Law in Contemporary Society
I think Professor Moglen once said that the concept of giving money to the poor while earning money as a corporate lawyer is all good, but it assumes that the work itself has a neutral moral value. Does that imply that being a corporate lawyer is (or could be) immoral? What is so different between being a corporate lawyer and being a blue collar worker? We respect people working in the Ford factory because they work hard to make an honest living. Aren’t they both trying to make a living to support themselves and their family? Is there more difference than their income?

As far as I know, corporate lawyers help the corporation’s transactions to be more efficient. Wouldn’t assisting with the corporation’s transaction help the corporation, and in turn help the workers in the corporation? One answer that I could think of was that the profit yielded by the corporation does not get equally distributed to these workers, but I wasn’t sure if that answers everything.

Also, don’t we need corporate lawyers? Let’s say all of us don’t want to be corporate lawyers… then who are supposed to do the job of corporate lawyers? Who should be the corporate lawyers then, if we think we shouldn’t be?

Is it because corporate lawyers cannot choose their clients? We did say that representing an immoral person is not immoral in itself… Robinson was not considered immoral because he represented criminals. Also, corporate lawyers are not completely without choice. I heard from a corporate lawyer when the client acts dishonestly (i.e. lies), the lawyer can refer to an ethics committee and there is a choice of not representing the client. Maybe it is because the choice is limited… I assume that the decision to not represent your client would usually be the last resort. But, if the lack of a choice makes a corporate lawyer immoral, don’t most people do not have much choice anyway?

Is being a part of the capitalist system, being a canned meat in the factory line, bad? Maybe it is a concern of elitists, when majority of people have to just accept being a part of the system. But maybe we need to do something because we have had more privilege in our lives than most people. Maybe we have to make a change on behalf of people who do not have that privilege. If we can make a change in the system with the resources and power we have, but choose to not do it, maybe that is why it is irresponsible, and maybe even immoral.

-- EstherKwak - 24 Feb 2009

Factory workers and corporate lawyers work to support our family, but they also want to be able to be proud to tell their kids what they do for a living, which amounts to telling them why what they do is good for society. In answering that question, both the worker and the lawyer have no choice but to have faith in the justifications offered by Ford and the law firm for their own existence. For both, this amounts to faith in the general capitalist system, as well as some more particular loyalties: maybe suburbs and road trips for the Ford employee, and the legal system for the law firm.

The difference between the factory worker and the corporate lawyer is that the factory worker probably doesn't have much of a choice to work elsewhere. The corporate lawyer does, however. So in choosing to support a family through corporate law, the corporate lawyer is choosing to put her faith in capitalism, the legal system, etc. The real question, then, is not whether corporate law is immoral, but whether the economic and legal system are immoral. If the answer is yes, and corporate law is so intertwined with those systems that there is no legitimate possibility of “changing the system from within,” then I think we have to conclude that corporate law is immoral.

-- MichaelDreibelbis - 24 Feb 2009

There is nothing necessarily immoral about being a corporate lawyer per se. People work to survive, and working as a corporate lawyer will earn you enough money to survive. How can it be considered inherently immoral to desire to create a comfortable lifestyle for yourself and your family? It is the basic human nature of egocentric survival. Of course, there are issues when it comes to taking money away from the poor, profiting at the direct expense of society, etc., but working as a corporate lawyer is not necessarily such an occupation. This is because in the end, there is always going to be a certain demand for corporate lawyers that will be filled sooner or later. Being one of these lawyers is simply fulfilling one of society's needs.

The main problem with being a corporate lawyer, in my opinion, is that many people go into it without truly knowing what it entails (other than a comfortable lifestyle). To some, corporate work is their life's calling, and they enjoy it immensely. To these individuals, working as a corporate lawyer is neither immoral nor wrong. But what about the others? Too often, they discover that working as a corporate lawyer allows simply comfortable survival and not much more. To them, working on some complicated brief that will save a company x millions of dollars at 6-minute increments is not very fulfilling, and certainly not what they envisioned their career as lawyers would be reduced to.

