Law Students Are Right About Career Choices

When I was young, I could not abide my elders condescending to me. Now that I am not young, I hope to avoid emulating the attitude I recall with no fondness. As the head of an institution of higher education, I am on the side of our students. As a teacher, I learn from them.

Most recently, they gave me insight into their feelings about entering the workforce.

At our law school, to try to instill professionalism from the very start, we developed an orientation program with an emphasis on ethics. Through a series of role play simulations in small groups, we covered subjects such as social media — posting photographs of yourself drunk might impair your prospects (and not wrongly either).

Among the scenarios was the following. Suppose you interview with Law Firm X, a smaller outfit with a good name, and you hit if off. The managing partner says at the end of the Friday afternoon of meetings, “Well, we’d like to bring you on. We’ll work out the formalities in a letter next week, with all the details.”

You say something along the lines of, “That’s great. I look forward to joining you.”

You shake hands with satisfaction.

Then the following Monday, you receive a phone call from law firm Y, where you also had done a callback some time ago but which you had inferred had lost interest due to the passage of time. To the contrary, they too would like to hire you. This possible employer is a major international brand and you believe it would be your “dream job.” (It might not turn out to be, but that is a subject for another day.)

When we discussed what to do, the students who replied to a person indicated that they would take the latter opportunity. They did not regard themselves as bound, legally or morally, by the earlier exchange.

I was appalled initially.

The hypothetical was based, as most case studies are, on real events. The students likely are not aware that the actions they propose result in the officials at their alma mater, me included, receiving angry calls from important alumni; damage to the standing of their references; putting in jeopardy future recruitment of their successors by the same business; and, in the worst case, not only risk to their own reputation but also outright withdrawal of offers. It is not unheard of for law firm X to contact law firm Y, to pass along information about the value of a handshake agreement made by the individual.

I encouraged further consideration of the concept of a commitment.

For lawyers especially, our word is our bond. We are governed by strict rules on loyalty, confidentiality, and other duties. We possess the monopoly on appearing in court and representing other individuals. That right entails certain responsibilities.

I was dumbfounded by the reply from one student.

He volunteered, with unequivocal sincerity, “We’re only doing to them what they would do to us.” (He did not use more colorful, NSFW terms that might elaborate on the meaning.)

Heads nodded in agreement.

He is right.

I have no argument against his observation.

Law firms have embraced their identity as profit-making businesses. They always have been that, but they also until recently held dear the principle that they were more: you would forego some profit you might otherwise make, to hold yourself out as a professional. Leaving money on the table was what partners would do for one another, on the understanding that that was only proper.

Young people have been watching those who are senior to them, probably more closely than their supposed superiors realize. Here is what they have seen.

In a free agent culture, only chumps are loyal. Colleagues are means to an end, not human beings to be respected. If anything other than money matters, it isn’t apparent. Equity owners leverage firms to their self-interest; they set their rates at the maximum that the market will bear and extract an enormous share of the revenue generated by those below them.

Firms have restructured. “Eat what you kill,” is the mantra of many of these ventures. They have laid off people; “counseled out” whole departments, even those who are productive but not profitable enough; lengthened the partnership track; exploited contract employees; and given up mentoring. Those who can, pursue lateral movement with abandon.

Most to the point of our 1L’s comment, firms have rescinded offers to protect their margins.

The foregoing description exaggerates the prevailing ethos, but the perception is all that matters. Without natural predators, our only enemies are ourselves. We have a luxury: we make the world we live in. We do so for more than our generation; we do so for our children.

Promises must be mutual. If those of us who happen to be in charge at the moment expect those who are following to behave differently, we will have to serve as models.

More by | Frank Wu Frank Wu , Law.com Contributor
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