Law in Contemporary Society
I found this campaign ( at Harvard to get students to think about why they are choosing to work for firms to be interesting, particularly given the themes of this course and our conversation today about grades.

Grades for me have served to stand-in for concerted thought as to what I'm actually doing here. I have convinced myself that if my grades are good enough, I'll have options because a strong transcript resonates across different realms of employment (this is essentially the point Ben made today about the fear of having paths foreclosed). No matter what it is actually decide I want to do with my practice, I consoled myself that having a strong strong transcript wouldn't be a detriment. Probably that's true, at least in bureaucratic employment fields where such factors matter, but focusing on grades has meant that I've spent little time thinking about my purpose in earning this license. This makes it more likely that I'll funnel into EIP, because it's easy and because I haven't really thought about what I would do instead. Grades aren't the only reason I haven't set about designing an alternative, but they are a part of it.

-- JessicaWirth - 17 Apr 2012

Thanks for sharing the tumblr site, Jessica.

I came to law school because after working for 3 years in a corporate immigration law firm, I realized I wanted to be my own boss and be able to do something more meaningful with my life and career. And because this career I have in mind has nothing to do with working at a law firm, and I would actually like to avoid that path like the plague, I don't have much of a problem not letting my grades consume my interest or affect me that much. I also didn't know before coming to law school that there was such a competitive grade culture - I guess that was lack of research on my part - and thought (and still think) of grad school as more of a personal learning experience, rather than a competition. Perhaps I'm lucky to have come in with that mindset from the start.

My personal views on this matter are:

1) It's not worth it to work for an employer that works you to your bone, with no expression of gratitude (unless you can consider a high salary as gratitude, which some people might), and where the job has no sense of meaning to you. It really isn't. But maybe that's something people can only understand after they've experienced it. And I don't see why people as bright as CLS graduates should be okay with that.

2) I always get slightly offended (perturbed?) when people say they will receive training at a big law firm, then move on to public interest work (this is more in reference to some of the stuff on that tumblr site). I think that's insulting to the public interest field. What exactly, that you learn at a big law firm, is transferable to the public interest field, which is so different? Work discipline? Ability to manage many cases? And people think public interest lawyers don't cultivate these skills in their work? Obviously, these people haven't observed a day in the life of over-worked public interest attorneys.

Sure, maybe keeping options open is important. But I think we need to think about what options are worth keeping, and I feel like many people should have gone through that decision process when they decided to apply to law school.

I for one, have no problem not going to EIP, because I really, really, don't want to go anyway.

-- AgnesPetrucione - 17 Apr 2012

Grades are our security blankets, especially for the younger ones of us. For the past twenty-something years, we’ve pushed to get the top grade, because that’s what mattered to the admissions committee of a college or law school. And suddenly, in our first year of law school, Eben suggests that we abandon this familiar system, so well engrained in our synaptic configurations. Of course we’re going to be afraid.

The school does not really provide any way for us to evaluate our ability to cover the costs of our loans outside the context of a large firm or the LRAP umbrella (does it?). Any evaluation that does not circle around the secure, familiar concept of grades seems risky and unfamiliar. So I guess the question I have is, how do you go about finding out how you would cover your loans if you don’t pawn off your license to someone?

-- KirillLevashov - 17 Apr 2012

Agnes, I really appreciate your points. I came into law school with generally the same mindset.

I think a lot of the power of grades, EIP, and Firm work (Capital F firm, meaning large corporate law firm) stems from the familiarity of the system. As Kirill mentioned, grades are part of that system that supposedly creates access to "prestige" or monetary security.

In my discussions with other students, I've been surprised by two common sentiments: Firm work as a means to pay back loans, and firm work as a way to get training. I've thought about both a lot and the more I consider how I'm going to go about making a practice - and a life, really - outside of the EIP/Firm structure is frankly, terrifying. Part of this is based on personal fear, but also how I perceive the barriers to creating that practice. For example, if I wanted to work at a smaller public interest law firm, I run into two issues.