In the end, both the lawyer and society may be cheated. The lawyer may eventually find himself chained by golden handcuffs to his lifestyle and unable to leave the career that he despises. In the process, he loses a bit of himself, and resorts to vices such as alcoholism or gambling to cope with his depression. Neither of these is terribly good for society. But what if the lawyer instead changes his career? As Professor Moglen said, society puts a lot into training lawyers. Changing careers would be cheating society out of the fruits of the labors it has put into the "Haves" that it could have given to someone else. So in such a way, society may ultimately be deprived of a lawyer. Thus, while being a corporate lawyer is not necessarily immoral per se, it can lead to some outcomes that are quite bad, maybe even "immoral," to society in general.

-- AlexHu - 24 Feb 2009

Alex teases out two ideas that are often conflated, namely whether one's work is morally just and whether it is personally satisfying. The two concerns don't always track neatly. Like Alex says, many corporate lawyers actually enjoy their work -- but I disagree that the work is always morally neutral. Likewise, people may pursue justice, but find the bulk of their day just as stultifying as corporate work, or frustrating for other reasons (Robinson does not appear very happy).

-- AndrewCase - 24 Feb 2009

I like Esther's comparison to criminal defense lawyers, which is counter-intuitive because at first glance there's a huge difference between a (probably impoverished) non-white-collar criminal and a big corporation. But I think it works nonetheless because it lets us see the problem of working for a big firm as a special subset of the broader ethical problem: the lawyer's ethical identification with his/her client. A lawyer is supposed to do what's best for the individual client even if that may not comport with a more general vision of what is just or otherwise good for society.

So no matter who you're working for, you're in an ethically risky area. Working for a large law firm can exponentially add to that risk because of how much autonomy you're surrendering. After all, if you're promising to put a client's interests above almost all else, you should think long and hard about who that client is and what its interests are. But at a large corporate law firm, people often can't do that. This makes such work morally risky. Not necessarily immoral--that probably depends on what kind of law you're doing, and at what kind of firm, and with what kind of client, and other such details. But the risk that it's immoral goes up.

I would hesitate to say that corporate law work is inherently immoral because of the details I mentioned, but more importantly because I think it feeds into a binary mindset where corporate=bad and public interest/government=good, which isn't entirely accurate. To state the obvious, the government has blood on its hands and is known to falsely imprison and torture and otherwise violate people. And not all self-declared do-gooders actually do good, even if they think they do. Moral risk exists in varying degrees across a spectrum, it's not something that's only there in large corporate law firms. Again, this is an obvious point, but it's easy to overlook in all the focus on not selling your soul for a firm job.

-- AnjaliBhat - 26 Feb 2009

Esther, I think you raise a good point when you ask who should be corporate lawyers if we won't.

Biglaw associates are fungible cogs. In any economy (but especially this one), if the entire CLS class refused to join Biglaw, the positions we forsook would just be filled up with graduates from other schools. The net amount of evil produced by Biglaw work could be said to be the same whether we participate personally or not.

But everyone considers themselves more conscientious than the next guy, right? Wouldn't we be able to mitigate the evil of a Biglaw position better by being there in person rather than letting someone else do it? You wouldn't be able to directly sabotage, of course...but you'd be a voice in the room able to influence events for the better.

Consider: it's 1942 and you're a German youth. Do you join the SS or flee Europe? Assuming there would have been someone else ready to take your place in the SS, you could do more good by joining. You'd be able to save lives working on the inside, if you could only resist the Stanford Prison Experiment effect. If you did the "evil" thing, you'd make the world a better place. If you fled, you'd help no one.

So I don't think Professor Moglen's approach is the only way to look at the issue. It does make intuitive sense to compare the net evil one does as a Biglaw attorney to the amount one is able to donate to charity. But we could instead compare the amount of evil one could mitigate as a Biglaw attorney to the amount of good one could produce elsewhere. Basically: working within the system can be better than throwing rocks at it from outside.

