Law in Contemporary Society

Inequality and the Law Student

-- By EdiRumano - 23 May 2012

One of the questions asked at the outset of this course was how to be a lawyer that who is responsive to the conditions of the actual near future. While part of the response to that question involves using technologies of collaboration that are responsive to the needs of your clients, it seems to me that to answer that question properly we have to examine one of the biggest changes in the social and economic landscape: the incredible and increasing inequality of the United States.

I don't understand why the first part of the sentence is there. How can bowing in the direction of a phenomenon so different in nature and scale than the one you want to discuss be necessary? Isn't it just a distraction to the reader, who has no idea why it's there if you're not going to talk about it?

What is it that makes this inequality "incredible"? There's nothing unbelievable about it: it's the intended consequence of rule by the rich that the rich get richer. Increasing inequality is the natural consequence of oligarchy. Democracy, which is rule by the poor, as Aristotle says, results in decreasing inequality, because the rich get somewhat poorer, but the poor do not become rich.

I think what you mean by "incredible" is that you're not supposed to believe it.

The evidence for historic inequality is overwhelming; income and wealth inequality is substantial and more unequal than at any time since the Gilded Age. Class mobility in America is also at a low point, and is lower than most European countries. While aggregate statistics are helpful enough,

But you haven't presented any. Or even a reference. Why aren't the relevant phrases above linked to information that establishes their accuracy? That's how writing for the web works.

this paper is about what this inequality means for us as students and as future attorneys.

It would be difficult to talk about inequality as a student without talking about the role of admissions to elite colleges and grad schools.

You mean it would be difficult for a major beneficiary of inequality to do so. For all but the most unequally-benefited portion of the population, this subject has no relevance to their lives at all. You're talking about what it means to talk about inequality if you're in the upper fraction of the 1% of the society that owns half the property and obsesses about "elite" education. Did your own use of the phrase not jump out at you and scream "irony"? Perhaps this is as clear an example of the editorial lassitude I worry about as any so far.

For many upper-middle-class children, life before and during high school consists of activities primarily designed to increase admissions odds at the top universities. During college, many of us chose classes and extra-curriculars we believed would look good to graduate admissions committees. It’s not a stretch to say that for most of us, for many years our lives have been aimed at doing the “right” things to get in to colleges, to grad schools, and jobs.

How do you establish that "most" of the people you go to school with have lived such completely "other-directed" lives? Is it not possible that they spent less time than you did doing what they thought would "look good," and more time doing what they wanted? If you're really in need of evidence about how other people have chosen to live their lives, you can't derive that evidence by assertion of everyone else's similarity to yourself. Particularly if the reader doesn't happen to be the same in the relevant respect (as, for example, because I never in all my years as a student did anything because I thought it would look good to an admissions committee, which was a consideration that never for a nanosecond crossed my mind with respect to anything, including the essays I put on the applications), or has personal reasons equally idiosyncratic as your own for doubting the generalization (as, for example, because I've taught thousands of law students in my career, and I think that what you're saying about how most law students grew up thinking is total nonsense).

But I don't think this sentence really needed to benefit from the making of unsupported generalizations. It would have been okay to present this as your experience of your own life. But that would have required you to subject your own ideas to sociological analysis, which is what this entire exercise is actually framed to help you avoid doing.

So it’s no surprise that once we arrived at the next step, our sights were aimed at getting a foothold on a step “higher,” whether that’s BigLaw, a clerkship, or Law Review.

What does a lifetime of admissions hoops have to do with inequality? Actually, a lot. With the increase in inequality has come a commensurate increase in status anxiety. Changes in information technology and the access to foreign labor pools have hollowed out traditionally middle-class jobs while leaving low-paying, supposedly unskilled work, and high-paying, education-intensive work. Parents realized this before economists, and elite colleges have seen an explosion in applicants over the last twenty years.

No evidence that "parents realized this before economists." It wouldn't be likely that they recognized this twenty years ago, anyway, when it wasn't happening.

So this is obviously bad history. How about another possible explanation? Demand for higher education has always been immense, because people are smart and want to learn. They are prevented by inequality, because they can't afford it. The United States, which pioneered universal access to primary and secondary education in the 19th century, and became the dominant industrial power in consequence, pioneered the social expansion of access to higher education after the Second World War, when the GI Bill offered federal financing for college and graduate education. "Pell grants" and "BEOGs" followed in the New Society model of Lyndon Baines Johnson. (There's also the massive expansion of public higher education, which is another important story I don't have space for here. Let's just say that socialism is extraordinarily efficient at the production of higher education, which is how most of the world started to catch up with the US at the end of the 20th century.)

