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.

We’re Back: The Five Goals of Firmly Refuse

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. 

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.

LIPP Works

I enjoyed the recent “Firmly Refuse” column on the Early Interview Program, as encouraging students who knew they didn’t want to work for large law firms to avoid arriving there by inertia was an interest of mine at Harvard Law.  I wrote several pieces for The Record on this, one being not-so-subtly titled “You’re Not Weird if You Don’t Want to Do OCI.”  (This was before the program switched to being called EIP.)  It’s nice to see this spirit is alive and encouraging dialogue.

I can’t speak for Firmly Refuse, but the point of this dialogue for me, was never to vilify students who go to work for Biglaw firms, nor to dump on those who are actually interested in it. It was to provide a space for the hundreds of students who entered HLS committed to public interest work, but found themselves doubting whether they could or should leave HLS actually working in that field.  Neither Firmly Refuse nor my friends five years ago invented these thoughts: to see how long back these pressures and doubts have affected HLS students, I recommend the flawed but fascinating Broken Contract by Richard Kahlenberg, which portrays the “Beirut on the Charles” days at HLS in the 1980s, and will leave you hugging the Office of Public Interest Advising staff and making them promise to never leave. Worth a library check-out.

I am really writing this letter to be counted as a data point. As a 2008 graduate who never interviewed with a large law firm, I am still employed, still in my chosen field, immigration and still paying my loans, thanks to availing myself fully of the Low Income Protection Program.  More importantly, so are dozens of my classmates. It can be done. And since I recently heard that the Kaufman Dinner for public-interest bound 3Ls was one of the largest ever, I am optimistic that it is being done.

It is hard to explain what a blessing LIPP is unless you have run into excellent lawyers struggling to do the work they love and pay their bills even on 30-year plans or Income Based Repayment.  LIPP has followed me through a city change, job changes for myself and my husband and the birth of my children. They continued to send me checks even when I switched from a modestly-paid nonprofit job for a higher-paid federal government job, and are the nicest people I have ever faxed my tax returns to.

While the forces and resources of OPIA helped launch me into the nonprofit and government world, it’s LIPP who lets me keep doing the immigration work I love. The bottom line is this: to date, four years into repayment, LIPP has paid $21,000 of my student loans, with no end in sight. I am not on 30-year repayment plans and will be student debt-free before I’m an old lady. Don’t take that as the amount LIPP would pay out for you; it all depends on your individual situation. But I wanted to put a real number out there because public interest lawyers, and aspiring ones, need to talk about money.  Find out what real government, nonprofit, small firm and fellowship salaries are. Talk to the Student Financial Services staff. And as the Firmly Refuse crowd is doing, support each other. It looks like many of you are well on your way. Lots of luck.

Andrea Saenz, Law ’08

Why Firmly Refuse?

You’ve made it into Harvard Law. The hard part is over. In a packed Memorial Hall, Dean Martha Minow recites the remarkable and diverse achievements of your peers. The future, you are told, will be even brighter.

But fast forward just a few months and the mood is hardly optimistic. Overwhelmingly, students say that they “have to“ work at a corporate law firm. That they are afraid of unemployment. That they will never pay off their loans. That the legal market, that their parents, that that that.

Can anything explain this violent shift? Was Harvard insincere in promising a world of professional opportunity, or is the 1L experience of desperation, pressure and job scarcity entirely contrived?

If Dean Minow spoke with hopeful assurance at orientation, the Office of Career Services quickly retorted with fear. As early as November, every 1L began to receive two kinds of emails from OCS: alarmist ones (“In the professional jungle, you won’t be helping your career very much by putting your head in the sand and avoiding these events.” November 3, 2011) and normative, culture-shifting ones (“You’ve decided that you’re going to participate in EIP… Now what?” March 19).

No wonder it didn’t feel like much of a decision.

In just a few months, the change in messaging was loud and clear. Your impressions of a legal career were naïve. Your time of passionate and inspiring work has passed. Harvard Law students join big firms. And they join them promptly.

A group of us began meeting regularly to discuss this silent transformation—silent because students refuse to ask their peers why they’ve changed their minds so quickly. Recognizing that we suffer as a community from such self-censorship, and heartened by more senior students, we decided to start a broader dialogue.

We began with posters that highlighted some of the empty rationales students employ to justify their enrollment in EIP: I don’t really want to, I’m just doing it to pay off my loans; just for a few years, then I’ll do what I really want to do; I’m just doing it because I heard they have a great training program. Such statements, frequently heard, but infrequently challenged, capture the desperation that contrasts so starkly with Dean Minow’s buoyant reception.

Our first event, “Real Talk Re: EIP,” proved that the lack of conversation is not for lack of interest: we ran out of seats in a 60-person classroom. The lunch event was billed merely as an opportunity for 1Ls to discuss their thoughts and opinions on EIP. To critically evaluate where they get their information about EIP. To ask whether EIP promotes a culture of choice or consent. To ask, in short: what happened between orientation and now?

In the rare event that a thoughtful conversation emerges about EIP, students usually justify their choice to interview by uncritically reciting an established set of reasons for joining a firm. For example, students claim they need to pay off their loans, but HLS has one of the most generous repayment programs in the country. Students also claim they’re joining a firm just for the training—but training for what? Corporate transaction work, years of document review and less courtroom experience than LRW are hardly training for a career outside of corporate law. Otherwise bright and opinionated students make pivotal career decisions based on inaccurate, privately held and therefore unchallenged assumptions.

In light of such information scarcity, recruiting students to sign up for a funneling system after only two semesters of law school—often during their second semester of law school—is coercive. Second semester 1Ls have been locked out of all clinical opportunities and allowed to choose only one elective class. After these students are denied any relevant professional experience, they are told to enroll in a lottery-based interview system for employers and work that they know little about.

By minimizing both relevant experience and volition, HLS has created a process that encourages students to cast aside long-held professional (and personal) aspirations while making premature, uninformed and fear-driven decisions. Similarly, requiring 2Ls to reject all but one firm offer by November 1st—far before most public interest jobs are solidified—unnecessarily exploits the reasonable fear most students have about turning down a job offer.

As firms wrestle to move their recruiting dates earlier and earlier, Harvard Law School must take a stand. It must, if you will, firmly refuse. Refuse to let fear and intimidation pressure students into foreclosing their professional ambitions. Refuse to let firm recruiting overshadow the educational experience of law school. Refuse to ignore the personal, professional and moral about-face that takes place during 1L year. HLS and OCS have a responsibility to respond with more than complicity as, year after year, 1Ls undergo this silent transformation.

Still, the blame for our silent transformation—and our lack of agency—cannot rest solely on the administration’s shoulders. We are willfully blind to the privilege that comes with attending Harvard Law School. And we are all too willing to scalp our sense of agency and morality to the highest bidder. An HLS degree provides incredible personal and professional opportunity. With such opportunity comes a commanding ethical responsibility—one we cannot renounce for a myopic, monetary brand of success.

Given the complexity of these decisions, we are in dire need of a more honest and informed dialogue. When can we discuss whom firms actually defend, why document review is good training or how little time associates spend with their families? When can we acknowledge the silent transformation that takes place during 1L, as students struggle to forget what brought them to law school and come to peace with a life they never pictured living? When can we discuss the coercive, premature and fear-based funneling system called EIP? Can we, at the very least, talk about it?

Firmly Refuse is a campaign initiated by Harvard Law students.