We’re Back: The Five Goals of Firmly Refuse

Opinion   /   November 12, 2012  / 

Dear 1Ls,

Welcome to the funnel.

Really, we hate to burst your bubble. It pains us to do so. Your first few months of law school have been a blast, click clacking your way up a huge rollercoaster lift, and you have no idea how far you have to fall.

It’s late autumn and your peers rush to schedule OPIA appointments. Click. Everyone’s doing something positive for their 1L summer. Clack. And you have no reason to believe that your friends will abandon their ambitions for easy money. Click. After all, how could somebody who did TFA go on to defend the corrupt actors responsible for our national foreclosure crisis? Clack. Or the tens of thousands of cancer-causing chemicals in everyday products? Click. Or the climate change that caused Hurricane Sandy? Clack. Clack. Clack.

But defend them they will. Your peers will put aside their hopes and dreams and good intentions. They will position themselves firmly on the wrong side of history, beside the lawyers who defended everything from tobacco to the BP oil spill. Beside the lawyers who think their “professional responsibility” is to ignore the results of their actions.

And they will do it for two reasons: money and fear. (Okay, mostly money.)

We’re here to call out this funneling process, this soul-sucking vacuum that takes brilliant, passionate, and dedicated humans and turns them into corporate defenders. But it’s not all about the negative. We’re also here to remind you that you are too talented, you are too full of promise, and you have too many options to sell yourself short.

Building off of the remarkable success of last spring, we thought we’d openly publish our five goals for the upcoming year. That way, you can know exactly what we’re up to and why. And you can let us know if we’re doing a good job.

Goal 1: Talk about what firms really do and who they really defend

By the time you learn about what firms really do and who they really defend, it’s too late. Most students sign away their professional lives after only one year of classes they didn’t choose.

Perhaps if you had studied antitrust or securities law during 1L, you’d realize what it entails: mind-numbing legal maneuvering that feels pretty close to the criminal activity you’re helping your clients get away with. And that’s when it doesn’t feel like sub-citing the world’s most boring law review article.

Goal 2: Critically evaluate what a life in corporate defense means

What does it mean—emotionally, psychologically, spiritually—to waste the vast majority of your waking life doing something you don’t believe in? What does it mean to mortgage away the rest of your twenties (and most of your thirties) in six-minute increments?

These jobs have harrowing implications for individuals and their families, but they’re only mentioned in the sexist and euphemistic frame of “work-life balance.” Sexist because it’s almost always directed at women. Euphemistic because everything else in the world that matters to you is placed in firm opposition (nay, “balance”) to your “work.”

Goal 3: Support and encourage HLS’s best-in-class public interest programming

The way HLS students talk about finding jobs, you’d think they were lepers graduating from massage school. In fact, as Harvard Law students, we have the incredible privilege, luck, and opportunity to attend a world-class institution with unparalleled resources for those seeking to do something (anything) positive with their law degree.

Have you ever met with OPIA? These people are ridiculously good at what they do, and they’ll put themselves on the line for you. And under Dean Minow, Harvard’s significantly expanded the Law and Social Change program, launched the Public Service Venture Fund, secured 25 Ford Foundation grants, and maintained one of the most comprehensive loan repayment programs in the country. Simply put, HLS is a great place to do good.

Goal 4: Narrate the law-school-to-corporate-defense funneling process—as it happens

For all the administration is doing, much of legal education hasn’t changed since the 19th century. We venture to say that it’s got a rotten core—from the Socratic method to the corporate firms for which our classrooms are named.

This broken legal pedagogy, combined with undue BigLaw influence, produces the coercive funneling system we have today. Most 1Ls don’t know it yet, but you’re going to have to sign up for EIP all too soon. Before you have any relevant professional experience. While you’re locked into classes you didn’t choose and locked out of clinics that remind you why you came to law school in the first place.

