AFTERWORD Lisa Kir kp a tr ic k “I’d sell my soul to get this house. ” Arnold, one of the young lawyers on television’s ”L.A. Law,” January 22, 1987 N SIX YEARS, I could be making / six figures. Or so says an unsolicited hiring pitch I received from a large law firm. It wasn’t easy, but I ignored the letter and others like it. The firm’s partners were hoping I would be interested in a position as one of their salaried associates. Big firms in big cities routinely offer jaw-dropping salaries to attract law students. In Dallas, for example, the heavy hitters pay their new hires $45,000 a year. As you might expect though, there’s a catch: the life of a metropolitan associate the yuppie’s yuppie is far from rewarding. My creditors would be disappointed to see me crumple these invitations to the white-collar factory. My parents would not be impressed with my spurning financial security and prestigious firms. My father is a lawyer in Chicago; my mother thought law would be a good calling for her kids as well. But they never imagined the modern mega-practice of law. Where five lawyers fill my father’s offices, 100 or even 300 lawyers work at the major firms. Dad’s clients are individuals and small businesses; associates at the big firms usually represent acronyms. Dad knows the names of his co-workers’ children; associates are lucky if they know all of the attorneys on their floor. The fast lane, it turns out, promises either burn-out or smoldering angst. Many associates realized this years ago, but the legal press only recently spotlighted the phenomenon for the rest of us. The law industry’s introspection began last April, when a major New York City firm shocked the competition Keenen Peck, a former associate editor of The Progressive, is now a law student at the University of Wisconsin. He wrote this piece for the Observer’s nearly pro bono rates. by increasing its starting annual salary to $65,000, up from $53,000. The competition followed suit. In response, three leading publications The National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, and Student Lawyer reported on the plight, as it were, of young associates. The conclusion: Money can’t buy job satisfaction, much less love. The National Law Journal interviewed eight typical “highly paid, highly educated drones who often toil 60 to 70 hours a week to fatten the annual draws of the partners.” The American Lawyer examined “life in the trenches,” where associates “often questioned the life they had chosen whether or not they thought well of their firms.” And Student Lawyer pointed out that rising salaries will compel associates to work even longer hours, to keep up profits. What do associates do to earn big bucks? Harvard Law Professor Duncan Kennedy says their routine work involves “shuffling around large sums of money for people who really don’t need the services, and which could be performed at a tiny fraction of the smartperson hours they take.” “I pushed around a lot of paper,” one associate told The. National Law Journal. “I postponed ten different matters, and I accomplished nothing I felt was of consequence. Yeah, I got paid a lot of money and I was able to go out and eat a great dinner and sleep in a nice apartment. And if that’s what I wanted out of life, that’s great. But I guess I decided it’s not enough.” Not long after the interview, the associate left law to be a writer. Most, however, feel trapped. “You begin to live a lifestyle your salary can sustain,” said one, “and like other vices, you become addicted to that lifestyle.” An associate I know says he’d rather be running a hot-dog stand, but the payments on his condominium will surely block any such career move. A classmate of mine is troubled because he’s accepted a cush job with a notorious union-busting law firm. He’s a decent fellow, a member of the ACLU. “I’ll probably be at that firm my whole life,” he says. Opportunity knocked. Do-good lawyers, at migrant assistance or the public defender’s, work as hard as associates but for half the pay, or less, so one cannot waste too much pity on the overpaid. In no event does the practice of law entail heavy lifting, Still, today’s young legal turks personify the forms of oppression discussed by the likes of Herbert Marcuse, Stanley Aronowitz, and C. Wright Mills. Call it repressive desublimation, false consciousness, or cognitive dissonance; whatever the fancy name, it describes a miserable lot that can’t act on its misery. None of this would be surprising if it weren’t for the persistent myth a myth encouraged in law schools that lawyers constitute some sort of priesthood. In reality, law is a “mature business,” as The American Lawyer observed. Big firms are mature enough to know that corporate clients can pass the cost of legal services on to their own consumers. Thus, the New York firm that first raised associates’ salaries by $12,000 grossed $97 million in 1985. The legal profession has always been a business, but now its best and brightest labor in a context that emphasizes income over advocacy, numbers over words. Alienation among associates was inevitable. In 1844, Marx found that “the worker feels himself only outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself.” In 1986, a New York employment consultant questioned “whether paying money Let Down By Law By Keenen Peck 22 FEBRUARY 20, 1987
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