One, the LRAP program is easier to access through non-profit or governmental work. Private work is covered if it services largely the same community as a non-profit or governmental organization (ie, indigent defense). But, that determination is made on a case by case basis. This really only adds more uncertainty to the mix. If you take on certain unrelated cases just to cover the rent/overhead, it's not clear how that will affect your eligibility for LRAP.

At the same time, I have to consider that working with lawyers in those smaller civil rights firms is itself an exercise in gaining access. Many people in those firms have varied backgrounds in non-profit and private sector work, but they don't hire new graduates at nearly the same rates and gigantic firms. Probably, because I would have no idea what the hell I was doing. So, I can understand the catch-22 of experience. At first glance, it seems like I either need to set aside my convictions and pawn my license or hope, pray, and scrap for a chance to get into the (cash-strapped, hiring freeze prone) non-profit/government world just so I can pay my loans under LRAP. Either way, it's not exactly a direct route to the practice I envisioned.

I know that it can't be that simple, and I know I need to use creativity to somehow make it all work out. At the moment however, it seems a bit daunting. r4 - 17 Apr 2012 - 20:38:07 - JacquelineRios?

Jessica- Thanks for the link. It is interesting to hear how students at other law schools are handling EIP, and that they are facing some of the same issues Columbia students are struggling with.

Agnes- Coming to law school, I wasn't aware of the prevalence of firms and actually thought that most students did not end up working at firms upon graduation. Although I hear your first point about people selling out at a firm for the training and then trying to transition to public interest, I question how far fetched this thinking is. Early in this course we talked about where the belief of needing to go to a firm first comes from. Some may say, the fact that students do not receive the training they need while in law school makes students take up work at a firm. Unfortunately, I do not think this idea is completely far-flung. There is the practical standpoint that many public interest employers take in regards to limited resources. To train a budding lawyer often requires time and money. Time and money are often limited resources for public interest employers. The few public interest attorneys that I have spoken with have actually suggested going to a firm first to gain experience and skills. But perhaps this is also a question of being able to cover one's nut? Similar to Jacqueline's point, perhaps it is possible to find a lesser known public interest gig that will pay less but is willing to invest in you- but I'd imagine those are hard extremely hard to come by.

Are our institutions of higher education cognizant of this disconnect? I believe they are well aware. Professor Moglen's comment today about the nonsensical structure of our curriculum perhaps gives credence to this point. By structuring the curriculum in a way in which courses build off of one another, and by providing students with opportunities to perfect the art of lawyering (rather than perfecting the arbitrary art of taking a law school exam), law schools would be producing lawyers who are better equipped to practice soon after graduation (which I assumed was what we were paying for). But by not providing or limiting these opportunities and basing the curriculum on the convenience of the faculty (ie torts in the second semester, property in the first), students continue to need to sell their time to the private sector so that law schools have a packaged product to offer firms and US World News Report- canned meatballs if you prefer. -- AbiolaFasehun - 17 Apr 2012 Are our institutions of higher education cognizant of this disconnect? I believe they are well aware. Professor Moglen's comment today about the nonsensical structure of our curriculum perhaps gives credence to this point. By structuring the curriculum in a way in which courses build off of one another, and by providing students with opportunities to perfect the art of lawyering (rather than perfecting the arbitrary art of taking a law school exam), law schools would be producing lawyers who are better equipped to practice soon after graduation (which I assumed was what we were paying for). But by not providing or limiting these opportunities and basing the curriculum on the convenience of the faculty (ie torts in the second semester, property in the first), students continue to need to sell their time to the private sector so that law schools have a packaged product to offer firms and US World News Report- canned meat balls if you prefer. -- AbiolaFasehun - 17 Apr 2012 Jessica, I just wanted to second Agnes and say thank you for sharing the campaign - it's fantastic!

I agree with many of you that grades act as a security blanket and as Ben discussed in class today, a way to keep as many potential career options on the table as possible. But I find it interesting that there seemed to be an undertone in the conversation, in class and now, that good grades equal EIP. I think they are two separate issues, both of which are completely engrained in Columbia and obviously other law schools as well.