During and after the Reagan reaction, however, the socialist effort to produce universal access to higher education in the United States, which was producing the most technologically advanced society in human history, stagnated. Funding for poor students was cut back sharply. Instead, the subsidization of the financial services industries was increased. Federal guarantees were given for private-market student lending. This massive subsidy to the banks created a credit bubble based on federal insurance. Within a generation, student loan debt was larger than credit card debt in the overall economy, and the private lenders had changed bankruptcy law so that it savagely excluded student loan debt from the "fresh start" purpose of personal bankruptcy law, which socialism of course would never do.

The result is a much more expensive educational system, in which half the cost of the education is paid to the banks as interest on a debt which must be paid in full and can never be discharged. The resulting increase of inequality is destroying educational opportunity across the society very rapidly. This process is now being actively assisted by the 1% of the population that owns 40% of the society's wealth. For them, because capital is now globally mobile, it makes no sense to pay taxes to ensure universal higher education in the United States, because workers with just as good higher educations produced by socialism are now available much more cheaply in very large societies elsewhere in the world.

This immense inequality in the United States creates very great anxiety among parents, all right, but they don't recognize the situation's demands very clearly, as is conclusively demonstrated by the fact that the majority don't vote, and those that do vote generally do not choose leadership that intends to act in their interest.

So you are being educated to be a lawyer in an oligarchy. Do you want to tell me that your status anxiety is therefore going to lead you to be on the side of the rich? You know what I think about that, so I needn't tell you.

The effects of attending elite colleges and grad schools are real. Undergraduate school prestige is the primary criterion used for hiring in elite finance and consulting firms, for access to the positions in the industries that drive the increasing wealth gap at the top. In the legal field, the emphasis on school pedigree is even more pronounced. Access to the top firms, clerkships, government positions, and academic positions is determined first by the school you attend, and second by your grades. Differences in school rankings are obsessed over by applicants, and with good reason. The differences in “exit options” are real.

This is the situation in which the contemporary Columbia law student finds him or herself. For me, and I suspect for many of my classmates, the warnings against being meat in a can came as entirely unconvincing. We’ve been trying to fit into one can or another for the last decade, each time for the opportunity to fit into a better can, whatever that may be. Part of the desire to continually conform and refit ourselves in an attractive admissions package stems from our ego, in order to be special and unique in some way, but a large part also stems from our anxiety. We know the reality of the job market for college graduates, and the precariousness of at-will employment, and we feel that we have to run just to stay in place. We’re aware of the hours and dullness of high-paying corporate firm work, but we feel that it’s the only way to have financial security.

The reality, as we’ve explored throughout the course, is that we’re wrong on both counts. Not only is high-paying corporate work not the only way to achieve financial security while practicing the kind of law that you find fulfilling, it’s not sustainable. The pyramid scheme consisting of hoards of associates billing doc-review while a few partners collect the profits is crumbling, and the successful attorney in the 21st century will need to be substantially more entrepreneurial. Competition to the coveted traditional career routes will become even more intense as the market restructures. Meanwhile, the law school curriculum hardly changes and we graduate unequipped to deal with the new realities.

In order to become lawyers that are responsive to the conditions of the actual near future, we need to recognize that the abilities that brought us to this point aren’t the ones we will need to be successful in the future. While we’re supremely adapt at doing well in classes and joining the right clubs, we’re not so good at finding clients, or at fulfilling legal needs that aren’t posted explicitly on Symplicity. The actual near future involves a small subset of people becoming wealthy while the rest stagnate. One route to success is to play into their game, get in the hamster wheel, and spin furiously while attaining the coveted credentials that will allow you to serve the needs of wealthy individuals and corporations at the expense of your health and happiness. The other route involves using your skills to build a practice that you control.

In truth, I’m afraid to get off the hamster wheel. But awareness that I’m making a decision, instead of the delusion that I was forced, is a first step.

Maybe. But you spent eight tenths of the essay trying to restore the illusions. If you've actually arrived at the purported conclusion, then it's time for a revision that isn't about the objections you've overcome, but rather about the new thinking that taking leave of the conformism induces. If, as seems more likely to me, the conclusion is mere apple-polishing, telling me what you think I want to hear while holding quite firmly to the wreckage you're going to go down with, then you're no better off than you were before. And I too am unconvinced. From my point of view, the existing draft is an attempt to disguise. You aren't thinking about yourself sociologically. You aren't analyzing the contemporary social situation in a fashion that has anything to do directly with the formation of your practice. You aren't thinking past law school. You're really giving reasons why you don't need to do those things, because in the end you can conform to the professional pathways that are being made obsolescent. But then at the end, like a sleepwalker awakening, you apparently throw off these disguises and are revealed to be a realist, albeit a fearful one, after all. I think this is fence-sitting. Let's go one way or the other.


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r3 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:09:53 - IanSullivan
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