Peg

I’m a Corporate Lawyer – Get on with your happy-judging self!

Okay, so, in no particular order, I’m a (30-something caucasion) woman, I’m a (working) mother of two, I’m a (married-only-once-heterosexual) wife, I’m a (Fiscal) Conservative, and I’m a corporate (BigLaw) lawyer. Why am I subject to so much judging?

See the related posts and comments here, here, here, and here about the judging that goes on among women. It is no secret that I am not a fan of the “mommy wars”. Likewise, I am also not a fan of the explicit and implicit judging that goes on between the public-interest lawyers (or lawyers-to-be) and those of us that work for the corporate machine. That is the topic of this particular post. Also see this great post on this site about the same thing.

Why is there so much animosity? Why must there be this underlying tone of we’re better than you … we’re making a difference … we’re volunteering our summers away while you get overpaid?

To reinforce my point, I was actually told by a clinical professor (who was on a mission to make clinical work mandatory at his high-ranked law school) that I have a duty to work for a 'cause' as so-called pay back to society for allowing me to practice law. As you can imagine I almost fell out my seat, especially when he wanted to be able to tell me which causes I would have to “work for” during law school, never mind my moral and political disagreements. I really don’t think that society is due a pay back. I also don’t really think that society has “allowed” me to do what I do. (This society is 'by the people, for the people', etc – but that’s another topic for a different forum.) In fact, my too-high tuition at a public law school actually helped subsidize the undergrads because the law school is a profit center for the larger university.

Here’s my real complaint: I see the judging as really only happening in one direction. From my viewpoint, only the public-interest lawyers judge the BigLaw types, not the other way around. This is very similar to my impression that it is primarily the stay-at-home moms that judge the working moms. I have been trying to figure this out and it really bothers me.

Is it because the public interest lawyers really are on the moral high ground? I think in the minds of some this might be the way they feel. Maybe there are a group of corporate attorneys out there that feel some guilt about what they are doing. Maybe deep down in side they hope to be able to walk away from the big deals and dedicate themselves to helping the less fortunate someday. While I do not doubt that there are some of these folks out there, it can’t be everyone. How do I know? – I’m not one of them. I went to law school to be a big corporate lawyer and, as a woman that always achieves her goals, here I am. I gave up a long time ago thinking that I was having a unique life experience in any way so there must be others out there like me, ones that are happy to be part of the capitalist machine, happy to be working for big business.

On the other side of the coin, is BigLaw so offensive to public interest lawyers that they feel entitled to pass judgment on those of us who serve there? While I know there is a growing undercurrent of distain for the US capitalist society swelling in some political circles, I find this theory also unsatisfying. After all, while I am dedicated (most of the time) to increasing the bottom line of my clients’ balance sheets, overall, we are achieving good in this world. I don’t have clients that are making cigarettes and selling them to little kids. For that matter, I don’t represent gun manufacturers or even tuna fish companies that trap poor dolphins in their nets. However, even if I did, business is not bad for our society. My clients actually invent new drugs to fight cancer and heart disease, they invent apparatus to make treatment in hospitals better, they create software that makes business more efficient, they engineer chip technology that makes cell phones get better service. These are all good for our economy. Yes, they want to make a profit and more profit is better. However, they are not inherently evil because of that motivation. As for lawyers like me, isn’t it important that I support my family and give a lot of time and money to charity?

So what gives? Why all the judging? Perhaps we are naturally inclined to judge others and prop up our own choices at every opportunity. Perhaps many are insecure in their own decisions and so have to criticize others in order to feel good. Whatever it is, I think it is unhealthy. I have no qualms about the career choice I’ve made, and you public interest lawyers out there shouldn’t either.

I know this blog post comes off as really judgmental on my part. Hmmmm, I guess that's the irony in my basic complaint. I am judging even as I rail against the judge-ers. Okay… let’s hear it. … comments welcome.

