Law in Contemporary Society
I got into an argument last night with a friend of mine. I desperately wanted to argue that biglaw associates were part of the capitalist/ruling/upper class. He won.

In reading Cerriere's Answer, I was struck by the line " . . . if, by class, we mean the amount of economic control you have over your work." (Seems to be almost the same as the "pawn your license" critique.) I found this definition remarkable because it turns on its head assumptions about class as a descriptor of purchasing power, political clout, or relationship to industry/productivity.

In some ways, when we graduate, we get to pick our "class" in that we can decide how much control over our work we will maintain. My friend's argument was that biglaw associates produce consumable goods (memos and briefs) at an hourly rate, a better argument seems to be that they are not part of the upper class because they maintain no real decision making authority over how their time is spent or their work is used.

It isn't, necessarily, an all or nothing proposition. There are places between hanging your own shingle and Cravath that offer various degrees of autonomy. And, perhaps servitude is a more comfortable place for the risk-adverse. Nevertheless, as the firms continue to throw goodies in our face, it is interesting to think about whether they are inviting us to partake in the consumption of them, or whether we, as associates, are like the servants Veblen talks about who work to show off the master's wealth but who do not truly have any of their own.

-- AdamCarlis - 27 Mar 2008

I'm not sure the "if by" you point out in Cerriere really makes much difference for the classification you imply when you say that one class is the "capitalist/ruling/upper." There are all sorts of classifications, and I think that (say) purchasing power and control over one's work shouldn't even be considered on the same continuum (just as some would probably argue for purchasing power and blue-blooded breeding).

Dictionaries talk about "socioeconomic" classes but I think there's a great case for splitting them and leaving you with the less remarkable idea that fresh biglaw associates are of a high economic and (by virtue of their jobs, at least) mediocre social class.

-- DanielHarris - 27 Mar 2008

With regard to the “control” issues that have been discussed, and specifically to carry [] comments in a little different direction, my viewpoint will probably sound antagonistic and belittling, but I feel compelled to put it out there: Does anyone really think that any lawyer in a supervisory capacity should feel comfortable giving a 20-something who is fresh out of law school and who most likely has no or very little serious job experience any measure of control that could possibly jeopardize long-built and well-established client relations or the firm’s reputation generally? Let’s go one step further: new associates, on top of being very young and inexperienced generally, begin working in these “V50” firms where they, as a general matter, don’t have the specific technical knowledge base for their area of specialization, or knowledge of the “community” that they are serving, to even begin to know what might be an effective legal position when approaching a multi-dimensional problem that can intersect with other practice areas. Associates at firms of any size start as apprentices, with most of the assumptions that go into an apprenticeship: taking orders, learning, shadowing, and gradually working your way over many years toward partnership consideration. Then, if you pass that mark, you usually get all the control you want, and that in itself can be a draining, multi-dimensional commitment. If you want more control than this, then you may want to hang your own shingle, with all the speculation that comes with that: many years of trying to get your name out to build your own clientele while in the shadow of the local firms, while at the same time paying the rent, overhead, and staff. Good luck on that one. Consider a six-figure salary a true blessing, even if it comes with what seems like no control. The longer you work, the more control you presumably will earn via building up your own reputation among your colleagues. All this by way of saying, keep in mind that you, as well as anyone else in any profession, have to start somewhere.

If I've annoyed anyone, then "have at me;" but also keep in mind that I'm not necessarily distinguishing myself from 20-somethings -- I'm comfortable with the role of "new, green associate" as it applies to myself, too.

-- BarbPitman - 27 Mar 2008

Whether or not first year associates should be given important responsibilities or real control over their work is not, in my opinion, the interesting question. Law firms are structured in a certain way - probably, as you contend, for a good reason. The question is what that structure means in the context of Veblen and class relations.

If I understand him correctly, Adam Carlis' contention was that because of the nature of the law firm structure, young biglaw associates can't be categorized as members of the ruling class, as Veblen and Robinson understand it. I tend to agree with [], that a more nuanced understanding of the social strata - that takes into account issues like the social perception and desirability of the work - would seem to place biglaw associates in the upper crust, despite working conditions that might seem more like servitude. Either way, the normitive assertion that associates shouldn't have more freedom, seems, in my opinion, somewhat irrelevant. No one meant to say that associates deserve better or that they shouldn't be grateful for their positions; rather, the idea is to engage Veblen as a way of understanding how those positions fit into our social strata.

-- JuliaS?

As I said, I wanted to take [] comments in a little different direction. I frequently hear students disappointedly comment about the "control" issue. Yes, the prior conversation was about control as it relates to elitism, but I think the connection is misguided -- the control issues in law firms, in my opinion, reflect not social elitism, but economic protectionism. And whether one feels in "servitude" is immaterial, I think -- whether you are an associate "serving" a partner, or a partner "serving" a client, technically, everyone in the firm is in servitude. This may sound strange, but my husband, who has been at a large Midwest firm for almost 25 years, with 17 of those years in a partnership position, would echo what I'm saying here. And don't get me wrong -- my husband loves his job, but I don't think he feels that the level or quality of the servitude in which he has been engaged has changed much over the years -- any notable change has been in the identity of those to whom he is in direct service.

In sum, in many ways, law firm associates, with their educational level and income level, are part of the elite -- they just aren't as elite as those higher up on the letterhead. Of course, everything is relative, but say that to anyone who works in a law firm and who doesn't have a law degree.

Then again, I think the "ruling class" (distinguished from the "elite") is, if you are just talking about the economic ruling class, arguably composed of those who do not need to work for a living. To how many of us in the CLS 2010 class that currently applies is unclear. To how many of us it will apply later in life is also unclear.

All this by way of saying, based on the realities of law firm life that I've seen and heard about over the years, I don't think Veblen's theories are a very relevant overlay. But if you disagree, then "have at me" again -- I appreciate your comments -- they push my thinking on this.

-- BarbPitman - 29 Mar 2008

But "control" is one of those things that, once given up, clearly separates you from those in the decision making process. There is a difference between a firm where lawyers - even new ones - have input into the types of cases and client the firm takes on and those where lawyer - even experienced ones - are given assignments.

Once you make a habit of giving up that control, it is easy to be viewed ask, for lack of a better word, someone of a lower class and, therefore, significantly harder to regain it.

-- AdamCarlis - 30 Mar 2008

I agree, Adam -- just keep in mind that "input" (specifically, as you suggest, into the types of cases and clients the firm takes on) and "control" are not really the same thing. Input can make you feel like you've got a measure of control, but that doesn't mean you really have it.

-- BarbPitman - 30 Mar 2008

 

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