Law in Contemporary Society
Make Biglaw More Evil
Dear Professor Moglen,

When I was filling out my L&CS course evaluation I realized that I had a lot to say – more than would be appropriate there. So here is an essay-length constructive evaluation with stuff you’ve probably heard before and suggestions you’ve probably already considered and rejected. And yet, there’s an off-chance that it might be helpful. It’s offered sincerely in the spirit of helping you create a better course.

What You’re Trying to Do
The course had two themes: use conciliant legal reasoning and don’t work in a law firm. Sure, my description of the second is an oversimplification. But even if it’s dressed up in other language (“Explore diverse career options” or “Don’t follow the herd”), as a practical matter it comes down to avoiding firms.

You want to help people – to become better lawyers, and to help society. It’s a fine goal.

What You’re Actually Doing
The success of the first theme is impossible to measure empirically, and the effects will take a long time to show, so it’s hard to tell if this prong worked. I think the readings and coursework on legal reasoning were helpful, well-selected, and probably assimilated by every student into their approach to legal analysis. My gut hunch is we’re all going to end up using the techniques and approaches from this course in our work.

By your own metrics, the second theme wasn’t successful – more precisely, it hasn’t been successful in past years. You complained in class that even though you tell them not to, most of your students go on to work in firms. Even if you’ve had “success” (people who have taken a different career direction) you seem to be unsatisfied with the legions of students who’ve taken your course and then jumped off the law firm cliff. And even if you’re satisfied with the current and historical numbers, it would be better to affect more people, right?

If you want people to really take your advice and change their lives, you have to use your own conciliant techniques and show them viscerally how law firms are bad. Listening to a lecture doesn’t give people a feeling of what it’s like to work at a firm. And without feeling like they really know what it’s going to be like, your students will continue to think “Oh, that bad stuff that happens to people who work at firms, that’s some other guy. That’s not me.” People always think that they are the outliers – they won’t get cancer, they’ll win the lottery, they’ll thrive at a law firm. And at the end of the course, that was the feeling that I was left with; nothing in the course had really brought home why I would hate law firm work.

When I was 15 and took my required Driver’s Ed course, they showed a movie called Red Asphalt. It was designed to get through to dumb teens who thought they were immortal by showing graphic montages of the aftermaths of car wrecks. Dismembered body parts, face injuries, and the like were shot in excruciating detail. I remember it vividly. It worked because it was so outrageous and shocking that it compelled attention. It brought home abstract statistics and made them personal and real.

I think you would have more success in actually altering career trajectories if your course was kind of like Red Asphalt, except for law firm work. The readings from Lawyerland were almost there, but in the end, no matter how well-written, they were just words. We got half of the story – viable alternative career paths – but people also have to be shown why Biglaw sucks.

How, short of working there?

  • Have a guest speaker day. Bring in attorneys (your friends) who have compelling personal stories about being traumatized by working at a firm. Limit them to 10 minutes and have the whole parade of them give their version of what’s wrong with Biglaw.

  • Have another speaker day with family and spouses of lawyers, or their psychiatrists. Get (former) spouses to talk about how Biglaw destroyed their marriage, about the extreme time demands that destroy relationships.

  • Talk more about your time at Cravath. At the end of the course I got that you had worked there under Evan Chesler on a big IBM case and that attorneys weren’t expected to type. What made you leave? Why wasn’t Biglaw fulfilling for you, personally?

  • Have an assignment that tries to replicate the dehumanizing hierarchy of Biglaw. Perhaps something like the Stanford prison experiment where students are divided into associates and partners. Associates would be at the mercy of the partners’ whims, subjected to degrading treatment and in constant fear of losing their jobs. Maybe there’s also some parallel game where partners have to fight each other to avoid being de-equitized as well – to win they have to constantly politic and exploit the work of their associates. I don’t know what the specific mechanics would be, but it seems possible to set up some game rules that would get people acting like Biglaw players.

The heart of the problem is that there is no way to completely simulate the experience. People have to live it themselves to appreciate the issues and demands. So maybe, in the end, the proper change is to shift the focus from not going into Biglaw to begin with to what to do once you’re out. Or, similarly, perhaps a compelling topic would be how to use one’s years in Biglaw productively; to learn skills that will be useful outside, or to use one’s pro bono projects as a stepping stone to a later career. Indeed, it seems as though one big problem that your former students have is the transition from Biglaw to not-Biglaw. Adding course material that is transition-centric may help students deal with the sense of desperation and entrapment prior to leaving Biglaw. This is where the material on alternative career paths that we discussed in class would remain helpful.

-- By GavinSnyder - 08 May 2009

  • Like the commentators below, I think this was an interesting and valuable essay. I do take the suggestions seriously. The logic depends on the idea that I am primarily trying to keep people from working in law firms. I would say that's no more than the third priority, and one of decreasing importance because those large law firms aren't employing new lawyers at the moment anyway. From my point of view the two most important aspects of our conversation about professional choices are: (1) emphasis upon the meaning rather than remuneration of work; and (2) emphasis on the lawyer's license, that is, her right to get and serve clients of her own choosing as the primary basis of her practice's organization. Practices organized around surrendering the right to choose the clients and the matters worked on will naturally fail to be attractive from that perspective. Aversive conditioning to direct subjects away from law firm work is a possible aim for someone's activity, but it wouldn't constitute teaching in my view, and it isn't the aim of mine.


In light of what you are suggesting, Gavin ... here's a perspective of someone growing up as the child of a BIGLAW attorney.

I got it from a blog.

Why I did not follow in my father's footsteps

Sherry at Stay of Execution encapsulates perfectly a major reason why I deliberately decided to not pursue law as a profession. She pinpoints the agony of billable hours at major law firms and toll that it takes on lawyers' lives. As the kid of one of those young associates and later partner, I can tell you that it takes its toll on other people in the household as well.

As much as I admire my dad for the example of hardwork and honesty and integrity that he set, I think I would've been just as happy with someone who was less stressed, overworked and underappreciated, or who was at least better able to keep the side effects of that pressure out of the home. My dad made a valiant effort to participate in our upbringing, being supportive of our activities, triumphs and failures. But work pulled him away all too often. It's easier to understand now, but it was hard as a self-centered kid. And I think he was probably always considered a little too "soft" at his cutthroat firm anyway, because of the time he did take for his family. So really, he couldn't win anywhere.

Consequently, despite numerous suggestions and gentle pressure to convince me to pursue law as my career, I have (so far) declined.

My father has since left the law (after 30 years) to pursue training for a different profession--the clergy. A profession with its own stresses and demands, yes, but one that is more understanding of personal time, too.


-- AlfianKuchit - 15 May 2009

To the extent that our papers are meant to inspire others to read them - judging by some of the comments on the first one that were geared towards appealing to an audience - I wanted to note that this one definitely caught my attention, and I read the whole thing with great interest.

-- MolissaFarber - 15 May 2009



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r6 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:46:49 - IanSullivan
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