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March 09, 2005

Going to the Movies with E. McPan!

And now for more voyeuristic listening pleasure, check out the latest edition of Ambivalent Voices (mp3), in which E. McPan of the Neutral Zone Trap turns the tables and manages to spend the bulk of our conversation asking me questions, including whether I'm really a student or just taking out a bunch of loans to fund my blogging habit (apologies if my sarcastic response came off sounding harsh; it's only b/c I fear it's all too true!), and whether my double-dipping at the movies (which is practically nonexistent, honestly!) extends to candy and condiments. Ms. McPan explains why this mortifies her so (it has something to do with a grande frappucino and the price of Diet Dr. Pepper) and then tells us very briefly a bit about why she's in law school and how the Department of Defense might be monitoring her site. After talking with her, I can assure the DOD that they should watch her carefully or risk allowing society to become a much more fun and more just place. Oh, and if she ruled the world, no movie theater would ever be hopped, and the DOD has got to love that. (Note: What you hear is basically the unedited file except that we got cut off halfway through so I had to splice two files together in the middle of the frappucino at the movies story and there's a bit of jump there. Sorry about that.) One thing that didn't make it into the recording was E. asking whether it was strange for me to be calling and talking to people whom I've never met or spoken with before. The answer is, yes, it is . . . a little weird. (Think here about the first “Matrix” movie when Neo wakes up on the Nebuchadnezzar (the ship) and he's in the chair for the first time and just before Morpheus puts the jack in the back of his head for the first time Morpheus says, “this will feel . . . a little weird. Yeah, it's kinda like that. Damn, I love that movie!) I'm also just making this podcasting thing up as I go along. The three terrific people I've spoken with so far have been great sports, absolutely a joy to talk with, and have helped cover the awkward moments when I'm not sure what to say—and for that I thank them. John Stewart I'm not, but it's fun to talk to interesting people and I never know what I might learn. There's obviously an immediacy to speaking with someone directly, rather than just communicating via posts and comments or emails. As with any new ”activity,“ there's been a bit of learning curve to figure out how to turn these phone calls into little ”pieces“ of audio fun, but the time each one takes is getting shorter and shorter, even as each individual ”episode“ gets longer. At any rate, I hope you're all enjoying it as much as I am. As always, if you would like to join me for an edition of Ambivalent Voices, it would be great to talk with you so please drop me an email (via the ”contact ai“ link above right) and we'll set it up. Technotes: This podcast was recorded by phone via I added bumpers via Garageband and compressed the mp3 in iTunes. To subscribe to Ambivalent Voices in a podcast aggregator, add this link to your aggregator's subscription list. Or you can simply right-click here to download the file directly. (Clicking that link should open the mp3 in your browser, too.) In addition to being able to access these recordings via my Slapcast page, you can also find the local posts about each recording conveniently collected in the voices category here on ai.

Posted 08:40 AM | Comments (4) | voices

BigLaw Review, Or Why I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love LittleLaw

