Law in Contemporary Society

Ready for grading

From the Classroom to the Firm

-- By AmandaHungerford - 11 Feb 2008


Nine months after graduating from CLS, 78.3% of students are employed by a law firm, while only 4.3% work in public interest. But why such dramatic flocking to the firms? The pay is better, but the hours are worse, the work is more tedious, and it could be years before young associates see the inside of a courtroom.

One thing driving the masses to Big Law is three years of acculturation. From the first day of law school students are assimilated into firm culture. Thurman Arnold wrote of organizations that “the environment puts great pressure on [] individuals to conform to what is expected of them in terms both of practical results and the representation of sentimental ideals.” (350) So, too, do law schools put pressure on students to conform to firm culture.

What follows is a functional analysis of law school.

The Curve

The curve is one of the first mechanisms to influence new students’ thoughts and behavior. Through it, students are effectively told they will no longer be measured by merely their own merits, but also by the merits of others. In subtle ways the curve thus affects students’ interactions with others.

Qualitative and quantitative studies (with an admittedly small sample size) of this phenomenon yield interesting results. The qualitative data reveals that most people do think the curve influences behavior. Most students perceive others as sharing information more readily when their grade is not in danger, and withholding help when their grade seems threatened.

But interestingly, practically every single person who responded maintained that the curve never influenced his/her own behavior. Part of that might have come from fear of peer disapproval, but 95% of participants who filled out an anonymous survey also indicated that their willingness to help another would not be affected by how competitive the other student was for a good grade. If respondents are lying, they are also lying to themselves.

The truth about the curve seems to be that it doesn’t stop students from helping each other – but many people think it does. If anything, then, the curve’s real influence is on what people think, not what people do. Students believe that others are refraining from helping them, and the qualitative data indicates they are reacting with no small amount of bitterness. Even if the curve does not increase competitiveness, if it makes students feel alienated from each other, it is an ineffective learning tool.

Sacrificing Relationships

ILs quickly find that law school’s pace is frenetic, and the work all-consuming. It doesn’t have to be that way. Given that law schools must have a (notoriously undemanding) third year, the IL year could be relaxed, and the workload spread out more evenly. Yet, as suggested by Adam Carlis, having little free time in law school gets students accustomed to having little free time when they go to firms. By then, sacrificing personal relationships for Big Law will be the norm.

Few people would willingly sign up for a lifetime of work, so the sacrifice is always framed as a temporary one: it’ll just be like this until IL is over; then, until law school is over; then, until I make partner. Young lawyers become ingrained in choosing work over relationships before they realize what is happening.

There’s always the possibility, of course, that law firms don’t actually set one up for a lifetime of work. There are cushier law firm jobs out there, such as in-house counsel, which pays less but has better hours. Still, such jobs are not an option for everyone who decides they are tired of being overworked. The in-house counsel market is a relatively small one. Furthermore legal outsourcing has placed many more lawyers in search of work, and the slow economy could potentially soon leave even more lawyers looking for a job. The truth is that many people may not be able to find alternative work, even if they want to. What’s more, since in-house counsel often pays less than firm work, people who become accustomed to a certain lifestyle may feel as if they (and those dependent upon them) can't afford to make the switch.

Concluding Thoughts

While some law students do enter CLS planning to work for a big firm and never look back, many more come in with vague plans about “doing good” while “supporting themselves.” By the end of law school, however, the vast majority of people will have agreed to work for a firm. Many will likely find they have ended up in Big Law not because of some purposeful path they set out on, but rather because they got swept along in the tide of CLS. It was easy; moreover, it was what their law school experience was designed to have them do.


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r19 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:14:07 - IanSullivan
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