Law in Contemporary Society

Fear and Big Law

-- By JohnsonD - 13 Jun 2016

1L Fear

Every year Columbia 1Ls arrive to campus with dreams of becoming justice producing lawyers. By 1L summer, many have succumbed to the big law machine. What changes between the time we first cross the threshold of Jerome Greene Hall until the Conclusion of 1L year? We become gripped by fear. The fear is based on our own risk adverse inclinations and pressure applied by the administration to push students into big law jobs. At some point in the first semester, the fear that we could end up like Jonathan Wang, a 2010 Columbia Law School graduate profiled in the New York Times who was unable to obtain a job requiring bar passage, overcomes many of us. For others, the loans that seemed like an abstraction before we signed the promissory note, become real to us (according to law school transparency, nearly 85% of law students have taken out loans with an an average of $112,000 for private school students).

Big Law thinking

If we accept the premise that completing a stint in Big Law is the only way to both be a successful practicing lawyer and ensure that we can pay off our debt, then the conclusion that we must follow the path most likely to get a firm job (taking black letter courses that look good to hiring managers, writing on to law review, getting a 1L summer internship in a position that looks good to hiring managers, participating in EIP), naturally follows. Despite a recent increase, big law summer associate hiring numbers remain down from the pre-recession levels (NALP), which means we must work harder than our predecessors for the same rewards, the thinking goes.

Essentially, students become obsessed with pedigree and prestige because big lawyers are obsessed with pedigree and prestige. In a 2011 study by Northwestern University, researchers found that big law hiring managers “often drew sharp distinctions between graduates of four elite schools (Yale, Harvard, Stanford and to a lesser extent Columbia) and the rest,” and further distinguished students based on factors that often had nothing to do with aptitude like climbing Mount Everest, or being an Olympic champion. But studies like this should set off alarm bells in the minds of students. Do we really want to work for organizations with such arbitrary hiring practices, especially ones whose work we often find in opposition to our own beliefs, in an industry experiencing the slowest growth since the Great Recession? (American Lawyer)

A way forward

Only when we step out of this narrow, big law focused mindset can we truly start to understand the meaningful lawyering opportunities afforded to us as Columbia Law students. Just because one part of the profession is going through a period of turmoil, doesn’t mean that the entire profession is broken. After the realization that there are meaningful lawyering opportunities open to us if we choose to do the work required to seize them, we can then we begin to think creatively about what kind of lawyers we want to be. Part of thinking creatively means remembering what it was that brought us here initially.

The majority of us wanted to be lawyers because there was some injustice in society that we wanted to help correct. That did not change when we sat down for our first Legal Methods class. Courses like Law in Contemporary Society help orient us back towards a justice producing direction by pointing out that in order to be a lawyer, you only need two things: a license and a book of business.

Do well by doing good.

We can do well by doing good. 1L summer provides an opportunity to begin to set up our own legal practices. During that summer you can begin to plan and make lists: lists regarding who it is at Columbia and in New York City that can help you learn the skills necessary to do the justice producing work you want to do after after graduation, lists of organizations and individuals that will help you build your book of business and learn the skills necessary to be successful in your practice, and lists of courses and learning opportunities that will give you a solid foundation as you move forward. By graduation time, we can have all the skills necessary to set up our own practices, but by doing that, we must first let go of of our fear. I believe I have.

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r3 - 13 Jun 2016 - 20:07:11 - JohnsonD
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