The tragic part is that it’s the same, senseless song, year after year. And that we are all complicit in hitting “replay” each fall. Most 1Ls get their misinformation from 2Ls and 3Ls—none of whom have actually done the work they blithely insist is the only reasonable option.

We hope to share our honest and critical experience of 1L with you, as you go through it, and we sincerely hope you make this conversation a two-way process.

Goal 5: Continue & expand the national conversation

Firmly Refuse is spreading—fast. Last year, Berkeley Law started its own 60+ member chapter and looks to ramp up involvement this year. Our peers at Yale held similar conversations about firm recruitment and the funneling process, and we can’t wait to reach more law students at RebLaw this spring. We’re already talking to NLG chapters in law schools all across the country, and we’re excited to keep this conversation going at a national level.

Bonus Goal: Bring justice back

Justice has become a word we see only in quotes on walls, a word we hear only in speeches recited as students come and leave the school. Yet a different law school experience—a different legal education—is possible.

Imagine if there were a conversation on campus about being the most effective advocate for justice. Imagine if we weren’t afraid to ask each other why we’re taking the jobs that we do. Imagine if it were normal to ask your peers what good they hoped to accomplish with their career—and how we could work together to make it happen.

We’re Firmly Refuse, and we’ve got some great news: We’re here to start that conversation.

Firmly Refuse is a campaign initiated by Harvard Law students, conducted through the National Lawyers Guild. Those interested in getting involved can e-mail firmlyrefuse@gmail.com, or visit firmlyrefuse.tumblr.com.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record. 

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16 Responses to We’re Back: The Five Goals of Firmly Refuse

  1. Amused HLS student

    I admire Firmly Refuse’s willingness to try to reach out to those people who want to do public service but feel some pressure to do firm jobs. That said, the approach in many of these op-eds and flyers on campus of denigrating and questioning the moral standards of people who choose to go to BigLaw is offensive and inappropriate. Push the benefits of public service all you want–that is great. Belittling and demeaning those who do BigLaw is simply an ad hominem attack because the facts are not so clear (e.g., don’t defend evil corporations and help them continue to commit atrocities, but rather defend persons accused of rape, drug dealing, and theft).

    And I must say that it is wildly ironic that I saw founding members of Firmly Refuse at EIP three months ago. Do I blame them for keeping their options open? Of course not. Just don’t be quite so sanctimonious is “calling out” those who choose to take that route.

  2. I agree. I enjoyed last year’s piece enough to write a letter to the editor largely in support of it. And I actually agree with most of points 2-5 here. But you’ve also gone into over-the-top parody mode by saying things like that biglaw work entails “mind-numbing legal maneuvering that feels pretty close to the criminal activity you’re helping your clients get away with.” Come on.

    I’ve chosen a nonprofit/government career and don’t ever expect to leave it, but this tone gives me the same feeling as when I was interviewing for a certain prosecutor-esque job at Main Justice and a classmate told me, “I don’t think it’s possible to be a good prosecutor.” That’s just not useful advice unless you’re already committed to a very small slice of nonprofit/international advocacy work.

    The emphasis on students staying with the passions they brought to law school, or taking time to actually explore them before committing to a life-consuming associate job, is really good. The wholesale condemnation of every practice area at every Vault 50 firm is really not good.

  3. Wait, so it’s not possible to do anything in the private sector that isn’t corporate tort defense? Thanks for giving us the heads up, Firmly Refuse! Also, thanks for making the top jobs easier to get for the rest of us!

    • Eh, the article is basically right. Some of its claims are a bit much, but with 90 percent of HLS people going to corporate law firms anything that gets people’s attention is good, in my opinion.

  4. Appreciates Fine Prose

    I think you guys are over the top sanctimonious, but I must give kudos for “lepers graduating from massage school.” That’s a good line.

  5. I understand that there is nuance to add to any argument, but the collective sense that we’re all above moral question absurd; people react with such indignity.

