Monday, December 12, 2005

Choosing Corporate Law & Selling Out

I stumbled across this article recently published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Ms. Su may be a law student living on the other side of the planet, but I think her concerns of joining the corporate world speak as loudly in Canada as in the Philippines.

The title of Ms. Su's article is "
Selling out". After she graduated from law school, she "sold out" to a firm that primarily does corporate law.
I had joined the ranks of the stalwarts of capitalism, joked a friend.
Her article starts in a defensive tone reacting to criticism and ends in an attack of the critics. Part explanation, part excuse, part truth telling, Ms. Su's piece sounds painfully honest. In her introverted quest to figure out how she got to where she is, she asks many questions that I imagine go through the minds of law schools students around the world:
And what’s wrong with corporate law anyway? Did I just sell my soul to the devil? Is a life revolving around Starbucks latte and macchiato and fax machines and e-mails the epitome of greed and evil? In any case, I never said I would be here for the rest of my life.
I've asked myself the same questions. Many students who take jobs on Bay Street or Wall Street or wherever, seem to have the same thought: it is only temporary. I will develop the skills I need to do what I really want to do. And then (as the story goes), they/we get brainwashed by corporate culture and peer-pressure.
Those who went into corporate law, like the many others ahead of me, did not sell out because that is where they could make the most out of their talents or maybe that was where they were needed. Those who opted to work in government but cheat the public out of justice every single day do.
Her reasoning reminds me of a shocking article I recently read, On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession, by Professor (and former law firm partner) Patrick Schiltz. His article (you can find it on either Quicklaw or Westlaw) describes how the mentalities of students change when they join a law firm. A secondary source, available online, describes what can happen to a 25 year old associate (Ms. Su also happens to be 25 years old) in a big firm:
For perspective, consider a twenty-five year-old lawyer who bills 2400 hours a year for 20 years, a total of 48,000 hours at an average billable rate over that span of $300 per hour. At age forty-five, that lawyer may inventory his life: gross billings, $14.4 million; at or near the top of the pyramid structure that supports what Professor Schiltz describes as the "skim"; divorced; estranged from children; hypertense; depressed; a reputation as a hardball player; transitory transactional relationships; a luxurious home and car plus a sport utility vehicle; an ample taste for fine wines and cigars; and a question: What have I done with my life?
The questions Ms. Su asked apply to the North American context, so I wonder if the inevitable decline into an "unethical profession" applies to a Filipino context. Ms. Su ends her article by sharing her dream. What she really wants to do with her life is:
... to enable the poor to live in castles.
Nice dream. It would be interesting to see where she is 20 years down the road. Will she be the lawyer who beats the odds and helps poor people better their lives, or will she confirm Schilz's forecast and sell out?


At 1:12 AM, Blogger þΛųL jØŋαŦhΛŋ said...

i believe this dilemma is all the more exacerbated when it comes to minority law students... my family happens to be one of those ms. su talks about that left to chase the canadian dream... part of the expectation seems to be that, as a minority, one would "give back" to the community (whatever that means)...

last year, i attended a discussion panel on diversity arranged by one of the sister firms... one of the "token" (?) associates made a comment that minority lawyers tend to be "ghetto-ized" into certain practice areas, and though he commended them for their contributions, he tried to make the case that there should be more visible minorities trying to get to bay street, where the real levers of power seem to be (of course, he didn't say that exactly, but that's what he meant)...

in any case, ms. su's arguments about the merits of private vs. public practice wouldn't really apply here, since we don't have the same level of corruption in the public legal sector here in canada (i say this also to make myself feel better about working for M.A.G. next summer)... still, good food for thought...

i'll just end with a paraphrase of something prof. allan hutchinson told us in first year: "if you're looking to tear down the walls, you might be in the wrong place in law school... this profession depends very much on preserving the status quo as much as possible, or at least rocking the boat as little as possible..."

At 4:12 PM, Anonymous Jordan said...

Many students who take jobs on Bay Street or Wall Street or wherever, seem to have the same thought: it is only temporary. I will develop the skills I need to do what I really want to do. And then (as the story goes), they/we get brainwashed by corporate culture and peer-pressure.

This isn't a corporate law thing, though -- the entire culture of legal practice (regardless of firm location, size or specialty) is a powerful and persuasive immersion that performs a priority makeover on all but a few who join it. Most law students enter law practice mentally and emotionally unprepared to make a living serving a client's interests, and the resulting disillusionment and alienation should come as no surprise.

Both law schools and the profession need to do a better job of bridging the gap between school and practice -- to explain that serving clients' interests is both necessary and noble, and that "selling out" has little to do with where you work and much to do with how you conduct yourself as a professional -- one who must swear an oath of integrity before being admitted to practice. We'd all be happier lawyers if these lessons didn't need to be learned on the job.

I commend Ms. Su's desire to place the poor in castles (although she may run into Dennis Moore's Lupin Dilemma if she manages to pull it off). But you can be a good lawyer without undertaking that kind of Herculean task -- all you have to do is serve your clients, your community, your court and your conscience, whatever your practice. The castle file might actually be the easier one, admittedly, but it's no less rewarding than the other.

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