The Portrait of the Lawyer as a Young Man


Last week, the WSJ Law Blog had a quick write-up on Douglas Litowitz’s recent book The Destruction of Young Lawyers, which seems to be a fabulously original stream of assertions to the effect that there are a lot of unhappy junior associates in big law firms. Shocking! Just shocking!

Now I should point out that I am a young associate at a big law firm, and I admit that I am from time to time quite miserable. It is a high-pressure job. The hours are long, and frequently your days consist of high-stakes boredom, which combines stress and monotony in a rather toxic cocktail. Some of this is structural. Big-time litigation is not possible without massive priv reviews. The billable hour creates a really cruddy set of incentives for young attorneys from a life-style point of view. However, I think that these structural defects in the legal market — especially at “elite” firms on Wall Street or K Street — have less to do with the spiritual misery of young lawyers than two other factors: lack of interest in the law and the mismatch between the dominant myths about the legal profession current in law schools and the reality of the legal profession in practice.

Of these two factors, I think that the first is more important. Lots of people go to law school who really have no business being there. The reason is that they have no interest in the law. I suspect that this may be even more decidedly the case at elite law schools than elsewhere, although I admit that this is no more than a guess. Our universities produce a tremendous number of graduates in the humanities and the social sciences who have no marketable skills beyond some smattering of writing ability and critical thinking. (There is no shame in this. I studied mainly philosophy as an undergraduate, and I am very glad that I did. On the other hand, when I graduated none of the Big Five Epistemology Firms were hiring.) Some significant subset of these essentially skilless graduates are united by equally strong aversions to mathematics and business. So they go to law school, which they vaguely understand to be different than business (what they see on The Practice doesn’t look like business). More importantly, law school is reputed to be equation-free. They didn’t even have to study math for the LSAT. When they get to law school, they discover to their everlasting professional consternation that what you study in law school is the law. As it turns out they find the law boring. Learning its substance, structure, folkways, history, or theories holds no real interest for them. But hey, they got into Harvard Law School, so they couldn’t not go, right? Three years later they emerge from saturation in a field whose only initial recommendations were “not business” and no math to find that they go into practice and spend their time with…the law. Misery and alienation result.

The second factor is the mismatch between the myths of the profession that dominate law schools and the reality of the profession in practice. In law school, the archetype of lawyerly virtue is the civil rights lawyer. A real lawyer is someone who represents the down-trodden and oppressed and uses the courts to transform the world into a better place (generally defined in vaguely leftist — but hardly radical — terms) through the application of justice. It is a heady myth, and there is much to be said for representing the down-trodden and oppressed. It gave me great pleasure to file a complaint earlier this month against a state prison system on behalf of some indigent prisoners. In practice, however, lawyers are mainly the handmaidens of commerce. They mainly represent businesses in their disputes and negotiations with other businesses. Alternatively, they sue businesses (here the plaintiff’s lawyers can act out a sort of tawdry second-string version of the civil-rights lawyer myths) for business related sins. Some of these are fairly simple, and can capture the imagination of someone who was initiated into the profession with myths of heroic civil rights lawyers. Everyone can understand the drug company that negligently poisons thousands. But more often than not, even the suits against businesses behaving badly involve arcane, businessy wrongs like violations of the securities regulations. The problem is that the law schools have not equiped their graduates with a set of myths that render the overwhelmingly commercial activities of most lawyers meaningful or ennobling. The results are the hoards of young associates who pine away in self-loathing, convinced that they have “sold out.”

The sad thing, of course, is that a good part of the spiritual misery of young lawyers is unnecessary. The law is fascinating if it is chosen for its own sake rather than as a default option for English majors desperately seeking a middle-class lifestyle, and commerce has its own nobility and dignity. The misery of priv review and the billable hour, alas, remain.

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14 Responses

  1. John Armstrong says:

    I find it interesting that “not-math” is one of your proposed big criteria. Obviously if your hypothetical college commencee had a taste for business he might try to get an MBA. Onto what career path do you think he would jump if he didn’t have an aversion to mathematics? That’s left a bit vague in your exposition.

    Also, more directly to the point I think you mean that the law is seen as being without formulas. Mathematics is more purely the distillation of logical reasoning; philosophy with right and wrong answers. I’ve gotten the distinct impression that someone with a mathematical background strong enough for a bachelor’s degree but not the masochism needed for a Ph.D. would be a particularly adept lawyer, or at least legal theorist.

