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Friday, January 17, 2020

*Does* Paul, Weiss "Need" Harvard Law?

No doubt there are many things one could say about this Harvard Law School student protest against Paul, Weiss designed to urge it to drop ExxonMobil as a client. Many of those observations would depend on one's substantive and political views and would be too obvious to need saying and convincing only to one's allies, so let's skip it. (Although one want to might read the actual opinion dismissing claims against that company and ask whether the merits of some of that litigation are that great. State attorneys general have been known from time to time to file lawsuits that have more to do with political optics and the questionable use of state power than with an interest in actually seeking a remedy.) And the first thing I would say is that of course the students are free to urge whatever they want, whether they represent one or one hundred percent of the student body. But I would like to ask two questions.

The first is to question the supposition put forward by a HLS law student (who I can hardly blame either for framing things this way or believing the statement, given our culture): that the students recruited by big firms at these or any other elite law school are "the future lawyers they need to stay on top of their field." I don't doubt their intelligence: in my brief time studying and teaching at such schools, I really did find the students highly smart, talented, and hard-working, and this was true not just of the best students but of a large percentage of them. The most relevant comparison between law school student bodies is with the "middle" of the class, and the middle at these elite schools is very impressive. But I have found that the same thing is true, at a minimum, of the top students at every law school I have taught at, no matter where it is on the US News rankings. Students choose to go to different schools for many reasons. Some have family obligations or work obligations, or financial limitations. Some have extraordinary talents but, perhaps because they are first-generation students who don't come from professional-managerial-elite families, lack social capital of a certain kind. They haven't been told about the advantages that accrue disproportionately to going to an elite school, or that employers economize on search costs by sticking with a few conventional schools, or that judges do the same in selecting the clerks who will end up commanding job-seeking advantages. But they bring other advantages that some of the students at top schools may not have. They are hungry and ambitious. They don't take such job opportunities for granted. They don't take such salaries for granted, and think working their asses off in return is not an injustice or inhumanity but a reasonable return and an enormous opportunity. They may be less likely to leave after three or four years and thus less likely to take for granted the enormous early investment made in them by the firms. They may get their sense of moral and social identity and satisfaction elsewhere than their jobs and job status--say, in working through a church or local community or in many other places.   

When I worked at one of the big firms and was involved in summer associate hiring, at least some colleagues (not all, of course) wouldn't even deign to look at an applicant who didn't come from one of a very few schools. I'm not sure they had a reason for this, other than convention and a narrow band of life experience limited to those schools. But despite the added search costs, and keeping in mind that many students at top schools surely view things differently than the negative caricature of entitlement I've offered, it has long seemed to me that top law firms looking not just for talented students but also for a good long-term investment in the future of their firm would be better off picking off the top students at the schools they most often seem to ignore. They might have to invest more in certain kinds of training. But they would still get terrific raw material, and might find that these hires would have more commitment, gratitude, ambition, and seriousness about the work than some of their conventional hires. A typical rejoinder is that there is a benefit to these firms in having students from the top schools. It reassures clients that they are getting the best of the bet and makes these firms look as elite as their competitor firms. Such hires are thus safe picks. But that's just one factor to consider, and it must be balanced against the actual benefits they might get from going against the grain. A firm that eschewed the safe and comfortable path and took a flier on top students at these non-"top" schools might find that such a strategy would enable it to do great instead of just well. In any event, and without meaning any ill will to the students at the usual top schools, it is far from clear to me that these are the students these firms "need." This is common rhetoric and a common assumption, but it shouldn't be taken for granted.

My second question is: What, exactly, is moral seriousness? The position of these students has a high cosmetic appearance of ostensible moral seriousness. But it might also be seen as an example of the kinds of phenomena that have been discussed in connection with the meritocracy: of actual or self-described progressives who are "under meritocracy’s thumb . . . captives who embrace their captor, through a sort of ideological Stockholm syndrome,” and whose complaints and prescriptions tend to demand certain changes (especially regarding horizontal equality) while leaving other perquisites and prerogatives (especially regarding questions of vertical equality and social class) blissfully under-examined and undisturbed. It may be nice to dream of and work for a world in which all owners of BMWs or Teslas, or residents of Georgetown or Chevy Chase or Palo Alto, represent a remarkably diverse group of people. But it seems a little incomplete, and rather conveniently so. I have no objection as such to worrying about the representation of a particular client or about arbitration agreements for summer associates. But if that is enough to buy one off, while leaving a hundred other corporate clients in place and unquestioned and not, say, demanding that secretaries and mailroom workers get paid as well as or better than summer associates, then it seems to me that this form of moral seriousness might have as much or more to do with one's desire to have one's luxurious cake, and feel (or look) virtuous while eating it, than with a more genuine and thoroughgoing form of moral seriousness.                   

Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 17, 2020 at 10:05 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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