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.