  2. Blawg Wisdom says:

    yet another Essential Adivice post

    Even the lawprofs recognize the problem: too many law student don’t want to be lawyers. Our universities produce a tremendous number of graduates in the humanities and the social sciences who have no marketable skills beyond some smattering of writing…

  3. Nate Oman says:

    John: You are probably right about the usefulness of mathematics as a grounding for logic and law. One supposes that the non-math phobic might find jobs in business, finance, accounting, engineering, computer programming, etc. When I was in law school, however, I did notice the viceral hostility that a lot of students had against even the most modest attempts to mathematically formalize economic arguments about the law. They seemed to feel that it was some kind of betrayal of the implicit social contract of legal education.

  4. John Jenkins says:

    Engineering for mathematically inclined people is generally better than law. Lower up-front expenses (even in grad school, where there are assistantships which are lacking in law school) and roughly equivalent outcomes.

    Of course, I am a PSCI/PHIL guy with a business background, who could do math, and went to law school anyway because I wanted to learn about the law and I am happily toiling away at a transactional firm, so I might be outside the appropriate sample (and if you think lawyers don’t do math, check out Title 26 USC or some of the more esoteric portions of the securities laws).

  5. John Armstrong says:

    Mr. Jenkins,

    The proposed college graduate has a background in the humanities or the social sciences. As far as I know, it is nigh-on impossible for such a person — even a relatively numerate one — to go into engineering. Both graduate schools and industry are glutted with fresh graduates with bachelors’ degrees directly on-point.

    Mr. Oman,

    Finance and accounting both seem like business-school tracks, no? Should I parse the post as “business interest and some math are needed for business school, which is the major alternative to law school” rather than “business interest is needed for business school and some math is needed for other alternatives to law school”?

  6. Nate Oman says:

    John: Either interpretation seems reasonable to me ;->…

  7. Max says:

    “They mainly represent businesses in their disputes and negotiations with other businesses. Alternatively, they sue businesses (here the plaintiff’s lawyers can act out a sort of tawdry second-string version of the civil-rights lawyer myths) for business related sins.”

    Leaving out a wee piece of the puzzle? The bread and butter of the major corporate firms is defense, particularly tort insurance defense. Indeed, look no further than your own firm: “Nearly half of the lawyers in our firm devote their practices to corporate litigation. We have considerable experience in handling a wide variety of complex business litigation matters, in arbitrations, mediations, and trial and appellate courts across the country. Representation of our large corporate clients runs the gamut of commercial litigation matters — from traditional civil and criminal antitrust litigation, to toxic tort and chemical exposure cases, commercial contract disputes, and business tort cases.”

    Few aspiring lawyers dream of defending large businesses against the small businesses and individuals they’ve wronged. So two incentives have been established: (1) good money, with a chance at big money and (2) prestige.

    I have no doubt there are a lot of benefits you enjoy at such a large firm with a diverse, monied client base. Frankly, the corporate law life sounds horrible to me (see the Attorney Life/Work Balance Calculator for why), and after I graduate I’ll join a ~20 person plaintiff’s firm where billable hours are meaningless and every second you work goes directly into the case’s success and your own take home income.

    Is my choice inherently better? Certainly not. Monsanto is entitled to legal representation, big firms are often able to accomplish socially good outcomes smaller firms can’t, and there’s certainly nothing personally wrong with you choosing a large corporate firm.

    But think back to law school — is my choice anywhere near as prestigeous as your’s? It’s undeniable that the law school culture is centered around the large corporate legal world, and that it looks down upon those who choose different paths, with the exception of clerking or working in government regulation, since both are seen as methods for working at the top corporate firms.

    But here’s the important question: what percent of law students and young lawyers actually want to work at a big firm? Sure, the money is nice, but most people find the work/life balance off, and many are unwilling to smother their personal life for the 1-in-20 chance of making partner. Yet they get pulled into it anyway by the culture of law school, and end up in a job they hate because “it’s the thing to do.” Hence the misery.

  8. Nate Oman says:

    Max: I sort of agree with you. I think it is true that many law students at top law schools end up in large corporate firms by default, and IMHO this is part of the problem. People end up in law school by default and then end up on Wall Street by default. Not a good way to run your life. I don’t think, however, that doing defense work is a necessary cause of malaise among young lawyers. This is what I mean when I talk about the failure of professional myth making in the law schools. Look, I actually think that law suits and tort law perform an important function in society, but I don’t subscribe to the fiction that plaintiffs’ lawyers necessarily represent the forces of good and defense counsel are nothing more than shills for the wicked. However, if this is the vision of the world that appeals to you, by all means work in a plaintiffs’ firm. You will be much happier, I’m sure…

  9. sd says:

    Interesting discussion. I myself was a liberal arts undergrad (though with a double major in a humanities field and in biology, which is at least somewhat quantitative) who worked for a few years and got an MBA. I’m quite happy with my career path (Consultant at a Big 3 strat firm) as are the vast majority of my colleagues. Given those biases, may I suggest a very practical solution to issue #1 you’ve outlined above, drawing on the world of graduate business education:

