A Conversation About Money

Two 2Ls from the same section sat down to talk money and the legal profession.

HLS 1: Last summer I worked at a public defender’s office in NYC. I lived with my parents and received $3280 SPIF funding for the whole summer. Next summer I am working for a different public defender office in NYC (which can’t pay me) and imagine I will receive the same amount from SPIF, so I will live with my parents again.

HLS 2: Last summer I worked at a small boutique law firm in NYC. I was paid $14000 for the whole summer. I lived in a studio in Chelsea, and my total rent for the summer was $4856. Next summer I am working for
a biglaw firm in NYC, and my salary will be $3,077/week for 10 weeks. I will likely be in a similar living situation and paying about the same rent as last summer, which was about $5000.

HLS 1: I guess I want to ask you if you think about this ever or a lot or sometimes? By “this” I mean both how weird it is that some HLS students make like a thousand percent more for doing more or less the same work. And also by “this” I mean that you (and by you I mean similarly situated students) have a net profit after the summer while many of us are further in debt.

HLS 2: I don’t think about the disparity in pay for HLS students in the public sector v. the private sector because I always knew that I wanted to work in the private sector.

HLS 1: Fine, and but so now that we are talking about it….?

HLS 2: I don’t know the details of LIPP. When I think about my summer salary & the salary I will be making after I graduate, it is always in relation to the loans I am taking on for law school. My parents have been very generous in terms of paying for my education. My parents paid for college and still support me now, but I didn’t want them to pay for my law school tuition. I decided to take on loans to pay for my law school education because I didn’t want to be guilt-tripped by my parents if I decided to pursue a less well-compensated job in law (as compared to working in biglaw) and or if I decided to forego law as a career altogether. The ability to be financially independent was one of the most important three reasons I decided to pursue law as a career, and I didn’t want to compromise that financial independence by having my parents pay for law school.

HLS 1: So do you have a sense of how long after graduation you can pay off your loans working at the salary you expect to have?

HLS 2: I think it would take me 2-3 years to pay off my loans.

HLS 1: But then you want to stay in the private sector even after that right?

HLS 2: Yes, but if I decided that I didn’t like working at a law firm, the fact that I had paid off my loans after 2-3 years would make me more likely to accept a private sector job that paid less, like an in-house position.

HLS 1: I want to talk about the idea of labor, though, for a second. I want to try and get to the bottom of how two peers, similarly educated (we even went to similar undergrads) are being compensated for their labor at such disparate rates. Obviously we can’t really talk about what our hours/life will be like after we graduate, but do you think about that? Or do you have an idea? Leaving aside the fact that just your sector has lots and lots more money.

HLS 2: I think there’s an idea in our culture that if you are doing a job you love that makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning and get to work, then it’s okay for you to be compensated less for it in a monetary sense, because you’re also getting compensated in a different sense. I think for law students there’s an assumption that if you are working in the private sector, you don’t have that type of love/excitement for your work and thus something else has to attract you to the job. I remember during 1L J-term at law firm receptions when 1Ls would tentatively express what practice areas they were interested in, and I could sense the ambivalence and lack of substantive knowledge.

HLS 1: Whoa that’s interesting. Are you saying that you don’t really have an interest or passion for what you are doing/are going to do?

HLS 2: I think I do because entertainment law bears a substantial relation to my personal interests (music, movies, TV, etc.) and my extracurricular in undergrad. I doubt this is so for most people who are going to be working in securities, M&A, capital markets, etc. Early on in 1L year, when I would speak to 1Ls who knew they wanted to work in the public sector, it was apparent that they had a very specific idea of what field they wanted to work in, like immigrants’ rights, reproductive justice, etc. I sensed a stark contrast in focus and passion between law students going into the private sector & public sector. So I think when you weigh public or private the question is really do you want to make a ton of money or not? The passion part only comes in after you answer the first question. So the first thing you have to ask yourself is do you want to make a ton of money? If the answer is no, then you can figure out what your passion is.

HLS 1: How does having a clear idea of what you want to do relate to getting paid less?

