Law in Contemporary Society
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Freedom: Reality or Illusion?

-- By CameronOliver - 30 May 2023

Freedom is a concept that permeates all aspects of our lives. Whether it be on a day-to-day basis and the decisions that come with it such as what to eat for dinner or the more long-term and consequential decisions such as what to do with our careers and lives, we associate these ideas with the freedom to choose. Beyond our freedom as individuals, freedom is a part of the fabric of our culture. The United States was founded on revolution. The Revolutionary War was America’s revolt against the English crown and an attempt to gain the freedom to self-govern. Our Constitution enumerates various principles like freedom of speech, religion, and press. We rail against Communism in favor a free market. We even call our president the “leader of the free world.” It is evident that as a people we love freedom and revere it as one of our highest values. With the significance of freedom in our lives, how does that apply to our careers as lawyers? More specifically, do we as future attorneys, and to what extent, value our ability to choose whether to work on matters we care about or with clients we care about? As it stands now, while I value working on matters I care about, it is significantly less important than working at a firm I like and working on the subject matter I enjoy.

We have spoken a lot in class about the concept of freedom, especially with regards to our time at Columbia Law School and our careers after graduation. Whether the conversation was about not blindly following the curriculum and taking control of our education or thinking twice about being nameless cogs in the big law machine and instead leading our own practice, the message has consistently been about emphasizing the value of determining our path forward and what we do with our careers. This raises serious questions, especially in the context of big law. It is a centralized system designed to operate based on efficiency and financial gain. To some degree, this means that especially as a junior associate, many of the matters you are staffed on are assigned. You’re not bringing in clients and you therefore have limited say on what or with whom you are working. Does that inherently mean that those of us who choose to pursue that path do not value freedom in terms of having a say on the matters we are working on or the clients we are working for? I argue it does not.

Much of our emphasis as first and second year law students is finding a firm that feels like a good fit. We attend countless events, dinners, and receptions, all in the hopes of finding the place we want to work. A part of that calculation is the firm’s matter structure. While it is true that certain firms assign work and don’t provide associates with a lot of latitude, others have different systems. In my research about various firms, I have discovered those that allow staffing based on interest. For example, if I’m interested in a particular client, I can talk to those already staffed and work my way on to the deal. For me, this is putting control back in my hands. Because the onus is on me to find work, power and freedom is also given to me in the sense that I have agency in determining what matters or clients I engage with. By focusing my search for a firm on a certain criteria, namely the assignment structure, I have valued the freedom I will have to work on things I care about.

However, I believe looking at firms through this lens is of secondary importance. To some degree, there is tension between this idea and valuing what I prioritize most, finding a firm where I will enjoy the overall culture. Firm culture is comprised of many different things. It ranges from the people who work there and emphasis on hierarchy to dress code and informal mentorships. In my eyes, culture is paramount. As such, this may mean foregoing some freedom and agency related to matters and clients. A given firm may be a perfect fit culturally and have a centralized assignment structure. Although both components are valued, there is inherent tension. In such an instance, I will always choose culture.

It must also be remembered that even when emphasizing culture over freedom of matters, it does not completely negate agency in this regard. Not working on specific matters you like can be offset by doing the work you like more broadly. Most firms, if not all, have a rotation program for first year associates that allows them to try different practice groups to see what interests them. Further, summers begin this selection process before even joining the firm. They are given the freedom to explore whatever piques their interest and dabble in a little bit of everything. Once selecting a practice area that you enjoy, the specific matters become less important. Take for example basketball fanatics. Watching an NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Celtics would renew an all-time classic rivalry and be an extremely exciting series to watch. Instead, we are watching the Heat play the Nuggets this year. While most fans would likely prefer the former, they will still enjoy the Finals because they get to watch basketball being played at the highest level. The same idea can be applied to practicing at a firm. Even though a specific matter or client might not be what I’m looking for, if I like capital markets and I am in the group, I will always be doing what I want to some degree. Considering all of these ideas, I truly believe that even in the context of big law at a firm, I can and do value the freedom of selecting the matters and clients I want to work with.

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r3 - 31 May 2023 - 03:51:36 - CameronOliver
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