Where are the plaintiff firms?

BY GEORGE FARAH

For those of you who came to Harvard Law School with the hope of eventually working at a prestigious corporate law firm, negotiating the minutiae of mergers and acquisitions, and defending multinational corporations from pesky ambulance chasers, more power to you. You came to the right school.

For the rest of us, however, Harvard Law School is a messy place. Many of us anticipated romantic legal careers immersed in the pursuit of justice. Many of us expected to serve vulnerable populations and defend inalienable constitutional rights. Many of us thought the law was more than a means to make money. But with OCS and OPIA serving as our seemingly oppositional career guidance counselors, we became convinced that we had to make a choice: sell out for piles of cash or sacrifice the money for noble work. Unwilling to relinquish the dough, most of us dejectedly go corporate. “Too often we take eager, idealistic law students and turn out jaded, bored, greedy J.D.s who just want to make money,” said retired professor emeritus Roger D. Fisher.

The real tragedy of this process, however, is that it’s entirely unnecessary.

There are about 600 respectable plaintiff firms sometimes called “private public interest firms” in the United States, and many of them are efficiently catalogued at the website www.Just-Advocates.com. (Just Advocates is the brainchild of Professor Jon Hanson and several of his students.)

These firms represent plaintiffs in lawsuits against corporations, governments and other institutions. Most of them focus on making systemic changes through litigation, and they vary significantly in practice areas and character. Milberg Weiss, the dominant private prosecutor of securities fraud and the lead counsel in the Enron lawsuits, employs over 130 attorneys and 15 investigators in six cities, and offers starting salaries of $125,000. By contrast, the Law Offices of Masry and Vititoe, where Erin Brokovich still works, consists of two attorneys and support staff who focus almost exclusively on toxic tort cases in Southern California.

There are dozens of other compelling practice areas, from civil rights to whistleblower protection to worker’s compensation to product liability to sexual harassment to antitrust to children’s rights to First Amendment. Berger & Montague, for example, is a 55-attorney firm in Philadelphia that files class-action lawsuits against American corporations that have committed gross human rights abuses abroad.

For students who lack the courage or financial security to pursue a career in the non-profit community, these respected plaintiff firms offer an attractive third option. Starting salaries range from $45,000 to $125,000, with mid-size firms paying about $75,000. The office culture is often friendly and laid-back, and the track to partnership is typically less competitive than at corporate firms. On average, attorneys at plaintiff firms work 250 hours less a year than corporate attorneys, and most of them are emotionally invested in their work – committed, somehow, to the pursuit of justice.

So, where are all the good plaintiff firms? And why aren’t droves of Harvard law students chasing after them (or eventually forming them)? Some of the blame rests squarely on students’ shoulders. Most Harvard law students have rarely deviated from the paths set out before them; on the contrary, they have succeeded by adopting popular notions of achievement and obeying institutional authority. Now, the yellow brick road leads to Cravath Swaine & Moore.

Many HLS students, however, don’t even know what plaintiff firms are, and Harvard Law School itself is responsible for the invisibility of plaintiff firm career options on campus. HLS structurally and culturally dismisses the other often more just half of private practice. OCS’s roster is overwhelmingly dominated by corporate law firms OCS’s website even directs students interested in plaintiff firms to www.Just-Advocates.com and OPIA only cursorily addresses plaintiff firm career options, preferring to steer the handful of brave and honorable students to nonprofit and government jobs.

Students are unlikely to learn much about plaintiff firms outside the career guidance offices. Social events are often sponsored by corporate law firms; campus halls are often named after corporate law firms; and trade magazines focus on and rank corporate law firms. Though students are constantly reminded of the adversarial nature of the American legal process, many of them are entirely unfamiliar with the law firms representing the “other side.”

The lack of a pro-plaintiff firm educative force and of a distinct plaintiff-firm recruitment process on campus are significant deficiencies that reinforce oversimplified characterizations of Harvard Law School as more of an uninspiring trade school and less of an instrument of justice.

The administration needs to create a new career guidance counselor position for the exclusive purpose of advising students about plaintiff firm job options. This counselor would educate the student body about respected plaintiff firms and supervise a separate recruiting process for interested students. Such a position could be jointly sponsored by OPIA and OCS, highlighting the notion that many plaintiff firms for those with progressive leanings constitute a marriage of financial security and the pursuit of justice.

Today, Harvard Law School graduates hundreds of corporate lawyers destined for work that they find meaningless and sometimes harmful. Career guidance about plaintiff firms would attract many of these students, who want vacations in Paris without having to suffocate their consciences at the workplace.

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