The Top Dollar

It is not “justice” that most of the thousands of graduating law students are going after these days. It is, instead, the top dollar. Never mind how badly the legal reforms of the past 25 years need to be defended and extended. Never mind the frequent twisting of the law by the powerful to oppress the weak. Never mind the new frontiers for public interest legal practice that are beckoning pioneers in many forms.

Most law students today speak of their debts, the tightening job market, and the rumors that the first elite law firms may be breaking the $50,000-a-year barrier to attract the few anointed graduates who qualify for that salary stratosphere. Part of this narrowness of vision flows from the myopic environment of many law schools which transforms these mercantilist temptations into conventional career definitions. Alas, what a waste of young human resources!

In times of legal crises–the ’60s was one such period–law students rose to the occasion. The campus was a ferment of discussion and involvement in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War struggles. Out of this application of their legal education to contemporary conflicts came a generation of legal activists who have taken their place as leaders of progressive movements. Their career goals were forged out of their pressured experience during law school.

To be sure, the provocations in the ’60s–city riots, marches and demonstrations, draft resistance, an ongoing unpopular war–were more overt than today. But law students and their professors are not supposed to require fires in the cities to illuminate their practicing dedication to advance justice in America. Presumably their training and heritage–it was Daniel Webster who said, “Justice is the great work of man on Earth”–would enable them to foresee and forestall or, at the least, to bend their efforts toward securing proper remedies for the wrongs in society.

The isolation of most law students behind a curriculum so heavily shaped by business law practice is astounding. Most law students take a course in corporation law; yet of the 1,000 law students asked recently whether they had ever heard of the book “Corporate Crime,” published in 1980 by a University of Wisconsin scholar, less than 15 raised their hands. Given the epidemic level of corporate crime in this country and the fact that this book is the first substantial treatment of the subject since the late 1940s, this unknowingness reflects the bias which is inbred in commercial or corporate law courses.

Even greater is the isolation from those career opportunities with so much potential to connect the new lawyer’s conscience with his or her professional work. Placement offices at law schools are primarily stalking grounds for corporate law firm recruiters and some governmental agencies. Rarely do they bring the attention of students to public interest or people-oriented law practice opportunities.

Yet many such opportunities are listed at the Harvard Law School’s public interest placement office. Its director, Douglas Phelps, makes these listings available to other law schools on request. Our catalog, “Good Works,” contains a variety of openings for young lawyers interested in social change. Moreover, new cooperatives, cable, satellite and home computer technologies, class action practices and innumerable other entrepreneurial options offer exciting possibilities. As they enter the profession, the graduates should open wide their window of discovery.

A new survey of 2,750 lawyers less than 35 years old by the American Bar Association found 40 percent of them dissatisfied or bored with their work. This poll did not go unnoticed at several law schools I visited this spring. Still, the risk-taking propensity of law graduates is very low compared with their search for the security of a law firm.

In our country’s history, hard times produced pioneers who explored or settled the West. Daniel Boone did not go to Kentucky on a superhighway. As they study intensely for the bar examinations later this summer, more law students might contemplate why, with so many frontiers beckoning them, they keep looking for superhighways. It may be a difficult journey at first, but that is the lot of innovators who combine vision and determination in order to prevail.

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