And are the attitudes of law students and young lawyers evolving on this issue?
One point I thought about including in the post (but omitted for length reasons): why not work for a plaintiff-side firm? Why do so many progressive law students troop off to Biglaw after graduation?
In a recent episode of my podcast with Zach Sandberg, "Movers, Shakers, and Rainmakers," we interviewed Kelsey McCann, chief of staff at Edelson PC. She argued that at plaintiffs' firms like Edelson, you can do good AND do well (financially). She added that Edelson and other plaintiff-side firms are getting increasing interest from students at top law schools. Episode here:
The notion that large corporations are inherently evil or are presumptively harming people or the environment intentionally is totally detached from reality, which I suppose is par for the course for progressives.
In my 12 years of BigLaw practice as a litigator and regulatory attorney, I have never once represented a public corporation that had knowingly or intentionally violated the law or had any intention of violating the law, nor have I ever talked to any colleague that has ever had that experience. In fact, of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of claims I've defended on behalf of large companies, a small handful, less than 5, actually had merit.
Legal departments in the Fortune 500 are almost entirely dominated by left-leaning lawyers who were trained at left-leaning firms, though many come to appreciate how astonishingly asinine blue state laws are. Regardless of political affiliation, attorneys at public companies are all uniformly risk adverse. Even large, closely-held businesses in the US, with very few exceptions, are extremely risk adverse . . . to a fault. The idea that they would tolerate even borderline illegal behavior is fanciful.
The reality is that US corporations operate in a legal system that is virtually always stacked against them. Tort laws in the US overwhelming serve only to transfer wealth from businesses to plaintiff's attorneys. Vanishingly few lawsuits filed in the large US jurisdictions against big businesses have merit and even those that do typically present trivial claims.
When I discuss such topics with lefty friends, I always come back to the same question: why is it that it's only you and your progressive friends that know these deep, dark secrets about society and "the system?" The answer is that it's because they're eyes are open, they're not greedy, they care, they are SPECIAL, which is what this is really all about: them.
Perhaps the intern should be required to read the collected works of Michael Shellenberger and Bjorn Lonborg and then reassess whether an ethical dilemma is at hand.
I find this to be hilarious. In Biglaw pro bono representation of Islamic terrorists is good, representing a Republican is bad. Suing a religious institution over its First Amendment protected abortion or traditional marriage views is good, representing anyone who supports the Second Amendment right to bear arms actually gets you kicked out of the firm. How delusional do you have to be to think you won't be welcome in Biglaw? Try being a mainstream conservative.
Appiah's answer is spot-on. We need to find this trend of equating lawyers with their clients, whether the clients are alleged murderers or accused polluters.
Defending a murderer doesn't make YOU a murderer. Defending the unpopular is one of the finest traditions of the legal profession.
I want to echo David's last observation. There are lawyers who work for PI firms in communities across the country that make many times more than your average Big Law partner. And if you can shake off the brainwashing that being a partner at an AmLaw 100 firm is prestigious (if prestige is something you crave) you can do well by doing good. As an alternative, given your credentials, you might be able to get a job with a government agency. At the federal level you can make a decent wage. You won't get rich, but you can have a real impact and support yourself.
You know who lacks a lot of law journal, top of the class young lawyers from the top 14 law schools? Plaintiffs' firms. Why don't these zealous little wokies go take a risk on representing plaintiffs against these corporations? I'll hazard a guess. Whatever their claim to moral superiority they mostly got where they were by avoiding all risk and chasing positions that their kind an class believe are prestigious. The Plaintiffs' bar isn't seen that way, requires an appetite for risk and the ability to deal with clients who are normal people who make less than 60k a year and probably never even tasted avocado toast. The day they asked some 55 year old ironworker who has cancer from working 30 years in a plant with friable asbestos what his pronouns are they might have their world view uncomfortably shattered. Safer to work making sure Eli Lily's patents don't lapse early.
There are also a host of jobs, considered non-prestigious at Yale, mostly in non-profits and government that allow student loans to be wiped out in 15-20 years if you dont' go into the private sector. No Tesla's for you but work that has to be done and can get rid of your loans.
Does this seem harsh? So's the world kid. Get a grip.
When I left big La many years ago, I had two job offers. One was to go work at a plaintiffs’ class action securities firm. The other was to go work for the non-tobacco subsidiary of a big cigarette company. I decided I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror if I was working as a plaintiffs securities class action lawyer, so I took the in-house job. Chacun à son goût, as they say.
David, I think your anecdotal sense is right. I think working for Biglaw is becoming less acceptable, at least in some circles of progressive law students.
If you are a smart and hardworking law student, there are so many other things you can do with your talents. It's not just public interest or government work. As you mentioned, you can be a plaintiff's lawyer (and some of them make tons of money).
Biglaw is not the be-all and end-all for top law students. Or at least it shouldn't be.