First, the pressure for good grades comes from all spheres of the legal world. I had just as many public interest organizations as big law firms ask for my transcript in this last set of interviews and the pressure to be on Law Review extends to students interested in a spectrum of issues ranging from human rights to corporate transactions. From the moment we start Legal Methods and hear that it only gets much, much worse to the subtle reminders about the Curve, we are inundated with the importance of getting that A, regardless of what kind of career path we have in mind. And in the event that we are fortunate enough to find a professor or some other mentor within the law school, it's a little disheartening that whatever they may say about grades, they definitely got good ones. Now there's definitely something to say for Eben's method of hiring lawyers sans transcripts but my limited experience shows that the practice doesn't extend to every non-EIP organization.

Second, while grades obviously play an important role for students participating in EIP, I think that the Early Interview Program is a separate institutionalized problem. I agree with Jacqueline that as students, we are presented with very few options for covering our student loans apart from selling our souls to law firms or finding a practice within the confines of LRAP. And I also agree with Abiola that the class structure and lack of practical experience opportunities plays a part in the mentality that we need to be trained in the law when we graduate. But this required "field training" after paying $150,000 to learn the law, seems like a disconnect. Regarding the validity of the mentality that it is a necessary fork in the road to public interest work, I have no idea but it seems suspect.

My biggest issue with the grading system is the lack of feedback and the entirety of the grade relying on a single exam. I understand needing some way to evaluate students and possibly separate them based on varying levels of effort, comprehension, and eventual performance, because in a perfect world those measurements would be part of a larger number of indicators of future success. But obviously something is wrong with our current system. Students know it, teachers know it, and practicing lawyers know it. Recent grading system experimentation even suggests that law schools know it. I mentioned in class today that I believe the general lack of feedback in this system generates fear due to uncertainty. And as Eben pointed out, if a grade doesn't accurately reflect your knowledge of the material then it isn't teaching. Thus, the system fails in attempting to distinguish those students who really get it, from the ones who happened to reread the critical footnote the night before. I guess at the end of the day, I'm finding less of an issue with having grades and the Curve, and more of an issue with the teaching (or lack thereof) that it promotes.

-- AlexandraRex - 17 Apr 2012

Abiola - I think your points are very valid are grounded in reality.

I think we have to realize that we are not done making decisions and exploring our options yet, but that we are in the process of doing so. I think a lot of the anxiety I am feeling from my classmates comes from thinking there is no way to do what we want, and live comfortably at the same time. But... have we really explored all options? I can't say I have. And until I have, I don't intend to go the "easy route" of working in a firm, even if for a few years, because for me, that is not the easy route, but actually a very difficult one.

So before saying, "It can't be done!" and resigning to our fate, we have to, through our law school career, strive to gain the tools in order to reach our goals. I don't have anything concrete to offer, because like I said, I am not done exploring and making decisions yet. But one thing I do think can contribute to avoiding law firms, in the sense that it allegedly provides training, is to get involved in internships and other opportunities that will train us to become lawyers in the way classes don't.

(I'm sorry, I don't know what I did, but I tried to fix the mix-up as best as I could. It looks like Alexandra and I were editinga t the same time, and caused some issues. Alexandra, sorry if any of what you wrote got screwed up.

