Class Denial at HLS: Rich People Defending Rich People

It’s not the speeches or the blunders or the hilarious rewriting of the Reagan era. No, my favorite part about election season is how easy it becomes to recognize class denial in America. The routine has become so commonplace that we hardly bat an eye: poor whites protest anything and everything that would raise their minimum standard of living, from healthcare to housing assistance; meanwhile, wealthy whites (and the wealthy are overwhelmingly white) think anything more than a 35% tax rate for the rich (half of the 70 percent rate when Reagan took office) would be a Stalin-esque slide into class warfare. Poor whites deny the magnitude of their own poverty, and rich whites pretend they’re scraping by like the rest of us.

It’s a good thing we attend such a thoughtful institution, where similar delusions of hardship would never survive a minute of peer-on-peer Socratic, right? Yet it’s that same idea that plagues the wealthy—that they’re “scraping by” like the rest of us—that I find strikingly present at HLS. And it’s that same idea that promotes an even calmer, more insidious class denial among HLS students than the one we witness on a national scale.

It’s easy to mock Romney for coming from heinous amounts of money. I mean, how hard can it be to stay rich when your folks are auto magnates? But the demographics at HLS show that you don’t have to be the scion of a government-backed industry to have it easier than most Americans.

Let’s start with the numbers. Did you know that nearly 60 percent of students receive zero need-based grants to cover the $225,000 price tag of an HLS degree? We all know that the cost of law school is outrageous and that the standardized metrics to calculate family contribution are broken and outdated. But three in five? Really? One can only imagine what this statistic says about the average, or even median, family income at HLS. After all, most “middle class” families—defined as the middle three quintiles, whose incomes range from $20,000 to $100,000—would clearly qualify for need-based grants. This likely means that well over 60 percent of HLS students are “upper class,” like it or not.

There are, of course, a number of students who overcame incredible socioeconomic adversity to attend HLS. But these students are the inspiring exception to the broken rule. The truth is, with only 40 percent of students receiving need-based grants to pay for $225,000 of school, we’re looking at a lot of class privilege at HLS. How do HLS students recognize and respond to that privilege? It’s, well… complicated.

HLS students certainly don’t like to think of themselves as rich. You can hear the class denial in the awkward dialogues students so frequently have with one another. One minute, a student will say he “needs” to work in corporate defense to pay off his loans. The next, he’ll say he “needs” to start making $160,000 to support a family. Talk about out of touch — I highly doubt it takes being in the top 10 percent of earners (not counting bonuses) to support your family.

Many students join socially conscious clinics and student organizations, like Harvard Defenders and Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. Yet how many of our friends went on to work for firms that undermine the very principles of those organizations? A number of HLAB graduates go on to defend the same corrupt financial institutions and practices that forced their former clients into foreclosure. As for those that defend poor clients through Harvard Defenders? Given HLS’s employment statistics, these students are most likely to take their best-in-class criminal defense training and use it to defend wealthy, white-collar (and white) criminals and their corporations.

To be fair, many of these organizations and clinics offer much-needed relief from the overwhelming number of students who fail to even ask themselves this most basic of questions: What does it mean to use my social privilege to further the practices of the world’s most powerful, often corrupt, and politically manipulative institutions?

Perhaps it seems natural. Perhaps it seems silly to even question. Of course rich students—again, those with families that make more than $100,000 (in 2010)—would use their privilege to defend other rich people. It’s as natural as under-funded schools in poor neighborhoods, or windfall profits for polluting oil companies. We’re told this is the world we live in, where the rich have each other’s backs and the poor have nothing. Where nobody deserves a bailout, but only the rich get them. To question that paradigm is naïve at best and treasonous at worst.

So what can we do about it? I am not proposing a school-wide vow of poverty, nor am I proposing a Gandhi-style march into unemployment (though the fear of unemployment is as overstated as the “need” to pay off loans). Instead, I am proposing an ethic of fairness, honor, and honesty.

By fairness, I mean striving for a “do unto others” professional philosophy. Your privilege has likely opened a lot of doors—private schools, LSAT courses, and ultimately HLS. If you didn’t have these opportunities but someone else did, how would you want them to use that opportunity? To further enrich themselves, or to rise to the occasion of their own privilege?

By honor, I mean pursuing work you’d want to tell your grandkids about. Work you can be proud of. Surely you swelled with pride when you got the call to get into HLS—was it really pride about shuffling papers for JP Morgan? Or shoving elephantine Exxon profits into tax loopholes? Or was it pride that you would have even more opportunities—even more incredible, diverse, and exciting paths to choose from?

Lastly, by honesty, I mean being honest with yourself and your peers when it comes to the reasoning behind your professional choices. Enough with the “training” spiel or the supposed “need” to make more than 98 percent of Americans by the time you’re thirty. Pretty soon you’ll start believing the stories you tell to smooth over rough conversations. Pretty soon, the stories will change you. They will turn you into the kind of rich person who genuinely believes he’s “scraping by” with his two houses and three cars—like the rest of us.

Next time one of your declared “progressive” friends makes a crack at Romney or Ryan, ask them what they’ll be up to this summer: Will you spend your career defending the Bain Capitals or the Lilly Ledbetters of the world? And if you were Ms. Ledbetter, working in a rubber factory in Gadsden, Alabama for twenty years, what would you hope the HLS grads of the world would do with their prestigious degrees—and their class privilege?

Or don’t. After all, you won the pre-birth lottery and made it big-time. You did it all on your own, just like the tax-cutting job creators. You’re scraping by like the rest of us. Right?

Sean Hamidi is a 2L. His column runs every other Tuesday.

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