I don't think working in Biglaw in inherently unethical. But there is a notion of being true to yourself, and working in Biglaw might violate that for some people.
I would highlight this part of Appiah's response (not excerpted by David):
"Getting money to escape debt and help your family is a perfectly reasonable aim, consistent with being an ethically admirable person. But so is taking satisfaction in your work. If much of your time is spent in the service of corporate nogoodniks, you may well end up being unhappy."
Also, work at a government agency for 10 years and I think you're student loans will be forgiven.
David, William Lee sees no ethical dilemma in representing Harvard against Asian American students, while others liken it to Thurgood Marshall representing Topeka’s Board of Education instead of Mr. Brown. I side with Mr. Lee on his representation and the Asian American students on the merits. No contradiction there. Perhaps we should all stop virtue signaling to 20-something’s who believe that they have the world figured out. They typically don’t.
I am terrified with where we are as a species.
I worked in BigLaw for 19 years, 7 as an associate and 12 as a partner. I long thought of myself as a left-leaning moderate, but by today's standards, I am probably now more a full-fledged liberal. I went to law school to become a criminal defense attorney, but as graduation neared, and law school loans mounted, BigLaw money was too tempting to reject, especially with the then-vast, and today-insane, disparity in pay between new lawyers practicing in BigLaw, on the one hand, and new lawyers practicing in criminal defense, public interest, or government, on the other hand.
To my fellow liberals:
1. I never regretted my decision to work in BigLaw. The work, while at times oppressive, was rewarding and consistently intellectually stimulating. And, as another commenter noted, the compensation allowed me not only to payoff my loans, but also to semi-retire early, during which semi-retirement I have had the time to do volunteer legal work and to teach annually a law school writing course.
2. In all those years, only once did I feel initially squeamish about representing a client on a particular matter. That client was a sporting goods chain, and I was retained to appeal a local government's denial of a firearms dealer's license. But the law and facts convinced me that there was a compelling argument that the denial was, in fact, wrongful, and so I handled the appeal, and eventually got my client a license to sell guns in one of its stores. While I then and now support strict gun regulation (especially in urban and suburban areas!), my problem is with the law itself, not with my corporate client's desire to avail itself of the benefit of that law. Similarly, I think many of my fellow liberals do not mind (as much as conservatives seem to mind) paying the income tax required by law; nonetheless, I and every liberal I know wants to take advantage of every single deduction allowed by law, including deductions we may think as a matter of policy should not exist.
3. Both of my firms had requirement under which every associate had to devote each year a certain number of hours to pro bono matters, and I knew from friends at other BigLaw firms that their respective firm had a comparable requirement. As a result, BigLaw firms affiliate with public interest organizations that feed pro bono matters to those firms.
So, equating BigLaw practice with the representation of evil is bit extreme.
BUT, to conservatives, let's not overstate how principled corporations are:
1. I have experienced a number of instances where a client wanted me to take a course of action, I explained why that course was unlawful, and the client made clear its desire to take the risk, wanting me to pursue that course. Yes, that was not a common experience, but it did (and I am sure still does) happen. (FWIW, in each such incident, I explained that if the client was insisting upon pursuing an illegal course, they would need to find a new law firm, and I am quite sure every partner in each of my firms would have responded similarly. And in my experience, not one of those clients left the firm over it.)
2. Quite a few cigarette manufacturers for decades misled the public about the addictiveness of their product. Numerous corporations emit significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, and some of those corporations mislead the public about being "carbon neutral." It was in the news just recently that carbon neutrality is often predicated upon existing green projects that were going to take place anyway, and are thus illegitimate as a true offset of the corporation's carbon emissions. These are but a few examples of corporate conduct that, while not necessarily illegal, is surely unethical. So, law students and new lawyers who have no interest in working at for-profit corporations are not per se engaged in some crazy wokeness. Corporations exist to generate profit, and often the means of generating that profit, while not illegal, is still not in the public interest. It seems to me perfectly sound reasoning for a lawyer to decide they want no part of that.
If you want to gain some insight into the current issue, I recommend reading the Icelandic sagas, in which legal disputes often figured prominently. They had an adversarial legal system like ours. However, parties typically showed up in court (the Thingvellir) with both clever arguments and a large cohort of armed men. There was an interplay between law and the threat of violence. Justice, in the modern sense, often prevailed. Yet, a sufficiently fierce cohort could enable bad actors to act with impunity.
Compare that with today's actual legal system. How many of us could go head-to-head with a titan of industry in a personal dispute? We are, for all intents and purposes, in an equivalent legal situation. The idea of fairness is a cruel fiction.
NB, The Icelandic sagas are a somewhat fictionalized account of the history of Iceland from about 950 AD to 1100 AD. They were written in the 1200's.
I know this is tangential to the post, but it is incredible to me how many ostensibly smart people view the climate situation as "apocalyptic" or an "existential threat". Is this a virtue signaling thing or do these people not know what those words mean?