HLS 2: I think having a clear idea of what you want to do enables you to make better decisions. More-informed decisions about the tradeoffs that you are willing to take on.

HLS 1: But the tradeoff between “enjoying what you do” and making a ton of money seems different than the tradeoff other students make, which is the tradeoff between working to solve social injustice and making a living wage. How is that a fair tradeoff?

HLS 2: I don’t think it’s a fair tradeoff! But I think people have a sense that they worked really hard to get where they are and they deserve to be paid at the level they are being paid. They got into the best school and are in a super privileged position, so it seems like a lot to ask that they take that step to work in the public sector. Even if you do realize there are these disparities, it seems like a really big choice. People don’t think of working at a big law firm as hurting society, the connection isn’t that direct. I think for banks it’s much more clear. Like “whoa, I might work for a firm but I would never work for a bank.” There’s such a direct connection right now with the recession, and hurting people who were already in a bad position. But I don’t think people see that connection for law firms.

HLS 1: So do you think people genuinely don’t think about the inequalities in society? Or the role of law firms in perpetuating those inequalities? That seems crazy to me.

HLS 2: I think so. Even the first year of law school I was shocked to read, like, Civ Pro footnotes about what percentage of people receive competent representation in court. I don’t remember ever studying it or really having a sense of it until fairly recently. And I also think that if you don’t have that awareness since you are younger, like 9 maybe, it won’t provide that drive to work in the public interest. Some people are just better at doing those things than others.

HLS 1: I have the sense that people want to make a lot of money.

HLS 2: I hear a lot from people in interviews that if you really want to make a lot of money, don’t be a lawyer, be a banker. You wouldn’t be in lock step – from law school etc. I think a lot of people at HLS just don’t want to be bankers.

HLS 1: So they want to make a lot of money, but they don’t want to be hated like bankers.

HLS 1: Yeah! I think so. Especially these days. I’ve talked to some people in law school who were like “I probably should have gone to business school.” I mean for law school you don’t have to have any idea what you want out of it – all you have to do is take the LSAT and write a silly essay. It’s not like you learn what it means to be a public defender, or a securities lawyer, in law school the way that medical students learn what it means to be a cardiac surgeon.

HLS 1: Do you think its HLS’s responsibility to teach us those things?

HLS 2: I just think its weird! I don’t think it makes sense that we’re supposed to just figure this all out, sometimes even before we really can be expected.

HLS 1: Do you think that relates to why money isn’t talked about the way we are now? And why sometimes people get very defensive and upset when you bring up the idea of a law firm as a corporation and all that implies?

HLS 2: I think when you go to HLS, your parents brag about you and it starts to define you. So that sort of critique feels like it’s attacking your whole way of life! Its attacking what you stand for, what your parents stand for.

HLS 1: But I think that it’s a legitimate critique. I think wealth accumulation is a form of theft, and I think people should be made aware of their role in this. Is that why they get so mad?

HLS 2: Yeah, and people just don’t see that sort of tone at law school. And it’s a sort of groupthink, it seems so othered. The path of least resistance, at HLS, is the path of prestige and elitism. People feel flattered when firms give them offers because HLS tells us they are so famous and prestigious. It’s a branded path. It’s maybe not a money thing it’s a prestige thing. So maybe it’s not that people want to make a ton of money, but rather that they just want to be seen as prestigious, or important, or elite. They want the brand name.

HLS 1: So what would the world look like if your job and my job were paid the same?

HLS 2: When you talk to lawyers in firms and you ask them what big changes they see in the legal profession they say 1) technology, 2) globalization, 3) and clients are more demanding because of the recession they don’t want to pay as much. Clients want unbundled services, or fixed-fee services, or contingency agreements. If everyone made the same amount of money, fewer people would go into corporate law. But there are so many people who are expected to work ridiculous hours for biglaw. If every type of lawyer were getting paid equally, say everyone makes 80k, that’s not enough to demand that people work constantly, like they do now at big law firms. Its just not the way the business world works.

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