The Irony of Firmly Refuse

In the latest installment of the Firmly Refuse, the authors end their article by stating their intention to start a conversation.  But by the time one gets to that point, it’s pretty clear that this is a bit disingenuous.  They don’t actually want to start a conversation; they’ve already made up their minds.

They’ve already decided, for instance, that everyone who goes and works for a corporate law firm (all of whom, by the way, have no “relevant professional experience”) practices corporate defense where they will “defend tobacco” and the BP oil spill.  They’ve decided that everyone who chooses to work for a law firm does so for the money (and presumably they find such a motivation morally suspect).  They’ve decided that securities law and antitrust are mind-numbing and the work they involve resembles “criminal activity.”  In short, to enter a career in Big Law is to “waste the vast majority of your life.”  If your view that working for a corporate law firm is a waste of your life where your works borders on abetting criminal activity, really, what is there left to discuss?

 If my view of Big Law was as grim as theirs, then I’d be running for the OPIA potluck as well.  Firmly Refuse does not raise awareness or elevate the discussion; rather the authors’ hyperbolic approach instead propagates ignorance and attacks the integrity of their classmates.

Perhaps some HLS students enter Big Law because they aren’t fully informed about the opportunities in public interest, or the details of LIPP, or about what life in biglaw is like.  And perhaps Firmly Refuse is correct that additional opportunities to learn about the law that is practiced at large law firms would be beneficial to those trying to decide whether to participate in EIP.  Raising awareness on these topics, however, does not require assuming that everyone who enters Big Law either lacks integrity or the ability to make carefully considered decisions.

The authors behind Firmly Refuse seem to fail to appreciate the irony of the fact that in an article in which they say their goal is to talk about what firms really do, they demonstrate stunning ignorance on this very subject.  It seems like they got their paradigm of what corporate law firms do comes from the movie Erin Brockovich.

It’s almost too obvious to mention, but for one thing, a large portion of what large firms do does not involve defense or even litigation, as many firms deal largely in transactional work (which includes practice areas that are the choice of a sizeable portion of HLS students).  Perhaps the authors of Firmly Refuse would find transactional work morally objectionable as well, but I’d be curious to hear why.

What’s equally obvious is that “corporate defense” does not exclusively or even typically involve the the representation of a corporation against injured individuals, Buffalo Creek style.  “Corporate defense” perhaps doesn’t seem so distasteful when the paradigm is not a mass tort, but rather a contract dispute between two businesses.  Perhaps representing Samsung in a patent case against Apple is equally objectionable in Firmly Refuse’s view, but again, I’d like to hear an explanation.

The authors behind Firmly Refuse may reply that they have not actually claimed that working in corporate defense is in fact immoral since their hope is only to start a conversation, but they certainly suggest that working in Big Law is at least morally dubious.  If there were not something wrong about choosing a career in Big Law, why not simply let one’s classmates make their own decisions?  Hinting that working for a large firm is immoral without actually committing to the claim that it is allows Firmly Refuse to attack their classmates, without being vulnerable to the many devastating criticisms of such a claim.   If the authors of Firmly Refuse wish to argue that working for a large firm is immoral, I’d very much like to hear their arguments.

I fail to see, however, how spreading misinformation about large firms while making unfounded and unflattering assumptions about the motivations of one’s classmates will do much to start a conversation that is characterized by anything other than anger and resentment.

One Foot Out the Door is a column written by an anonymous Harvard Law 3L. The column runs every other Thursday.

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

What Changed Our Minds?

It is no secret that the 1L class undergoes a transformation every year.  Large numbers of HLS students begin law school having no intention of working at large corporate law firms, yet without fail, a large majority of students opt for the well-trodden path toward Big Law.  What could possibly account for such a rapid reversal of opinion?  This past spring, under the title “Firmly Refuse,” a group of students suggested that this change is due to what they consider to be the coercive and fear-based approach adopted by Office of Career Services that funnels students into the private-sector Early Interview Process regardless of their actual career ambitions.  

This claim, however, fails to comport with my own experience and the experiences of many of my classmates.  When I reflect on my own decision-making process, I feel as though I made the choice to begin my career at a large firm thoughtfully, and I am skeptical of the claim that I fell victim to the administration’s coercive efforts.  But if it’s not OCS’s fear-mongering that drives people to Big Law, other factors must be at work to explain the transformation.  There are of course many well-understood practical reasons that do tend to push people toward big firms: the greater ability to pay off loans quickly on a Big Law salary, the relative ease of obtaining a job through EIP, and the security of having a summer offer in hand before the first day of classes 2L fall.  Those sympathetic to Firmly Refuse’s mission are unlikely to view these as particularly respectable reasons.  Instead, they’re likely to view them as excuses someone might offer for failing to have the courage or ambition to pursue his or her true calling.

Much of the discussion regarding the evolution of law students’ career ambitions seems to assume that the career goals with which law students enter school are somehow more genuine or worthy of respect than those with which they leave.  On this view, if a student begins determined to work in public interest, but leaves headed toward a big firm job, something must have lamentably distracted him from pursuing his real passion.  I would argue, however, that in many cases, this picture has things exactly backwards.  Rather than law school being a time when people are coerced into forgetting what it is they really want to do, for many, it is a time when they figure out what is important to them.

When I began at HLS, I was unsure about what exactly I wanted to do after graduation.  As a liberal arts major in college, the corporate world felt foreign to me.  My education had taught me that I should follow my dreams, and I felt as though working for a business would constitute selling-out and would be a waste of my education.  I’ve come to view this perspective as naive and wrong-headed.  Learning more about law firms and going through the summer associate process opened my eyes to a world I previously knew little about, and it showed me that there are many aspects of work at a big firm that I would find satisfying.  For one, after having spent many years in academia, I appreciated the professionalism and energy of the law firm environment.  Having been apprehensive about entering the corporate world, now being a part of that world gave me confidence, and I felt as though my work was having an impact in way that my academic work had not.  Though I was most definitely not saving the world, I appreciated being part of a team that was providing top-notch legal services to the firm’s clients.

Ironically, it was not my decision to begin my career at a big firm that was driven by fear, rather fear drove my initial aversion to Big Law.  The intensity of law firm environments is well-suited for the ambitious, type-A students that tend to find themselves at HLS, and this is certainly no small reason why so many students choose the big firm path once they learn more about it.  Choosing a career in Big Law is no more the result of coercion or lack of thoughtfulness than is choosing a career in public interest.  My classmates and I chose to work at law firms, and many of us are happy that we did.

One Foot Out the Door is a column written by an anonymous Harvard Law 3L. The column runs every other Thursday.

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