-- GavinSnyder - 27 Feb 2009

This idea that "someone has to do it, and so why not me?" was troubling to me when it first appeared in this thread. Thank you, Gavin, for the SS analogy. There's nothing like comparing Big Law to the Nazis to get me out of my chair and into the conversation. Like the German youth 1942 (at least the ones eligible to be in the SS, i.e. the youth who were not being systematically targeted, marginalized, imprisoned, etc) we, the lottery winners, have the choice to participate in the machinery of death, run away (dropping out and moving to Argentina is my current daydream) OR use the power that we have to dismantle the machine.*

Where the 'if not me, then someone else' rationale misses a step, I think, is in its assumption that (1) the machine is inevitable (we have been over this already, at length), and that therefore (2) our participation in it is neutral in effect and has no weight as a moral decision (ditto). **

What is interesting to me is that the “someone has to do it, and so why not me?” line of thinking played a major part in convincing me to come to law school in the first place. My reasoning was as follows: 1) most of the people who are fortunate enough to be able to get into a top law school will do so in order to make a lot of money by serving the corporations that are destroying everything that I love about, well, everything; (2) someone has to get educated in a way to work effectively to fight back; (3) since the number of people who are in this class of lucky people is relatively small, and as I happen to be among that group, I might as well throw myself into the fray.

*Just to be clear, of course I'm not saying that Big Law = Nazis

** I was going to try to link to our threads on these points but the server's slow right now so I'll have to do that later.

-- LeslieHannay - 27 Feb 2009

Hey, no problem Leslie.

I'm just an instrument of Godwin's law.

-- GavinSnyder - 27 Feb 2009

Gavin, your reaction was exactly the same as mine when I first read Esther's post. Considering the long line of law school graduates struggling to vie for the few coveted spots in big law factories, does the decision not to join one make any bit of a difference in the broader scheme of things? Hitler analogies aside, if I decline to put my money in Exxon stock because of their exploitative practices, wouldn't another investor jump at the opportunity to buy? Perhaps the better approach would be to buy the stock and then pressure the company to change its practices from the inside. Although I'd hesitate to mislabel your approach "someone has to do it, so why not me?" since I think that's downright reductionist, your idea does raise some interesting points.

But I do have two disagreements with your approach. First, even if choosing to work at a law firm over the next guy makes no difference to the net level of "evil" in the world, the situation would certainly be different if the person taking the firm job ended up feeling disillusioned, dirtied and guilty as a result. I don't think anyone rationalizes the decision to work at a firm in the way you've described, but IF they did ("I don't want to work at a firm but I'll do it cause there'll be no difference if I don't"), there certainly would be an extra cost to your utilitarian calculation in the form of attorneys miserable with what they do. There would be less evil in the world, I think, if people who didn't want to work at firms chose not to while leaving the jobs for those that did.

Secondly, I think your approach in 'changing the law firm' from the inside may be futile if the "evil" we attribute to the law firm is endemic to what the law firm IS and DOES. While this is an extreme example, it would be silly for a person who is fervently opposed to capital punishment to become an executioner with the goal of "changing the system from the inside." In the same way that killing is a function of the executioner's job, perhaps the evil we see in law firms is simply within the nature of the law firm itself.

Obviously, it would be necessary to tease out what we mean when we say "evil," but taking Leslie's view into account, if representing big corporations is what a law firm does and that in itself is an evil, what exactly is there left to change?

Btw, Gavin, why do all of your posts get a special box around them?

-- YoungKim - 28 Feb 2009

Hi Leslie, I was just wondering if what I wrote and the comments by other people are still saved somewhere (maybe in archive?), because I think what we wrote originally could also have some value.

-- EstherKwak - 03 Mar 2009

Leslie, I think this summary adequately captures a discussion that had probably become too cumbersome and off-topic to navigate. I certainly don't think you've mischaracterized anything I've written, but at the same time, I do think it might've been appropriate to get people's consent before deleting the entire thread, or at the very least archiving it so they could access the original discussion if they needed to.

There's no doubt that you've captured the gist of everybody's posts, but perhaps reducing (or changing in any way, for that matter) people's words without their permission might not be the most tactful approach to wrapping up a discussion.

-- YoungKim - 03 Mar 2009

Quite right - sorry for the wiki blunder. I guess I am still a bit fuzzy on how refactoring works. Here's the thread in its entirety. The summary thread is now called IsBeingACorporateLawyerImmoral2.

For what it's worth, I thought the refactoring was really good. Refactoring doesn't get rid of people's words because you can always just look at previous revisions of the page if you want to see what people originally said in their own words. Just log in and go to "Diffs" in the black bar at the top right of the page.