-- AgnesPetrucione - 17 Apr 2012

I complete agree with you, Jessica. For the longest, grades represented the freedom of options to me – something very important when one grows up in a community where there are so few options. That was much true in my case, and I’m sure that resonates with many others as well. It was common for most kids in my neighboring high schools to either drop out for the sake of dropping out or to have babies or to help support a family. I was fortunate enough to attend to a magnet school, which was marginally better than the public schools in my area, and I was convinced that getting good grades would help me not end up like them. This sounds horrible, I know. But I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way, so I’ll move on. Anyway, grades certainly brought plenty of options my way when selecting colleges. The doors my grades open was so satisfying that I was almost set on this path that would’ve watered down my educational experience to just some means to an end. But I was fortunate enough to go to a really small liberal arts college where learning for the sake of wanting to learn was really the focus. What made this true is the really small classes I took (my biggest class had 20 students, but I know a biology 101 class had about 90 students) and the relationships with my professors. The contrast between my relationship with my college professors and here is like night and day. In college, there was no way anyone could hide from a professor when there were only 15 to 20 students in a class, so a student-teacher relationship was formed without much effort. For me, it was quite normal to see my professors on a regular basis outside of class. I’d often see them at the local coffee shop and would not think twice about sitting down for a quick chat. My classmates and I would have dinners with a few of them. To be sure, grades were still important for me, but they really took on a different meaning back then. In my classes, I felt part of an ongoing, important conversation such that grades were pushed to the background. I didn’t think about them so much during the semester but it only became relevant come finals. However, at the law school, grades are at the forefront of our minds from our first day in class. Students (and this certainly cuts both ways) also don’t value as much building a relationship with professors. I remember telling someone early on in the semester that I was planning to visit a few professors during office hours, and he looked at me with this puzzled face, as if saying: “Why? It’s not even close to finals yet.” For me, getting to know my professors was just so ingrained in my behavior as a student from my undergrad years that I thought it was not really something anyone would question. And it was also interesting that the first thing that came to my friend’s mind was that my conversation had to do with exams. It didn’t, and I don’t think is the only reasons students should visit professors at all. Anyway, I soon had to accept that fact that I couldn’t expect to replicate the relationships I built with my professors in undergrad (even with putting great effort on my part, I don't think this school's structure is really conducive to fostering these relationships), and it’s a real shame, but I am certainly grateful for knowing what a fruitful student-teacher relationship it like because it’s really powerful one.

-- LizzieGomez - 17 Apr 2012

My main issue with grades is that we spend so much time focusing on the exam and doing well on the exam, that we miss out on doing what we should be doing: i.e. learning how to be good lawyers. There's a reason why we hear all the stories about students (especially at CLS) not caring about classes as 2Ls, and definitely not as 3Ls; from the first year of law school, it becomes ingrained in us that the only real value to grades is getting a job at EIP. To many of us, the only thing that matters with respect to classes is getting the highest grades possible. And since the only thing that affects our grade is how well we do on the exam, there's a focus on doing well on the exam and not necessarily learning and retaining anything valuable from the class. Think about it - how much Civ Pro, Contracts and Property (or Torts) do you remember from last semester? After EIP, if we're all fortunate enough to have jobs, many of us will care significantly less about our grades than we did as 1Ls.

But this may not be a bad thing. If we don't care about grades, and we have the opportunity to pick our own classes, clinics, seminars, etc, then maybe we will have the opportunity to get the experience we SHOULD be getting out of law school. Maybe we'll be able to focus on doing the work we want to do and learning the things we want to learn. That's what I'm HOPING will happen to me as a 2L and 3L, but I know that pressure to take courses like Corporations, Admin Law, Taxation, etc will crowd out a lot of room for studying what I really want to study, and I may just end up in classes that I don't care about. Hopefully we will all be able to strike a balance.

-- JasonPyke - 17 Apr 2012

As a child growing up in a single-mom, Jewish household, the message was loud and clear that the signaling factor grades/standardized tests provide are what matter - high school grades and SAT's will open the door to a good college, college grades and LSATs will open the door to a good law school, 1L law school grades will open the door to a good job afterwards, a good job will open all the other doors I could possibly want. But here I am, almost at the end of the hallway, and I've completely lost my steam. I constantly find myself thinking "when will it be enough? When will I walk through the last door?"

Today Ben roughly said (Ben - please correct me if I misquoted)"We keep striving for good grades so as to keep all our doors open." I realized what actually scares me is not having some of those doors start to close. I've become so focused on walking into a room full of open doors that I stopped looking for the door to my home. I've become so swept up in making sure all my options are open it's become much too long since I stopped to think about what option I want to be open. It's an injustice I've done to myself.