    Stop admitting students to law school directly out of undergrad. I suspect that much of the problem of humanities / social sciences types going to law school without liking the law is that it affords them the ability to postpone the non-academic life for a few more years. Searching for a job is hard – much more frustrating and taxing than applying for more schooling, even schooling at competitive institutions. But if a post-college job search was a given for everyone not getting a Ph.D. or MD (neither of which tend to attract people who don’t have a real interest in the field), more people would suck it up and start working, and many of them would find, after the initial shock of having to get up before 10 AM and not getting to work on what they think is absolutely the most interesting thing in the world every minute of the day, that they actually like having a job. That it provides them moments of real fascination and a dignity that is hard to come by when you’ve gone straight from your parents’ house to college to law school without every being responsible for your own livelihood. After a couple years, people who really wanted to be lawyers would still go to law school.

  10. Max says:

    To clarify, I didn’t mean to say that plaintiff’s work was necessarily a better fit for most people than corporate defense. However, I do think that the social structures within the law school & early lawyer environment (including notions of prestige) overinflate the importance of corporate defense work in the minds of many students and young lawyers.

    That is to say, the social structures suggest that, say, 80% of law students should try to enter defense work at large corporate firms, with the remaining 20% scattered among government, public interest, plaintiff’s, and small firm work. I submit that fewer than 50% of all law students would, if given an opportunity to explore the issue, would choose such a lifestyle. But the social structures of law school compel students to either enter that world or feel inferior for not being able to enter it. As such, there’s a substantial number of law students made miserable by a misplaced interest in large corporate firm defense work.

    Many students learn this the hard way — hence the >90% attrition rate at large corporate firms. Many stay with it since it’s all they know, while many blame the law entirely for their misery and not their particular field.

    Again, I’m not trying to insult corporate defense work or say it is better or worse than any other legal work. I’m suggesting that too many students are shuffled into it unknowingly, since the social structure of law school confers outsized prestige on it and does not provide students an opportunity to explore other options.

  11. Litowitz says:

    Nate — What do you mean “seems to be”? Does that mean you haven’t read my book?

    It’s about the structural features of the entire system (law school curriculum, bar exam, firm structure) that create unhappiness. It is not an assertion of unhappiness but rather an attempt to go below the assertion to explain why. You’d probably enjoy it.

    –Doug Litowitz,

    Last week, the WSJ Law Blog had a quick write-up on Douglas Litowitz’s recent book The Destruction of Young Lawyers, which seems to be a fabulously original stream of assertions to the effect that there are a lot of unhappy junior associates in big law firms. Shocking! Just shocking!

  12. Nate Oman says:

    Doug: Of course I haven’t read the book! I read the WSJ Blog post and the review in the New York Law Journal. (BTW, the final quote by the guy talking about how transactional lawyers are “clogging the profession” was really bizarre.) No doubt I would enjoy the book. I will put it on my reading list; and given the fact that it seems to be short, I might actually get around to reading it. (Although, after reading Glendon’s and Kronman’s books a couple of years back, I have to admit that I soured a little bit on the whole the-legal-profession-is-going-to-the-dogs genre.)

  13. sparkyposter says:

    I’d add one other point about why people go to and stay with big firms: risk aversion. There are those people who drift into law school and presumably drift into big firms, but that analysis leaves out those people who are more cautious, which is what drove them to law in the first place. And, once one has gone down the road of investing the time and money in law school and then investing in a career at a big firm, it becomes increasingly difficult to risk one’s income and status.

    For myself, I didn’t find law itself boring, but I sure did find the practice of law at a large firm boring in that a few moments of excitement (or terror) didn’t make up for the overwhelming tedium.

  14. Uncle Sam says:

    Lol @ the deference to corporate defense. Do you people think there are a lot of trumped up class action suits regarding toxic chemical exposure that the author’s firm have heroically squelched? For cases like that to be serious enough to warrant a firm like his there has to be thorough documentation of wrongful injury and death. People like the author of this post aren’t hired to determine whether a corporation did wrong, they’re hired on the basis of how well they can manipulate the law to protect their client’s bottom line.

    Nobody subscribes to the fiction that all corporate defenders are automatically shills and all plaintiffs have integrity, but you’re going to find a lot more of them in one camp than in the other.

    This cynical dismissal of the math averse liberal arts and straw man portrayal of activist law as a heady myth which doesn’t exist in the objective, quantitative legal world is typical biglaw pablum. These are the kind of narratives these types of lawyers sell to themselves and others to further marginalize lawyers in the public sector, and to dissuade future law students from heading in that more fulfilling and socially valuable direction in the face of financial uncertainty. Not all lawyers have to be handmaidens of commerce. Some are instruments of peace, and deliverers of justice.