 

15 Comments

jessie

There's a lot going on here-but I have two initial reactions:
About the clinical professor who thought you had a duty to serve: well clearly this professor was just ridiculous.  That said, I do think there's something to honoring an obligation as lawyers to serve the underserved.  That credo is embodied in our ethical guidelines in the form of pro bono requirements (or suggestions in the case of the CA and Federal bars).  This obligation is consistent with the work that all doctors, accountants and other professionals donate to the underserved in their relevant fields.  Though I have very limited experience with this, it seems to me that the legal profession has moved away from identifying with these other "professions" due in large part to big corporate law's development as a counterpart to banks and financiers.  I think it would be a shame to lose those aspects of professionalism as we move in this direction.
As for BigLaw being offensive: as a public interest student I was always in the distinct minority.  I graduated from UCLA where the vast majority of students go on to work not just at firms, but big firms.  I took mostly business related classes, because I'm interested in tax policy.  So I have at times felt the reverse judgment from the business-types who are skeptical of my choices-though frankly those comments or impressions were mostly from men in my classes not women, who were generally more supportive of my unusual path.  I think these types of judgments are inevitable.  Humans naturally differentiate, out of necessity and insecurity. 
So I'll admit to harbouring a few prejudices against BigLaw lawyers myself:
First, I'm often skeptical of the decision of many law students to go straight through from undergrad to law school to big firm, having never held any other job.  As a public interest student, I have had to think a lot about how to get the job I want and how to make it work for me as a career, because public interest jobs are extremely competetive and relatively low paying.  I feel that for me, this process is integral to my eventual job satisfaction.  I see a lot of law students follow the most often travelled path to big firms without a lot of thought about the consequences of that decision.  I suspect many law students take this path of least resistence because they don't know what they want to do.  While I can completely understand that feeling, I think this decision-making process is partly to blame for BigLaw's unbelievably low retention rates. 
While I can try to justify this perception, the fact is it's a prejudice that reflects my own choices.  I'm human so I make the judgment, but I'm trying to be self-aware so I keep it to myself (well sort of).
Second, I think there's a lot of blissful ignorance about what many large law firms do.  I think it's great that you know exactly what your firm has defended and promoted and can stand behind it, but the fact remains that most large litigation houses across the country participated in the defense of big tobacco.  The same goes for a number of social causes.  I think it's one thing to know something like that about a potential employer and decide to take a job there fully informed.  It's another to glide into BigLaw, preaching the virtues of free markets and transactional efficiency, without also recognising the harms large corporate law firms have facilitated.
So I admit to approaching BigLaw with some skepticism.  I hope I'm always respectful and thoughtful, but I also concede that chances are I'm prejudicial.  It's inevitable to be prejudiced aginst something (and it's usually whatever you're not).  So rather than pretend I'm otherwise I try and either keep it to myself or at least listen for the other side.

Peg

Would you agree with the notion that the judging goes only one way:                      PIL—> BigLaw?
Also, I think there are a lot of recent law grads that would take issue with the idea that only public interest jobs are competitive.  UCLA grads surely have a easy time getting into BigLaw but most recent grads do not.
You know its funny, my first year of law school I really felt pressured to go into public interest law.  I took a lot of heat from classmates that were focused on public interest and was the only person I knew that came to law school to join the capitalist machine of BigLaw.  Also, I felt like I was being told (by everyone) that BigLaw wasn't a realistic option so I should take a non-paying summer internship.  When working for nothing was the easier road, a lot of my classmates judged me negatively for insisting on pursuing what I came to law school to do.  The funny thing was, with time, all of the young law students that were so hell bent on changing the world, found themselves drawn to BigLaw too.  It was likely a combination of student loans, career services pressure, money, and the relative ease of finding a firm job compared to a change-the-world job.  They still hold onto their original good intentions just as I hold onto my "original plan".

msJD2007

<span 10pt; font-family: Verdana”>First, I'd note that all lawyers are under an ethical duty provide pro bono services, no matter what type of law they practice.  So your clinical professor is correct to a point. Many people cannot afford an attorney, and as feminists, we should consider how this affects low to middle class women. I don't think the legal profession has taken this issue very seriously. </span><span 10pt; font-family: Verdana”>That said, as a recent law school grad, I have a better appreciation for the pros and cons of big firm life.  Big law firms provide excellent training, good compensation/benefits, and many fun perks.  If you have extensive student loans or need to a provide for a family, it would be hard to argue against taking a big firm job. Big firms also have a lot of structure in terms of policies regarding parental leave, flex time, formal complaint processes etc.  However, you will usually work long hours doing work that is not always inspiring and it may take a long time to do the most challenging and interesting work. It may take over seven years to make partner, and most people will not make partner. There may also be implicit judgment for exercising your right to various benefits. I've also heard that some firms tolerate "screamers," or other unprofessional behavior towards support staff.  </span><span 10pt; font-family: Verdana”>The truth is that there are pros and cons to every legal job as related to feminist values. I believe it is important for feminists to consider their own surroundings and work to change their working environments from within, whether they are working for a big firm or a non-profit organization.  There is always room for change and progress.  </span> 