In the beginning I thought this class was supposed to be about looking for injustice in the rest of society, and I thought I was being selfish for concentrating so much on myself, and relating our readings to my experiences. At a point I stopped berating myself and let the class be about the injustice I feel I've experienced, how I've been complicit, and how to fix it. I am incredibly grateful because Professor Moglen has made me realize I've opened enough doors for myself at this point, and it's time to start re-focusing my attention and effort on picking the right door. Agnes I find your confidence in yourself encouraging, inspiring, and beautiful. I too entered law school after spending a number of years working at a Big Law firm - thus I entered knowing I don't want to work at a Big Law firm after school. But I still got swept up in the focus on grades and keeping my options open. I am trying now to re-focus my attention on creating a plan for myself where I can pay back my loans while simultaneously doing sidework that puts me in a good position to start the type of practice I want to start after leaving a job that pays my bills. Similarly, I am trying to approach this semester with the same mentality - I haven't totally shed my anxiety about grades and I am going to try to do well this semester, but I'm trying to focus more on learning who I need to meet and make a connection with next year so that I may sail my own ship.

-- SkylarPolansky - 17 Apr 2012

          Skylar, your comments about the kind of household you grew up in absolutely resonated with me. Coming from a Jewish household of immigrant parents the message always was: "education is the key to all success," coupled with, "these are the sacrifices that have been made so you can take advantage of the opportunities that we did not have." In no way do I want to defame or blame my parents. I have no doubt that my parents always had and have the best intentions in pushing me to do my best, but I think part of what happens, at least for me, it that is has ceased to be about just keeping doors open and more about equating value, self worth, success, and accomplishment with grades. If for your whole life you get a pat on the back or a congratulations when you get an A and if you get a disappointed lecture when a minus pops up by that A, or worse yet, drops to a B, I am no psychologist but I think that starts an associative pattern.

          The other dilemma I have found myself facing is how to know when you are doing your best and getting a certain grade perhaps versus when you are doing average work and getting average grades. Often enough the correlation is correct, when I do really good work I get a grade that is considered really good. I think I am learning that it is time to shift the focus from extrinsic motivation and validation to a more feelings approach- doing what feels good, what you enjoy doing and relying on your own intuition of when you are doing your best work. I think it is not so much the value that firms or future employers place on our grades that makes us cling to the very rod that oppresses us, but rather, it is the fact that for so long we have defined ourselves by those very grades. Now that I listen to what everyone else has said in class, more and more I think that the law firm is not the opportunity that my parents were talking about I can do better for myself than that- when Eben says "it is not worth what they will make you spend in blood and honor," I am starting to believe it.

Elvira, I had to reformat your post because I think we were editing at the same time. Check it to make sure that I did not take anything out--Lissette

Looks good, thank you Lissette! -- Elvira

-- ElviraKras - 18 Apr 2012

I am not afraid to say that I will be doing EIP this summer. (I am sure many of you guys are too).

I have spent a lot of time working at big firms throughout my life. My interest in the law was actually cultivated through my experiences with people at these big firms. Through this, I have had the opportunity to meet many people--including people who favor the characters in our Lawyerland chapters. And I have had the time to accumulate the various reasons people use to work at firms and to figure out mine.

I do not believe that the problem is working at a firm. The actual problem is not knowing what working at a firm means. For many it is enough to see the 160K in their contracts. There is no digging deeper into what they would have to do--the long hours, the hierarchy, the problematic cases, etc. If you decide that you want to go at it on your own, you would need to consider all of these factors. You would have to think deeply about what you want to do and how you want to do it. Thinking critically, of course, is the name of the game. The law firm option is easy because students do not actually think about what they want and approach it that way. If you know what you want to do and how you want to do it then I think the process becomes less soul-sucking.

The associates that I became really close with at these firms always had plans. They came into this process knowing exactly what they wanted to get out of the particular firm. As Agnes pointed out "the training" they wanted was not some sort of amorphous notion. They knew who they wanted to work with, on what kinds of cases, and on what types of assignments. Once they reached a point where their checklist was complete, they moved on to something that challenged them the way they wanted to be challenged.

I would not knock anyone for deciding to work at a firm. Just as I would not knock anyone for choosing any job. Every job has its pros and cons. However, I do think that not caring about anything but the salary and the ranking on US News is not a good way to approach this process (I think it is the same of a person who works in the non-profit sector so that his/her loans were paid off and then switched to a firm so that he/she can enjoy the salary). But tying this back into the discussion about grades and the lack of teaching, it is difficult to figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it when there is no guidance. As Skylar pointed out, when there is no guidance, the goal becomes trying to keep doors open. And we are told that good grades keep doors open. It is simple math. But, I do think that we have come to a point where we need to be more strategic about the doors we want opened.

