Law in Contemporary Society

Conspicuous Consumption and the Law Student

-- By DavidGarfinkel - 16 Apr 2010

Conspicuous Consumption as a Useful Metaphor

In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen discusses how the competitive and hierarchal nature of society often creates conspicuous consumption. He contends that conspicuous consumption necessitates demonstrating status in the form of visual indicators. Veblen's conspicuous consumption can serve as a useful tool in understanding part of the law student's experience and why so many law student's “pawn off their licenses” to law firms. This essay intends to go beyond the mere material aspect of conspicuous consumption, which is obviously prevalent throughout American society and exists within the law school. Instead, I will look at how this conspicuous consumption, hierarchy, and competition surrounds the law student and encourages the student to pawn their license.

The New Competition and Hierarchy Created by Law School

Upon entering college, most students move away from the society that they originated from. For most teenagers, college is the first true experiment in freedom. Students are whisked away from the societal competition and hierarchy of their parents and enter a new society made entirely of members of the leisure class with limited financial capabilities. In general, humanity is competitive and hierarchical by nature. These competitive elements inevitably seep in and take on some form as the college student strives to establish his place relative to his peers.

This competitive process takes an accelerated form with the beginning of the law school application process. The student (many of which will start law school relatively soon after graduating from college) begins to see the contours of law school's societal hierarchies and that there are tiers, even within the leisure class. The law school name and rank become the first true: rankings play a predominant role in which school most students will choose. In this process, perhaps, the individual encounters his first Geffen good: as rank and price of law schools rises, demand rises alongside it.

Competition and hierarchy are particularly visible and evident from the first day of classes. Columbia Law School, for instance, creates elements of competition and hierarchy through a rigid grading curve and doling out of titles, like Stone and Kent. Even at orientation, an elaborate ceremony is conducted to reward those with significant accomplishments before starting school. And unlike college grading schemes, first-year grading speaks little to a student's objective performance. Grades do not reflect individual achievement but represent individual achievement relative to others. An “A” does not signify “excellent” so much as it signifies “better than everyone else.” The main implication of such a grading system are clear: my classmates are my competition. First semester grades end up becoming the go-to commodity and the lengths students go to try get top marks is similar to the efforts of the leisure class to "keep up with the Jones." In some sense, there is a similar fetishization of grades that one sees in certain material objects.

The hierarchical elements of law school that force conspicuous consumption run even deeper. Students are asked to apply to a variety of programs and positions with limited seats, such as moot courts, fellowships, and board positions. And this process is continually renewed through new arenas, from summer job searches to clinic/journal applications—especially law review. Such positions may have little relevance in practice. But, in a system based on evaluative relativity, even the most asinine of distinctions and titles can serve to distinguish the law student from his or her peers.

Pawning Our License as the beginning of a new conspicuous consumption

The problem the law student faces in her attempt to attain these titles and objects of status is the realization that they do not carry over after law school. Being president of a student organization has little lasting impact on one's practice. Students, then, rely on EIP—the gateway into a competition with a more lasting impact, as students compete to get into top law firms. And again, this decision is significantly colored by the ranking of the individual firm, with sights set on achieving the coveted title of associate at Sullivan or Wachtell, etc.

For the prestige of working at a highly ranked firm, the individual is willing to sacrifice a higher amount of time, happiness, and personal worth. While the lawyer may be reduced to a line on a business card, it is an important sounding line. The status symbol of the law firm replaces all of the previous adornments. And in Veblen terms, the prestige translates into waste and is another form of conspicuous consumption. The title does not reflect the quality or importance of the work, but will serve to maintain and define social status within the community. In sum, the firm becomes the object that determines the student's spot in the social hierarchy. By the beginning of the third year, most law students have transitioned from the old social hierarchies of college and law school to the hierarchy of the leisure class of America, the point one arrives at after graduation. And as the lawyer becomes more entrenched in his new position in the hierarchy, it becomes harder to regain the pawned license. The individual is forced into a cycle of new competitions and new titles that will define his status and result in the material aspect of conspicuous consumption that was central to Veblen’s thesis.


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r10 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:34:20 - IanSullivan
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