When you buy it at Starbucks, it's not just orange juice. It's an Odwalla pure-squeezed orange juice that'll set you back about three dollars a bottle -- a reality that doesn't go unnoticed by Stanford law student Andrew Bruck. The dark-haired, T-shirt-clad New Jersey native takes a swig as he explains how he turned down a swanky summer associate gig to work at the Department of Justice instead.
For Bruck, that meant forgoing more than $3,000 a week at the law firm for a government job that got him a stipend from Stanford of about $500 a week. Even though his choice made it harder to justify the upscale O.J., the 24-year-old doesn't have any regrets: "I figured I'd pass up the money and go do what I really wanted to."
And that pretty much echoes the attitude of the grassroots organization Law Students Building a Better Legal Profession, which counts among its principles a willingness to sacrifice pay for lower billable-hour requirements.
Bruck, who will enter his third year of law school in the fall, is one of 130 law students who have signed up. Although it began at Stanford in the spring of 2006, the group more recently has been joined by law students around the country.
Andrew Canter, 24, who also spent his summer at the Justice Department and is also entering his third year at Stanford Law School, has been there from the group's inception.
When Stanford students started getting reports from recent graduates who were unhappy at the firms they'd chosen, an ad hoc group of current students started meeting to talk about solutions to the problems inherent in the life of new law firm associates.
Law Students Building a Better Legal Profession eventually grew out of those discussions, and it became an official Stanford Law School organization last spring.
In short, members say that the drive to bill the most hours has led to a law firm culture bereft of work-life balance, more focused on the bottom line than on the quality of service. The result, they say, is a variety of problems in the firms: an inability to retain attorneys, a lack of attention to pro bono responsibilities and a lack of diversity.
But rather than leave the legal profession altogether, members are hoping that they can use their market power as heavily recruited law students from top-notch schools to push law firms to change.
One way they're getting the word out is through presentations at other top law schools. To date, the group's original members have added students from elite schools such as Yale and New York University. Their goal is to focus on schools that typically feed students into the big firms, a strategy they say will supply the necessary leverage to persuade the legal profession to rethink its approach to law firm culture.
"What we hear over and over again is that all the law firms are the same," says Canter. "They look the same, they make the same glossy brochures, they put on the same receptions and the same fly-back weekends and everything. So we're trying to do whatever we can to distinguish between them and encourage improvement."
Canter and Bruck are in the process of compiling data on the country's most prestigious firms to point out the differences that all those glossy brochures may not.
"If the students know that there's cripplingly high billable hours at one firm or that there are no 'out' gay partners or that there are no black women associates, that's going to affect their decision-making," says Bruck, who is in the process of finalizing a "diversity scorecard" for New York firms. He says he'll tackle Washington, D.C., firms next.
Information about diversity issues is readily available -- it's just a matter of organizing it into one database, which is what the scorecards will do. Using data from the National Association for Law Placement, for example, Canter points out that Fulbright & Jaworski, Dechert and Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw are the worst offenders in New York when it comes to gender equality. All three offices have partnership ranks that are less than 10 percent female.
The group has found that measuring firms' attrition rates and billable-hour requirements is a tougher task, but it's one Canter and Bruck say they're working hard to accomplish.
Despite all their efforts, the students have faced criticism, because, after all, they're ... well, students.
Neither Canter nor Bruck has ever actually worked at a law firm, so it can certainly appear a bit presumptuous for them to undertake such a weighty mission. On her legal blog, Idealawg, Stephanie West Allen relegated them to "pontificating outside observers" who lack the necessary experience to make credible judgments about the legal profession.
Canter doesn't dispute the fact that he's no expert or that the billable-hour system is very deeply ingrained. He does argue, though, that law students can certainly exert some influence on the market by choosing the firms that support their cause.
Both Canter and Bruck say they'll likely spend their careers in the public sector, but both see this as an advantage. "Not being associated with a particular law firm gives us a lot of freedom to speak publicly about these issues," says Canter.