Now that the GW journal competition is over (it officially ended at 8 p.m. Monday night), I send my congratulations to those who competed. You probably now know more than most people about sex offender registries and you've produced a small piece of what's probably some very good legal writing. Regardless of what you learn in July about being on a journal, you should feel good about what you've done just by completing the thing. In that spirit, I also wanted to comment on the comments generated by this post from late last week. To summarize, a GW 1L had written asking for advice on the journal competition. I offered my two cents, including a few words about how someone might choose which journals to rank highest in their “preferences” list. Self-described BigLaw senior associate and GW alum David Kaufman wrote in to say:
I (and keep in mind this is one BigLaw lawyer talking) couldn't care less if you were on an irrelevant journal or not, if it's not Law Review. So if you're interested in Gvt Contracts, I'd go for that journal over “realistic” ranking, because I don't much care about journals that aren't Law Review to begin with, but being on a relevant journal to the field you're interested in getting into would help you. If that's not clear, let me know.
He later clarified a bit and Professor Yin and Energy Spatula added some helpful perspective. What I wanted to add is that this is a perfect example of why BigLaw is so not for me. My experience has been that Duncan Kennedy was absolutely correct when he described legal education as training for hierarchy (in an essay by that name), and this discussion about law review v. other journals v. no journal at all is a perfect example of how that training works. Law school is very good at teaching students to think in high stakes, either/or terms about their career choices. It begins with taking the LSAT and applying for schools, where the conventional wisdom is that you must have the highest scores you can possibly get and you must attend the highest-ranked school to which you can gain admission—otherwise, you might as well not go at all. The training continues in the first year with the myriad competitions where you either win and receive congratulations and accolades, or lose and retreat to your outlines to ponder whether you're really good enough or smart enough or whatever to make it in this racket. And, of course, the training goes on throughout school, with still more competitions, ruthless grading curves, and the constant cycle of interviews and job-seeking that sorts people into the best—and everyone else. Isn't that what the “law review or nothing” mantra means? These lessons of all or nothing hierarchy are drilled into most 0Ls to such an extent that they often make foolish choices and end up in programs that don't fit them as individuals and which do not serve their career goals. But quickly they learn that, whatever goals they may have had when they started applying to law school, the only legitimate goal of any self-respecting law student—nay, the only possible goal if they do not want to live a life of shame and poverty, or worse—is to scrap and scrape for every little “distinction” that will earn them a coveted spot w/in the miserable and too often morally questionable corridors of “BigLaw” where they can help perpetuate the dispiriting cycle for the generations to follow. As I've said before, Kennedy's essay is well worth reading in its entirety, but his comments on the firm hiring process are especially relevant to this point. He writes:
The final touch that completes the picture of law school as training for professional hierarchy is the recruitment process. As each firm, with the tacit or enthusiastically overt participation of the law schools, puts on a conspicuous display of its relative status within the profession, the profession as a whole affirms and celebrates its hierarchical values and the rewards they bring. This process is most powerful for students who go through the elaborate procedures of firms in the top half of the profession. These include, nowadays, first-year summer jobs, dozens of interviews, second-year summer jobs, more interviews etc., etc. This system allows law firms to get a social sense of applicants, a sense of how they will contribute to the nonlegal image of the firm and to the internal system of deference and affiliation. It allows firms to convey to students the extraordinary opulence of the life they offer, adding the allure of free travel, expense-account meals, fancy hotel suites and parties at country clubs to the simple message of money.   . . .   By dangling the bait, making clear the rules of the game, and then subjecting almost everyone to intense anxiety about their acceptability, firms structure entry into the profession so as to maximise acceptance of hierarchy. . . . If you feel you’ve succeeded, you're forever grateful, and you have a vested interest. If you feel you've failed, you blame yourself. When you get to be the hiring partner, you'll have a visceral understanding of what's at stake, but by then it will be hard even to imagine why someone might want to change it.   Inasmuch as these hierarchies are generational, they are easier to take than those baldly reflective of race, sex or class. You, too, will one day be a senior partner and, who knows, maybe even a judge; you will have mentees and be the object of the rage and longing of those coming up behind you. Training for subservience is learning for domination as well. Nothing could be more natural and, if you've served your time, nothing more fair than to do as you have been done to.