We should be working on becoming better informed. Better informed means knowing what grades mean to you; what you want from a class; what you want from a particular professor; and what you want to do once you leave CLS. It all takes time to figure out. But we have to take that time. We should not be making hasty decisions about our next steps.

-- LissetteDuran - 18 Apr 2012

I propose two words to describe the legal education-legal employment dilemma: indentured servitude.

Returning to the training point: I worked at the DOJ for three years working on white collar cases. After 1L, and maybe after the end of the upcoming summer, I'm pretty sure that lawyers learn by doing. Earth-shattering, right? Because government offices, like the DOJ, are regularly understaffed, the junior attorneys are given loads of responsibility to handle entire investigations. Even as a fresh-out-of-college paralegal, I took notes at witness interviews and wrote up a memo afterwards. The person "across the table" from me taking notes was normally an eager mid-level associate. All the public interest jobs I've seen allow fresh lawyers to learn through immediate experience--something that seems like a privilege you work towards at a firm. If that isn't training, then I don't know what is. I've never worked at a firm, though, so I would appreciate if anyone can offer insights on how firm work is assigned (though I know it varies by firm).

-- ArleneOrtizLeytte - 18 Apr 2012

I know I'm pretty much entirely echoing what others have said but I find the "training" issue the hardest to understand. Arlene's point makes perfect sense to me - you learn by doing and you generally do more in places other than firms, especially early on. However, like Abiola said, it seems like many lawyers in the public sector strongly recommend spending a couple of years in firms for the training aspect. Abiola offered the higher amount of training resources in firms as an explanation, but it still seems to me that if 90%+ of what a young firm lawyer does is doc review then how are those training resources actually being applied? I feel like the best way to figure this out would be to talk to more public sector lawyers and dig deeper into why many of them suggest starting out in firms, but perhaps someone here might be able to offer some further explanation? Thanks and sorry if I'm being repetitive...

-- JosephItkis - 18 Apr 2012

Those of us in Bobbit's Legal Methods section listened to one of his guest speakers (my law school memory is failing me so I forget her name and I do not remember exactly what she did--but she was kind of a big shot) explain to us how, regardless of what we wanted to end up doing, we should take the first few years out of law school to work in a big firm. She recommended this path for two reasons: the money which would help pay back loans, and the training/exposure opportunity. She specifically mentioned that when she left the private sector, she was better prepared than the lawyers she began to work with in the public sector whom had not spent time at a firm. This sounded great to me! A firm would only "open more doors!" After spending the first semester being immersed in an environment where everyone is bred to feel this way I really did not have any reservations about EIP. That blind sense of optimism is now gone and I will certainly be more cautious about my decision. At this point I cannot help but feel (probably out of fear) that trying to get a summer job through EIP is, after all, just a job since we would not have a license yet. How bad could it be to experience what it is like and, worst case, lose just a summer learning this is not what you want after graduation? I too am a neophyte and I really do not know what to expect out of a summer associate position.

-- MatthewVillar - 18 Apr 2012

I appreciate the discussion in here and elsewhere about the possibility that fear of closed doors motivates the refusal to rule out careers that might not be interesting, valuable, or even deserving of our efforts. That fear has certainly contributed to my various attempts at rationalizing my behavior since coming to law school. For me personally, however, fear seems to be an incomplete explanation for my continued reluctance to eliminate the large law firm option. I have always been a bit of an adrenaline junky. I more frequently court danger than safety and feel empowered by my desire and ability to engage in activities that would likely overwhelm or frighten others. Aside from my continued refusal to take part in any theatrical production (my heart is racing even thinking about it), fear has not been strong enough an emotion to prevent me from attempting my goals. In trying to reconcile the fact that am excited by the thought of jumping out of an airplane with the fact that I am repelled by the prospect of starting my own law firm, I've begun to realize that shame is a much more controlling emotion in my life than fear. (Admittedly the comparison might not be a completely fair one to make in analyzing the power of fear - skydiving requires only a single burst of courage while the success of striking out on my own will depend on a much more sustained effort - but I think it is useful to a degree to acknowledge the disparity in my approach to various fear-inducing activities). I am more willing to engage in high-risk, adrenaline-inducing activities than to stray from a clearly defined career path because the shame generated by failing the former is non-existent while, for me, the shame resulting from failing the latter is intense. I am inclined to say that this is a familiar emotion for those with grades-focused parents. It is more than a fear of parental disappointment - I am no longer afraid of letting my parents down. I think that, because I grew up in a success-obsessed environment, I learned to associate failure with shame. Perhaps many of you have severed this connection. It is something I am still struggling with.