But that might just be the rub, because group members who are employed by major firms aren't so willing to bite the hand that forks over those fat summer associate paychecks.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one such member concedes that the group's success will require members going into the private practice to put their names behind the cause.
That student divided his summer between Covington & Burling in San Francisco and Faegre & Benson in Minneapolis. He says that, from his observations, billable-hour requirements really weren't much of a problem: "While the associates will have to work late or come in on the weekend on occasion in order to address an emergency, they did not appear to be working like that on a regular basis."
That said, the very comfortable lifestyle that comes with being a summer has been known to skew the perspective of a law student or two.
Still, fighting billable hours was not the student's primary motivation for joining Law Students Building a Better Legal Profession.
"What brought me to the group, instead, was an emphasis on professionalism and being a full person. And that means that not only are you putting in the hours at work and generating the quality of work you need to in order to serve your client well in the private practice but that you have a public presence as well."
He believes achieving that public presence through pro bono work is essential to being a good attorney, and it was this shared value that attracted him to the organization.
Another of the group's members graduated last spring and also spoke anonymously because she recently accepted a position at an Am Law 100 firm. Now that she's out of school, she says she's in a tough spot. "One of my concerns is, with the group, we don't have the experience being on the other side, and now that I'm on the other side and I'm entering the work force, I don't feel I can speak as a law student anymore."
Though she still supports the group's goals, she admits that, like a lot of lawyers, she's "risk-averse" and hesitant to associate her name with the cause now that she's affiliated with a big firm. "I haven't really gotten their approval or anything," she explains. Once she's been on "the other side" a bit longer, she says, she'll consider addressing the organization's mission with the partners at her firm to see if it's something they would support.
One charge that group members will adamantly dispute is that they're just lazy.
"I want a family, and I think all of my friends want families," says Bruck, who would consider working for a private firm if he could achieve a reasonable work-life balance there. "The law is about changing how we organize society," he adds.
Considering the charts and spreadsheets littering the small Starbucks table, it's also clear that Canter and Bruck have devoted a lot of time to their research. Combine that with the workload at Stanford, and the charge does seem a bit unfair.
"The great irony is that people working on work-life balance issues don't have any work-life balance," says Canter, referring to his near-absence of free time from working on the project.
That's something Pat Gillette, a partner in Heller Ehrman's San Francisco office, also knows all too well. Her two sons are now grown up, but when they were younger, Gillette put the pressure on herself to have dinner on the table by 7:30, all while billing more than the required number of hours.
Though she might have successfully played the part of Superwoman, Gillette still considers the billable hour to be "the enemy of women in the workplace," as it often leads to lower attrition rates for female attorneys. She spearheaded an effort called The Opt-In Project, which brought together leaders from various industries, including the legal profession, to brainstorm ways to keep women in the work force.
Gillette calls herself a "cheerleader" of the student group: "I think what these law students have done is they've said out loud what a lot of people in law firms have been thinking for a long time." Billable hours, she says, "incite the wrong behavior. It incites people to bill more hours because they make more money, and it rewards inefficiency."
Generation Y is not at all lazy, Gillette says: While "they want to make a lot of money, they also want to have a life." Although that may not be a new concept, this generation might actually succeed in changing the marketplace, Gillette says.
Joan Williams, a professor of law and the director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, also counts herself among the group's fans. She leads an initiative called the Project for Attorney Retention, which also emphasizes the shortcomings of the billable-hour system.
"I've been in legal academics for 30 years, and I've never seen a group like this," she says. And she's confident the students will see results: "The best way to change a major institutional player like a law firm is in solidarity with other people."
The organization has no intention of slowing down once school starts. Its members are gearing up for a fall tour of 10 to 12 schools across the country, and so far, stops at D.C.-area schools Georgetown Law Center and American University's Washington College of Law are tentatively planned.
Although changing the face of the legal profession seems an insurmountable task to most, for Bruck, it comes down to one simple belief: "Just because something always has been doesn't mean that it always must be."