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September 7, 2011

The Moral Hazard of Big Law Firms

When I look through resumes of those hoping to become law professors, I usually find one common element:  A short stay (1-4 years, usually) at a large law firm.  Why did these people leave after that time?  Some, no doubt, were pushed out.  The others decided to switch career tracks on their own, despite success at the firm.  Given that these are smart, well-educated, successful lawyers, why is it that law firms lose them so readily?

The short answer (based on the experience of those I know) is that many of them are miserable working at large law firms, despite the high rate of pay.  It is soul-less and unfulfilling for these top achievers.

Are we doing the right thing in pushing our top students towards these jobs?  In the context of students with a strong Christian faith (and those of other faiths as well), I think it may be a disservice to both that student and the firm.  Recently, I wrote a short book review for the Journal of Christian Legal Thought, reviewing a wonderful book by John Allegretti called The Lawyer's Calling,  Here is the conclusion of that review:

We must be peacemakers...

This may not seem a remarkable thesis, but at its heart is a bedrock rejection of the business practices of those very law firms we send so many of our best and brightest students into. Of course those firms are amoral at best; they are structured that way, and present economic circumstances have only made that worse. We can pretend that this isn’t true, but those of us who have spent time in large firms know better. Neither should we continue to lie to our students, saying or implying that the practice of most large law firms is consistent with the Christian faith. An amoral environment, especially for the powerless junior associate, is anathema to faith, to the idea of vocation, and to the ethic of love.

Allegretti’s book is practical, but it directs us to a nearly impossible challenge: To undo the primary business structure in our field, or at least decline to any longer feed that beast with the bodies and souls of our young. Are we that brave?

I realize that my critique is probably too broad.  I think there ARE law firms that foster healthy vocations for lawyers of faith; I also know that some of my best friends are people of faith who work in good conscience at large firms. 

But still, as a general matter, isn't there something there?

-- Mark Osler




September 7, 2011 | Permalink


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Don't you think, Mark, that all private-industry law jobs and even many public ones require junior (and even senior) lawyers to check their faith and other personal commitments at the door in order to serve their clients most appropriately in our legal system?

Doesn't an in-house lawyer at a large (or small) public corporation largely work in an "amoral" setting most days given that the corporation's primary mission is a profit maximization commitment to its shareholders. Doesn't a junior lawyer in a state AG office have to make an "amoral" commitment to helping to carry out the policies adopted by the voters and their representatives? (I am thinking here of a lawyer morally opposed to the death penalty but working for the AG in a state that seeks and defends death sentences.)

Put more bluntly, isn't US commitments to (regulated) capitalism and (constitutional) democracy the only "faith" that a US lawyer can prioritize unless and until he or she starts working for an avowedly faith-based organization? I do not see your concern as one unique to BigLaw as much as a concern driven by working in a "service industry" in which most of the persons seeking service are seeking help to further goals (e.g., profits or political power) that are not faith-driven.

I often analogize being a lawyer to being a waiter. Assuming both Olive Garden and your local mom/pop Italian restaurant are committed to serving anyone and everyone who walks in (which shoes, shirts and money), I doubt the wait staff at either place is being more or less moral when serving customers. One might suppose that the waiter in the mom/pop place would get in less trouble if he (morally?) refuses to serve wine to an obviously pregnant patron, but I am not sure of that. Indeed, there may be more pressure in smaller restaurants (and law practices) to put profits over faith because every regular customer/client has more of an impact on the viability of the institution.

In the end, I think there is some "there" here, but it relates to our modern tendency (driven I think by economic realities) to have lawyers serve generally as amoral solvers of discrete problems than as faith-based counselors for people generally. This may be more true in the big firm setting than in smaller practices, but I am not convinced the size of the firm is critical to the issue you identify. (I think most academics flee BigLaw practice not because it is amoral, but because it is often drudgery in which we have to put client/partner needs/goals ahead of our own.)

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 7, 2011 9:01:38 AM

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