-- ElizabethSullivan - 18 Apr 2012

I think many of the issues raised by Agnes, Matthew and others about the disconnect between what training is perceived to provide and what it may end up being in actuality is closely tied to Lissette’s point about the importance of knowing what you want to get out of a firm job. I think training at the most basic, essential level is simply exposure and experience and that doesn’t necessarily require that you work at big law. Similar to Arlene, I gained a lot of experience and exposure to law as an industry and as a system as a paralegal. After college, I worked at a boutique public interest firm that specialized in employment discrimination class-actions. As a function of the modest size of the firm, I was responsible for putting together the first drafts of complaints, motions, discovery requests and responses. I had a caseload, spoke to clients regularly and went through bankers’ boxes of discovery material. So I think things like externships and coursework can provide the exposure and experience to inform and inspire people to discover the areas of law that they may be interested in. I think having these experiences or having some idea, as Lissette noted, is really key before jumping head first into that first job post-grad, despite the overwhelming majority of people in the administration, particularly careers services, who insist that you can figure it all out when you start your firm job.

Especially in big law, I think that sense of freedom to explore is misguided. As a member of a group of attorneys, your role and opportunities to learn and grow are a function of the needs of the group. People are staffed on cases, they don’t choose them and they don’t dictate what their role is. In the large corporate firm I worked at, it was common for junior associates to rotate from practice group to practice group well into their third year and beyond, if they were still with the firm. Rotations are presented by firms as the gift of choice to law students, but what they fail to say is that the ultimate choice remains with the firm. Whether you are accepted by a practice group or continue to rotate is mostly not your choice to make. The partners in the group determine which associates they want to keep and which ones can keep rotating. Before long, rotations are more a source of anxiety than freedom. But in the end, almost everyone leaves. Senior associates are a rare breed in big law, because usually people know rather early in their careers whether they’ve been tapped to make partner. For those who have not and choose to stay, it’s just a matter of killing time. Killing time and paying dues. Work becomes perfunctory and comfort settles in. The associates I knew who didn’t necessarily come in knowing what they wanted, admitted that as law students, they couldn’t have asked for anything more than where they ended up. They got their dream firm offer, but after a few years into the job, that sense of achievement and prestige wanes, and all that remains is time, with the question of what to do next, still lingering. This is not to say that there aren’t opportunities, but without some idea of what you want out of the firm experience, it will be difficult to meaningfully engage them. If not control, there's still the possibility of agency.

On a separate note, I share Lizzie’s experience about grades as a means to opportunities that would otherwise have been foreclosed to me. Growing up a product of the public education system, I’ve seen such metrics as grades and exams used by the system to calmly and coolly separate the deserving from the non-deserving. I found the statement on how part of the concern about grades is being captured in an identity that is not our own, striking. In part because, from my experience, good grades are what make you matter in a system that would otherwise not care. Grades and exams may not capture our identity but they have defined in my life the scope of and access to opportunity. In the US, education may be universally available, but opportunity is much narrower. I recently learned that the high school I was zoned to attend had I not been accepted to a charter school, is closing down at the end of the year because it failed to meet the required 60% graduation rate. I don’t think there’s much that separates me from those kids who will now have their school life abruptly interrupted that warrants the difference in our paths in life. I could have easily, unremarkably been in their shoes. In some ways, I don't view possibility as a burden, because I don't think I've ever really had the chance to appreciate its vastness. My life has been defined more by what is probable than what is possible.

-- TiffanyK - 19 Apr 2012


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r30 - 22 Jan 2013 - 18:10:08 - IanSullivan
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