-- MichaelDreibelbis - 03 Mar 2009

Well done Leslie. People tend to vomit words, and a summary such as yours is useful to determine whether something of substance was actually said. The exchange of ideas is made more difficult with verbosity such as this:

"I think this summary adequately captures a discussion that had probably become too cumbersome and off-topic to navigate. I certainly don't think you've mischaracterized anything."

A simple "good job" would have conveyed as much.

-- JonathanGuerra - 03 Mar 2009

Thank you Leslie, for fixing it and letting us see the old post. Thank you Michael. Since I still don't know how wiki operates fully, I was freaking out a little bit, thinking what everyone wrote was completely deleted when it no longer appeared on the website and was replaced with Leslie's summary. I think we value and get attached to what we have written, no matter how "substantive" it was. I am guessing Young's reaction was similar to mine. Having said that, I think we should be a little politer to each other, and try to minimize attacking others.

-- EstherKwak - 03 Mar 2009

I agree, Esther. This is a learning process for me too. The refactoring page and its offspring are up on the wiki under IsBeingACorporateLawyerImmoral2 & CapitalismCorporationsAndYou, respectively.

-- LeslieHannay - 03 Mar 2009

Leslie, I just wanted you to know that I wasn't referring to you at all by what I said in the end (if there was a misunderstanding by any chance). I was referring to the posts that attack others... I actually appreciate how you recaptured everything and added more valuable questions. =) Thanks! =)

-- EstherKwak - 03 Mar 2009

Responding to Jonathan and Michael's post, I absolutely agree that the summary was valuable. Nobody should have a monopoly over their own words, especially in a public space as this.

At the same time, I do think it's important to retain complete records of what people have said, no matter how tangential or 'vomit-like' they've become. With that said, my apologies to everyone since I didn't know you could easily dig up previous revisions (thanks for the tip, Michael). Hope it doesn't seen like I've attacked anyone.

-- YoungKim - 03 Mar 2009

Flash forward to 14 years later in 2023 and I found this engaging thread above discussing the very same issues we discussed in class this semester. Should we be part of the big law machinery and change it or should we opt out of fit? What does evil really mean (something we explored in our discussion of cannibalism)? It's fascinating to see how law students from a different generation struggled with the same issues we're struggling with now. On the one hand, it can be disheartening to know that we still haven't found resolutions to the challenges that troubled the seniors before us. On the other hand, I feel a sense of camaraderie reading through this. Even small reactions here resembled mine - for example, Andrew's comment that effective as a lawyer Robinson was, he did not seem happy.

There are many thought-provoking things discussed here but the "if not me, then someone else" rationale for going into big law struck me. This was the same rationale that I provided to Professor Moglen in office hours in a discussion about interning at the DA's office this summer. This sort of reasoning, though, is a justification for going into a certain career like corporate law and not the motivation behind it. Much like the conversations we had in class this year, we law students persistently sense the need to defend a decision to go into corporate law rather than proudly declare an affirmative motivation for going into it. I don't think this thread has arrived at a definitive answer as to whether being a corporate lawyer is immoral but, clearly, there seems to be something that bothers our conscience as law students (even across generations) about going into big law.

-- HoDongChyung - 21 May 2023

Great points Ho Dong! Another aspect of this discussion I find interesting in comparison to now is its temporal background. The original chain of responses were all written during the near end of the 2008 recession, which officially ended in June of 2009. Presumably, the students applying for the alluring biglaw jobs back then had seen the recruiting class before them search for work in one of biglaw's slowest hiring periods to date. In class, Eben even said that he hired more lawyers than Cravath that year, as he hired one and they hired none. While the broader economic circumstances during our time in law school are not nearly as bleak as those in early 2009, speculation regarding another recession exists today, but discussions regarding the moral implications of biglaw careers are still common both in and out of class. Also, it is worth noting that even if economic conditions worsen, it is unlikely that biglaw firms will stop hiring completely, as doing so in 2008 harmed them years down the road when they had no mid-level associates. I find it fascinating and uplifting that these discussions still take place regardless of our time as a student's economic/temporal background, overall hiring prospects, or even the (assumed) worries in the school after many students in 2008 were unable to find the work that attracted them to CLS in the first place.

-- MichaelPari - 22 May 2023



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