    If you think working at a firm has a moral case to be made for it, make that case. It doesn’t really make sense to flatly condemn any attempt to discuss the moral implications as degrading. Nor is it really an argument for going to work at a firm that some other, less profitable, jobs also do morally dubious things. Maybe there’s a case to be made against lawyering in general, but just pointing out some flaws in some public interest work is a total dodge, and not a very convincing one.

  6. I see the campaign’s organizers have learned nothing since last year about over the top demonizing (“criminal activity”, for example, or the “mind-numbing” quality of firm work, as opposed to the non-stop excitement of being a public defender doing a dozen assembly-line plea deals for drug possession every day) so in that spirit I’ll repeat my comment from last year.

    You posit a supply problem – too few HLS (and other prestigious) grads wanting to be PI folks. This does not describe the world. The real world, which is less invested in your sanctimony, has a demand problem. Rich people can afford lawyers, poor people can’t. Even cheap ones. The government does little to nothing, compared with most rich countries, to help poor people afford attorneys or to employ attorneys specifically to help poor people. Even in good budget times, which these are not, legal services have not been a legislative priority.

    The public service venture fund you mention is the only initiative that actually aims at this – the only one that actually increases the number of jobs available. One or two year fellowships to work for organizations that may or may not be able to afford to hire you full time are not jobs – they are measures to stave off poverty while you try to slip in the cracks of austerity-era public hiring. Best of luck to those people, but I don’t blame my classmates for not wanting to do that.

    Lawyers need to do more to draw attention to the lack of funds available to help poor people defend their rights effectively. We need to get people to think of these rights as real, valuable, and only effective when protected by access to affordable legal representation. Sadly this route does not involve haranguing your classmates – who want to have careers, not one year fellowships – to prove your PI purity, but that isn’t any concern of mine.

    Another measure HLS could take is better to educate students about transitioning from private to public sector employment a few years into their careers. I know this doesn’t fit with Firmly Refuse’s view of the world in which students sign their name in blood at EIP and become firm-slaves forever, but back in the real world many people come into public service this way, once they’ve gotten themselves into a more financially stable position (note to Firmly Refuse, law school debt is not everyone’s only debt or obligation) and acquired some useful legal skills and credibility as a professional. I knew many people at the firm I worked at this summer who did just that. Many among them had done pro bono work in the area into which they transferred, or were parts of practice groups where the skills transferred over substantially.

    Something more people should know that LIPP is actually really good at this sort of transition – far better than an IBR/PSLF based approach – and, I suspect, somewhat designed around it. If you care about HLS students getting into public service and making a difference (and people on one-year fellowships don’t do that, experienced professionals who actually know how to be lawyers do), you should care about educating people about a major route that many people take to do that.

  7. “Most 1Ls get their misinformation from 2Ls and 3Ls—none of whom have actually done the work they blithely insist is the only reasonable option.”

    And where do you get your information about Big Law from? It sounds like you don’t have any idea what corporate law firms actually do. The vast majority of litigation at firms has absolutely nothing to do with major tort violations, most litigation at firms are when one corporation sues another or securities litigation. And litigation is just one part of what firms do. The other big part is transactional work – helping companies access financial markets (thereby participating in the economy).

    If you’re upset about Big Law sponsorship for our classrooms, I hope that you aren’t planning on applying for the Skadden fellowship or the EJW – both public interest fellowships sponsored by firms.

  8. “After all, how could somebody who did TFA go on to defend the corrupt actors responsible for our national foreclosure crisis? Clack. Or the tens of thousands of cancer-causing chemicals in everyday products? Click. Or the climate change that caused Hurricane Sandy? Clack. Clack. Clack.”

    This particular bit can only be described as objectively retarded.

