in between those two stages, there is rarely a genuine struggle between liberal crusading ideals on the one hand and pro-firm considerations on the other. Instead, crushing debt and seductive recruitment eliminate the need to even make a choice. The whole process literally makes it seem like going to a law firm is preordained destiny, and you have to make a very strong, concerted effort to get off that path. That's what I object to, that most of my friends are going to end up at law firms and they will have never really grappled with a simple question: why?
UPDATE II: WT has responded with further thoughts, which I appreciate, though I think we're starting to talk past each other. Like him, I think that those who have no problems with corporations ought not feel any remorse or guilt about working for law firms representing those corporations. That's where I part company with Yglesias, who thinks that people ought to feel ashamed because he has problems with their clients. That's not what I'm trying to get at with my post.
Instead, I simply regret that many of those who fall into the category of "don't like these corporations" or "may have some problems with some corporations" don't engage in a serious internal dialogue about whether working in a firm is right for them. It is probably safe to assume that those who don't have a problem with corporations in the first place won't have problems with working for a firm, but it is also nice to see them engage in critical self-analysis. WT obviously has, and he has come out thinking that working for a firm can be just as (if not more) morally redeeming as any public interest work. That's perfectly fine with me, I'm not even sure my personal ethics disagree with that, and nothing I said above was intended to suggest otherwise.
However, my objection is that law school does not encourage law students to actively make that choice, to engage in the debate that WT and I (and Matt Yglesias) are engaging in. Instead, there is a one-way locomotive headed for Destination Law Firm. As such, many students never decide that a law firm is right for them. They just go with the flow and that's where they end up. I suppose I'm objecting just on autonomy grounds, lamenting the lack of conscious decision-making.
So much time is spent choosing between firms, and little, if any, is spent actually choosing to work for a law firm in the first place. It is like going to college. I never actively chose to college. When applications became available, I just started filling them out and mailing them in. Spent hours trying to decide which to apply to, and then which to attend. Never once did I have an internal dialogue about whether college was actually best for me, or if I should take a year off before hand. It was a given. And even though I'm pretty sure I would have attended Harvard without taking any time off anyway, I still regret the fact that I let that decision be made without even recognizing all the options. It makes me feel less autonomous. That's how I think law firms are for most law students.
Now for those who share WT's view of big corporations (but not his knack for self-reflection), I guess this is not really such a big deal. They went with the flow, and it took them where they probably would have gone anyway. Kudos to them. I still regret the lack of autonomous decision-making, but it's probably harmless here.
For those who entered law school with different ideals, I do think it objectionable that they end up working for a law firm without having ever sat down and considered why they were doing so. Part of the blame rests with law schools for gleefully submitting to a worldview that sees Big Firm as the top job prospect, part of it rests with the tremendous debt that many have to take on to attend, and part of it rests with students for being so seduced by money and prestige that they failed to notice that their train had changed tracks. It is okay with me if a law student chooses to make that change.
Again, just so its clear: if every single law student who came to law school thinking they'd work for Legal Aid ended up working for a law firm because they had actively weighed all their options and decided that was best, I would have no objection. But I think that is far from the reality of what goes on, and that leaves me much room for concern.