As Energy Spatula pointed out well, it's not only students who are poorly served by the myopic mentality of this legal hierarchy, but the profession itself suffers because BigLaw employers too often hire based merely on the “numbers” and credentials, without looking at the individual characteristics that might make a prospective associate a real asset to the firm. She writes:
My point, as always, is that if law firms hired according to other factors, such as demonstrated practical skills, experience with high-pressure work situations/past career experience, interviews that weren't just grade screening sessions, etc., perhaps there wouldn't be big firms whining on about how Gen Y doesn't have any work ethic and no one wants to work hard anymore. I *always* advocate for individualistic hiring practices based on some kind of interview that is more than perfunctory and that establishes a rapport between interviewer and interviewee where interviewer gets an actual glimpse of whether interviewee might be a valuable asset to the organization. I could write a book on my terrible law firm interviews...stupid questions, interviewers that hadn't read my resume, interviewers that totally depended on me to push the interview along, firms that told me, point blank, that I was lucky to even get an interview with them because my grades aren't perfect and then just sat and stared at me for five minutes...waiting for my gushing thanks no doubt. We joke all the time in school about how law schools push for diversity in admitting students and then spend three years making us all the same...and unfortunately, “the same” that they're making us is someone no one wants to work with and who is hired based on things like law review and grades, which, while important, are not Important.
This, in turn, damages society because it produces a cadre of professionals who have never learned what it means to be a “counsellor at law” or a guardian of liberty because they've been too busy gunning for the illusory golden ring and making sure everyone who follows in their footsteps has to pay the same exorbitant price they paid for the privilege. It's sad, really, and I want as little to do with it as possible. Of course, I'm absolutely certain that there are happy, well-adjusted, kind and humane people working in BigLaw (I know a few of them); it's not satan's own playground, by any means, and I applaud those who recognize that the system is badly in need of change and are trying to do something about it. Still, evidence abounds that the BigLaw hierarchical model is still going strong at all levels of the legal profession. See, for example, the recent discussion on many blawgs about whether it's necessary to attend a top-10 law school to become a law professor. E.g. Preaching to the Perverted here and here (including links to other voices in that discussion). Again, the brutal hierarchy perpetuates itself. Is there some hope in the news that “Gen Y” lawyers are balking at the hierarchy's demands? Perhaps. At the very least, it's sparked some terrific discussion, including this giant comment thread at the Volokh Conspiracy. (See also: Thoughts from Anthony Rickey.) However, reading around that discussion only adds to my cynicism about BigLaw. First, I agree with this comment that much of this could just be normal generational squabbling; in about 1993 I wrote an article for my college magazine about those slacker Gen-Xers, and now it appears I could write the same thing about Generation Y. Another commenter puts it this way:
So to those who think they have sussed out something new: not quite. We all billed over 2000 hours back in the day, and I hit 2400 most years. We neither expected nor received loyalty from the firm (although it was rare for an associate to be shafted by a partner - why bother?). We knew even then that the big money was on the client side, but most of us lacked the social skills to thrive in a more entrepreneurial environment. And like today's associates, Generation Schmuck paid a price for our work that was measured in more than foregone vacations: plenty of marriages (my own included) did not survive our law firm tenure.
That's a great comment because it captures the bitterness and resentment of those who have spent their lives trying to rise in the hierarchy. That bitterness and resentment destroys any empathy these battered practitioners may have once had for those following in their footsteps, leaving them, again, with the pyrrhic satisfaction of being able to make sure their successors pay the same high price they paid for their misery. As Kennedy puts it, “[n]othing could be more natural and, if you've served your time, nothing more fair than to do as you have been done to.” If that's not enough, this discussion also offers little hope that anything is changing because it simply reinforces the fact that the legal “profession” has become nothing more than the pursuit of profit for a large and unfortunately influential swath of practitioners. (See, e.g., this complaint that $120k/year really isn't a very big salary.) Perhaps this is the logical endpoint of the hierarchy—like the proverbial snake it begins to eat its own tail. As Kennedy writes, “[t]raining for subservience is learning for domination as well.” Or perhaps not; perhaps what's at work with these “gen-Y” associates is not that they are becoming “rational actors” in the self-serving sense of pursuing their own profit at any cost, but that they are realizing that there's more to life than billable hours and climbing a ladder that may very well lead only to more rungs. For their sakes, and for the sake of society, I hope so.

Posted 08:05 AM | Comments (5) | 2L law general law school

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