Tonight, I open my inbox to an email from another Record Editor. In it, he says – “Sima, you may be interested in responding to this article that we’ll be printing.” I hear many baseless, racist, and completely oblivious arguments throughout my day, and try to limit the time I spend feeling angry about them. But this article is so problematic that I think it would be irresponsible of a law school newspaper to publish it on its own. So here is my response.
I am not responding to this article because I think the arguments merit the time and energy I will spend writing this up. I am writing because I want students, but most especially ILs, to know that there are incredibly critical, thoughtful, committed, intelligent people at Harvard Law School who have made the choice not to go into corporate law for very important reasons.
Yes, it is true that some students are going into non-corporate work for self-interested reasons. I know I love my work and being engaged with causes I care about makes me happier. This does not reduce or demean the impact of the work I am involved in. For those who have the all the choices of employment at their fingertips, we should all graduate into employments we love. With all the choices in the world, I also hope we’ll choose well – taking seriously the power society has handed us because of our degrees and profession.
However, even where my work gives me meaning, the emotions I feel while engaging with the world are far from the “warm and fuzzies” the author assumes adequately compensate me (an equally qualified, intelligent, hardworking classmates) for my work. In fact, in my opinion, when you work with marginalized communities, you are reminded every day how unjust and unfair and disempowering our system is. This does not make me feel warm and fuzzy, but rather pretty angry and upset. Through critical engagement with big societal problems, I find that I’ve found communities of people working through effective and empowering strategies that give me moments of hope. But deep down, I realize that the systems that currently exist are set up to marginalize certain populations and to maintain the status quo for those of us who have made it. Not warm and fuzzy realizations.
The article entitled “Want to Save the World – Go into Big Law” is self-aggrandizing at its best and naïve and unrealistic at worst. Because, I can bet that almost no one going into corporate law next year is donating 30% of their post-tax income to charity. Because, even if they did, charity is not going to deal with the inequality and marginalization that is deeply structural and complex.
To the author, and everyone who agrees with his lifestyle – I am very happy that you will be so generous with your incomes upon graduation. I really hope more of our classmates will do the same. Because if you choose to go into Big Law and care about the poor and otherwise marginalized, giving your money to charity is the least you can do. I say this because you are not choosing to go into neutral, apolitical, work. None of us working in the legal profession are. Your firm, Bill, has represented JPMorgan Chase, a bank that backed thousands of predatory and racist loans and helped create the foreclosure crisis. Your firm also (according to its website) “routinely defends companies faced with serious products liability and consumer fraud claims … involving thousands of claimants.” For those thousands of claimants who were first harmed by faulty products, and then denied any remedy, your charity may be less than appreciated.
As Bill Quigley – a very respected legal scholar wrote – “There are more than enough lawyers in this world defending the way things are. Plenty of lawyers protect and guide people and institutions engaged in the injustices of our social, economic, and political systems. [Those lawyers] are plentiful and well-compensated. We need no more of them.”
The one place I agree with the author is that we should all be critical about our job choices, and all constantly be re-examining whether we are having the impact we want to have on this world. We clearly disagree on the impacts him and I are each having on the world. But I do hope that examining our work’s impact is something people in both public interest and corporate work should be doing.
What is not productive in this debate is the complete discounting of all the substantive work being done by public interest lawyers. If you disagree with the way I’ve chosen to do my work, engage with me, and your other classmates. I love to talk about strategies to confront our unequal society and can readily speak to the trade-offs I’ve chosen to make by not making hundreds of thousands of dollars.
All I ask is that you are equally honest with yourself, and that you engage with me with respect.