  9. Your arguments are weak and transparent. You criticize 2Ls and 3Ls for promoting law firm careers when they haven’t had a law firm career yet–but you go a step further by promoting public interest careers AND condemning law firm careers when you haven’t experienced either. You think that it’s immoral to defend companies that are accused of doing bad things, and suggest defending people accused of rape and murder instead. You assume that everyone enters HLS with their heart set on public interest work until they get corrupted by the evil system, but many students come here from careers in consulting, banking, and other private sector fields. You are caught up in an echo chamber, assuming that just because YOU think that antitrust law and securities law are boring, everyone else must think so too. Did you even know that many public interest lawyers practice antitrust law, such as consumer protection advocates, government agencies, and plaintiffs’ law firms? Your statement is really rude to our professors who have spent their careers teaching and researching those areas of the law. You’re upset that our classrooms are named after law firms, but I bet you would be pretty upset if they doubled the tuition to make do without firm sponsorships of numerous school activities. You also rely on funding from LIPP and fellowship programs, nearly all of which comes from alumni who work at law firms, directly or indirectly. It’s a shame that programs like One Day’s Work and OPIA will suffer when students who work at law firms finally grow tired of being insulted and denigrated by classmates who don’t appreciate their contributions to the HLS community. They should publicly clarify whether they support your group’s tactics or not.

  10. “After all, how could somebody who did TFA go on to defend the corrupt actors responsible for our national foreclosure crisis? Clack. Or the tens of thousands of cancer-causing chemicals in everyday products? Click. Or the climate change that caused Hurricane Sandy? Clack. Clack. Clack.”

    Was going to point out that this is objectively retarded. Saw someone already said this. Decided to reiterate that this is objectively retarded.

  11. All of the above comments that are deeply critical of FR’s efforts simply prove the necessity of actually having the discussion that wouldn’t be happening if FR didn’t write these op-eds or put these flyers up.

    This will fall on deaf ears, of course, but I invite all of those who would criticize FR’s efforts to identify themselves–you will certainly be taken more seriously if you do. Standing behind the anonymity of the internet makes it seem like you actually don’t believe what you’re sharing, which is an awfully weird message to send given the how strongly worded your criticisms are.

    • Hmm, I don’t see any names attached to this “article”, or to the Firmly Refuse litter that the janitors had to remove from all of the classrooms a few weeks ago. It’s amusing how you high and mighty folks leave trash everywhere when nobody even takes the leaflets seriously. Anyway, you might want to try responding to the numerous arguments that have been posted instead of ignoring them on the grounds that anonymous speech doesn’t “count” for some reason.

  12. “Another measure HLS could take is better to educate students about transitioning from private to public sector employment a few years into their careers.”

    Speaking as an HLS alum and ex-BigLaw associate now working in government, I strongly agree. HLS should do more to publicize “lateral”/midlevel moves into from the private sector into government and should support interested associates in making this transition. I know firsthand that this transition is possible to make, but it’s still a comparatively untraveled path, and the institutional support of HLS would be invaluable in helping more alums to go this route.

  13. All of the folks who are thinking about big firm jobs, and are offended because their character is being questioned should think twice. If you are going into an area of law that helps people, then why take offense?

    I think that our generation is too willing to separate one’s job from their character. “Oh, I work for XYZ firm doing corporate defense. I spend my days defending huge corporations from their most recent corporate antics and screwing the little guy, but on the weekend I am this cool guy who likes to go to concerts and wear a leather jacket.”

    If you feel that you are using your degree for good, then why take offense? But it is not hard to tell if you are going down a path that is going to hurt everyday people.

  14. If Firmly Refuse wanted to have a conversation, they could have sent out a survey or had a town hall or..I dunno…maybe tried to have a conversation with the individuals they are trying to reach? Does “starting a conversation” give somebody the license to go out there and try to trash the decisions that their fellow classmates make? i don’t know about you, but I’ve never started a conversation with patently offensive statements or descriptions of nonexistent opportunities that are little more than veritable flights of fancy.

    But I guess if this campaign was trying to make the National Lawyers Guild look hostile, out-of-touch, whiney, and irrelevant, then it’s been a smashing success!

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