Peg

Just to clarify (and I could have been more clear upfront)... I am totally in favor of lawyers donating their time to a worthy pro bono cause.  I completely agree with and comply with the ABA Model Rules on 50 + hours of pro bono work a year.  I also give generously to charity, BOTH my TIME and my MONEY.
What I am not in agreement with is the notion that just because I have a law degree that I am obligated to WORK for a "worthy" cause on a full time basis or as part of my formal legal education (the tuiton for which I am going to be paying for for the next 20 or so years).  I am opposed to the idea that my law degree and skill is wasted on corporate law because I should be doing something more noble with my good fortune.  What I am in absolute outrage over is the idea that somebody should be able to tell me exactly which cause I must donate my time to, even if I am morally or politically opposed to that cause.

Kalokagathia

well put!

jessie

<div class=“author”><font color=”#7f4e86”>Peg</font> says: Would you agree with the notion that the judging goes only one way: PIL—> BigLaw?</div> Nope. As I mentioned, as an intellectual minority in business classes, I regularly dealt with skepticism and disdain from fellow students (and on more than one occaison professors). 
Frankly I don't think this is peculiar to the public interes/BigLaw divide.  I think people manage to get self-righteous about all kinds of things, and it's almost never warranted, helpful or appropriate.

lenagraber

As a white, female, middle/upper middle class, slightly under 30 third year student, I am a public interest lawyer because I am aware of the incredible entitlements associated with my race and economic class, and because I don't think they are fair.  I think people who are privileged, and in my experience, most or all law students are very privileged people, do, yes, have a social obligation to 1) recognize their privilege, and 2) try to share its benefits or broaden its advantages to people who are simply not as lucky.  I think biglaw reinforces social and economic privilege amongst the already socially and economically privileged, which is in my opinion an anti-democratic and repugnant social system.<div><br class=“khtml-block-placeholder” ></div><div>That said, changing the structures of privilege and rights in our sociaty is why I went to law school to begin with.  It's not what I expected law schools thought they were designed for.  I was aware that most law schools think they are corporate lawyer generating factories, and that's why many people attend them.  But I also think this fact that law schools assume everyone is just there to make lots of money is really depressing.  </div><div><br class=“khtml-block-placeholder” ></div><div>I think the way materialism and greed is accepted in our society as something supremely rational, that everyone would seek exclusively if only given the opportunity, is a tragic outgrowth of capitalist value marketing that undermines things I think are much more important, like substantive equality, democracy, sharing, community, charity, etc.  It makes it all that more difficult to try to achieve social justice because society is dominated by a focus on competitive financial hierarchies that operate by trying to get ahead of others rather than work together to make something good.</div>

1000faces

Funny, I think those who aren't "privileged" have a greater duty to work in public interest.  After all, those are the people who have experienced some of the clients' problems, do not come off as spoiled brats without a clue & need to be around as role models so there will be fewer people in need of legal aid services.
I'm the exact opposite of privileged, though not from total poverty.  In fact, I'm the first & only person in my entire (including extended family) to GO to law school much less become a lawyer.  I know what financial strain is like & how people in that boat view the "privileged"; it's not pretty.  My own parents view those with money as having problem free lives because of that money.  Unless someone is going to avoid designer labels at all costs, people will find out & that's going to make client trust hard to achieve unless someone like me i.e. a person who is from similar straits as the clients is there to explain this stuff & help the "privileged" be able to at least get the clients to listen to & trust them.
If you're the first to be a lawyer, you'll be told to take the highest paying job possible since you've earned it & don't have a bankroll to support a public interest job.  I plan to do public interest later when money's not an issue so I'm not constantly worried about paying off loans but I can still inspire more people to get out of the low income boat (not an easy task).  I don't see the need for fighting on this; it's not an "either or" task.  The big firm folk should just appreciate what they have & not live down to the stereotypes everyone, especially the poor, have of them.

lawmom

I have always practiced in the private sector (tho not for big firms) but I think there is a lot of truth in the adage "to those who much is given, much is expected".  So, I think there is a duty to serve.  That service can take a variety of forms.  I also think there is much to be said for a compulsory "tour of duty" in public service for all Americans - just as a way to give back for our many blessings/advantages.  But I hardly think it is a moral obligation for only lawyers or for only lawyers who make a lot of money.  I am not sure as many PIL are as judgmental of you as you think.  Part of me thinks this is your own discomfort for giving less than you feel you should.  There is an easy way to fix that!

Judith

>Just to clarify (and I could have been more clear upfront)...
>I am totally in favor of >lawyers donating their time to a
>worthy pro bono cause.  I completely agree with and
>comply with the ABA Model Rules on 50 + hours of pro
>bono work a year.
 
How in the world do you find time to do pro bono work?  I used to do pro bono.  Then I had kids.  Now I barely have time to make my hours, much less volunteer.  I used to have hobbies, volunteer work, a social life & enough sleep.  Now I have a toddler and a baby, and none of the other things.  It's a trade I made with my eyes open, granted, but I just laugh at people who suggest I need to do pro bono work too.

Peg

My firm gives full billable credit for pro bono.  You are right, without that, I am not sure how I'd have time.  I even get to do pro bono that is not at all related to my practice area and still get full credit. 
I agree with your comment and I think your point is reflected in Justice O'Conner's remarks in the lead Ms. JD story today.  Once I had a family, all of my personal interests were forgotten about.  My life is work and family.  I guess you could say that my family IS my hobby, and my only one these days.

nunyabiz

I agree with several comments from others, particularly Jessie, Lenagraber and the last Anonymous. I'm probably headed for public interest when I graduate next semester, and I definitely make negative comments/have a negative sentiment towards people who aren't. From reading your replies to some comments, I see why you think the negativity is a one-way street. But as Jessie said, I think many of us who are now in law school receive less-than-positive reactions from major firm-bound students when we talk about public interest work. I'm at a top 10 law school, and people here assume everyone's here to go to major law firms. I find it irritating when people ask me what "firm" I worked at over the summer or what firm I'm going to. My impression is that the majority of people in law school—or at least top law schools—are mainly attending for money, prestige/image, elitism and things of that nature, and so when they encounter people in law school who are obviously not going to be getting those kinds of things out of three torturous years at schools that cost $50000+...they just don't get it. They think we're nuts. Why would anyone go through what we go through in law school and spend/borrow so much money to not get paid very well?
So as much as you feel like people trivialize and place less of a value on corporate law, I think public interest is trivialized and devalued (especially financially) much more and that there are so many people who really don't care about helping anybody or that that's what you want to do. You say you wanted to be a corporate lawyer, but you don't say why. I, personally, can't see anyone wanting to do that for reasons other than the ones I mentioned. Even if it's to give your family a good life…that goes under "money," to me. Even if major law firms don't always help druggies and gunslingers, I don't know anybody who enters one of those firms knowing that or caring one way or the other who their law firm helps. It's a defensive argument, i.e. one used after you feel attacked by others for your choice, not to help you choose your path. Furthermore, I feel as if the industry/nation penalizes me for <i>not</i> thinking like that. I'm sure that if people got paid better for choosing work that benefits the underprivileged, you'd have more people in law school going towards that than going towards major firms.
Though I know a few lawyers who have left biglaw for public interest (and one of those has mentioned <i>several</i> times that her husband makes a lot of money), it's really not an either/or decision for everyone—I could probably never get hired by a major law firm, and furthermore, every time I consider sending a resume to one the word "intolerable" comes to mind for so many reasons—and not just because of who their clientele tends to be. I think it's so interesting that this site is dedicated to addressing women's issues in the legal profession, which stem from inequality in society, and yet there are so many women who would rather be in the corporate world than devote themselves to fighting that or any other kind of inequality as a career. (And I don't mean that all women should want to, particularly since, out of all the identities I have, I tend to feel I'm being treated unfairly due to sex/gender the least amount of time, while I suspect women who fit your description probably notice sex/gender issues more than someone like me would) If law firms are really as problematic for women as I hear they are, then I tend to view women who go to/remain in those places as somehow part of the problem, i.e. why consistently go somewhere you're not wanted/treated unequally, and who do you expect to fight to end those problems if not you? You can argue that by being in those firms, you are helping the fight and women disappearing rather than sticking around is one of the problems. I'm sorry, but I really just think of law firms as horrific environments for certain kinds of people (I'm the opposite of you in nearly every way, so let's just say I have more underprivileged identities that aren't truly valued in the legal profession, particularly law firms), and they are not where I, personally, want to go to fight for equality because I'm tired of being in environments (jncluding law school) that make me uncomfortable based on one or more of my identities (and one of the things that irritated me about the bit of the O'Connor interview I read is it makes it seem like the only problem women lawyers have is balancing work with families when that's maybe only true for those with certain identities)...
Which brings me to the points made about who should help the underprivileged and how law keeps privilege situated in the same types of individuals. Pretty much ditto <i>everything</i> the last "Anonymous" said, except I don't necessarily think <i>anyone</i> has a "duty". But, of the three or so times I've heard a "good for you" when I mention public interest work, those three people have <i>all</i> been underprivileged in some way—two because of race, one because of class and happens to have an interest in/has done a lot of work with race. I totally agree that the majority of people who attend law school, especially ones like mine, are privileged. So you have a bunch of privileged people getting into law school and choosing to attend in the first place <i>because</i> they want to remain/become even more privileged. These people are majority white and upperclass, so this is who corporate lawyers are (and because so many people in law school are privileged and/or want to become more privileged, you have relatively few helping the underprivileged). They become even more that when women/minorities get tired of feeling whatever it is they feel and leave firms whiter/more male as those white males' salaries/prestige increase. Even the women who stay—the majority of them being white—pass on the benefits they get from their job to their kids, who then want to become lawyers…and the cycle just continues. And the clients they serve also are privileged, and that's part of keeping privilege where it is, as well.
Again, I don't think you have a "duty," and this is not to make you feel bad about who you are, what you do and what you're able to accomplish. I don't mean this as an insult, but, frankly, I would hardly expect anyone from your background to choose public interest. Still, the dynamics really do totally <i>disgust</i> me (and then we have the nerve to be here wondering about why women are <i>still</i> treated like they are sometimes), and it goes to a point I made before about viewing people going into corporate law being part of the problem rather than the solution. And while I'm disgusted because of inequality, I feel like I'm the one being thought of as crazy because I don't value money over helping people who need it the most…not to say that you do, but, again, the judgment really does go both ways. Just being <i>very</i> honest with you about how I see the issue you raised. Sorry for the length, but it's like that when I get worked up!

sintecho

One thing I wanted to point out, though, is that it's not necessarily a fair conclusion that everyone who goes to work for a big firm is contributing to the current privilege structure of society.  I also went to a top-10 law school, and yes, most of my friends went to firms, but several of them devote significant time to pro bono work, use their substantial salaries to donote to non-profits (which supports jobs for those interested in public interest), and spend weekends and evenings doing a variety of volunteer work in their communities.  Also, the only way for the privilege structure to change (assuming that we continue to exist in a society that has a strata of incomes) is for people traditionally denied access to prestigious and well-paying jobs to gain access to those jobs.  If there are a finite number of high-paying firm jobs, I would rather have people taking those jobs who feel a responsibility to the less fortunate in society and who plan to use their status to promote social justice issues.  In my experience, a lot of people who work for firms do just that, so the issue becomes more convoluted than just an us versus them (and I work in public interest, so I count myself in that camp).

Peg

>>I don't mean this as an insult, but, frankly, I would hardly expect anyone from your background to choose public interest. Still, the dynamics really do totally <i>disgust</i> me (and then we have the nerve to be here wondering about why women are <i>still</i> treated like they are sometimes), and it goes to a point I made before about viewing people going into corporate law being part of the problem rather than the solution. <<
 I don't understand the statement you make above.  What do you know about my background?  Even if you read every comment that I've ever made on this website I am not sure you would have enough information to make such a statement about me.  So, you know that I am not an racial minority.  Is that what you are referring to?  You don't expect white people to choose public interest?  It is strange, but I have also had somebody make assumptions about the good health of my family on this site based on what I've written.  However, I've never said that I come from a privileged background or that my whole family is healthy either. 
  I don't find your statement insulting but I do find it very judgmental and very accusatory and presumptious.
  Here's the thing, you and I are likely two people that couldn't be more fundamentally different.  I am pro capitalism, pro America, and pro business.  I am a corporate lawyer because that is what I am good at.  I have a very business-oriented mind and a lifetime of experiences that make me great counsel to businesses.  I have an extensive training and academic background that make me better than most at helping businesses.  I find the work personally (and financially) fulfilling.  I don't think you read through my post… I don't think there is anything wrong with what I do.  However, one thing more… I think what public interest lawyers do is great and enormously important for society.  "Good for you."  I'm not judging you for not valuing money or critical of you wanting to go to a great law school and do good work.  I have a sister that is an RN and I always tell her that what she does is awesome and that she is an amazing person because I couldn't do it.  It's not that I'm not smart enough or missing an ability to learn the skills. I just am not that compasionate.  What's awesome is that there are people like her in hospitals helping sick people get better and people like me contributing to society in a way that I am truly exceptional at.  Again, "Good for you."

jessie

I was reminded of this post and the comment chain when I read Barak Obama's foreword for the Charleston Law Review. He's summed up my general view on the subject better than I did previously.

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