I went to a pretty good law school. It wasn’t Ivy league, but it was in the top 100 and top grads/law review members (…ahem) had a decent shot at getting a big law job that paid about $150,000 their first year out. After the housing collapse, which happened while I was in law school, big law firms basically stopped hiring. Even now, the number of new associates they take on each year isn’t even close to pre-recession levels. This is neither here nor there, as working at a big law job is at-will torture. The hours are insane, the work assignments are tedious, and the clients are generally plutocrats. You are literally trading the last years of your youth for a comparatively modest amount of capital.
Within the big law firm itself exists a system of exploitation. Associates work at least 60-70 hours a week. Partners bill them out at $300+ an hour, and pay them less than 1/6th of that. After covering the overhead, the partners (“equity”) make a killing on the associates’ labor.
Indeed, the core purpose of a big law firm is to exploit. To protect capital from creditors; to internalize profit and externalize/socialize cost; to concentrate capital through mergers and acquisitions; to avoid business and safety regulations; to avoid taxes; to protect white collar criminals from justice; to ensure that dynastic wealth passes from generation to generation.
One could even argue that exploitation is the core purpose of the American legal system as a whole. After all, isn’t the criminal justice system used to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of members of the American underclass? I’m not talking about taking murderers and rapists off the street, I’m talking about long prison terms for non-violent drug crimes. I’m talking about social control and class stability.
The war on drugs has devolved into a war on the underclass. In places like West and East Baltimore, where the drug economy is now the only factory still hiring and where the educational system is so crippled that the vast majority of children are trained only for the corners, a legal campaign to imprison our most vulnerable and damaged citizens is little more than amoral.
Of course, this is an oversimplification to some extent, but one can credibly argue that the “legitimate” purposes of the criminal justice system (prosecuting fraud, prosecuting murderers, preventing vigilantism) are just a front for the core of exploitation. (“The Patina of Legitimacy.”) There are a lot more drug cases than murder cases and rape cases. And how many of the bankers that brought untold human suffering on this country have gone to jail? Only Madoff — and he only stole money from other rich people.
What about the civil justice system? When it isn’t being used by banks to force people out of their homes, it’s essentially a taxpayer-funded vehicle to solve business disputes. Sure, every now and an insurance company or big business is forced to pay for the damage it caused to an innocent victim, but that’s the exception, not the rule.
Which, finally, brings me to Law Schools.
The Top 100 Law Schools in this country are stuffed with Ivy League intellectuals who are paid six figure salaries to work 20 hours per week. During my third year of law school, I spent about 2 hours/day at the gym, and so did one of my professors, because I saw him there every day.
Law professors have the kind of free time that would make a Frenchman jealous. If they want to consult on the side for their own financial benefit, they are encouraged to do so. If they want to write papers on the relationship between gender, law and Scottish identity in 1920s New York, they can write to their heart’s content.
Many of these professors are brilliant scholars, and some of them are even good teachers. Some of them have actually practiced law in the past, though rarely for more than a few years. Some of them are just going through the motions. And some of them are alcoholics. They can be whatever they want to be, because they have tenure. And unlike the tenured professors in literature departments (which is where many of these professors actually belong), they are paid pretty well.
Of course, these tidy salaries are paid for by their students. Most top 100 law schools charge at least $35,000/year in tuition alone, and most students are taking on non-dischargeable student loans to pay that tuition, not to mention room and board. The legally mandated interest rate on these loans, FYI, averages out to about 7.5%. I know several lawyers from upper-middle class families who are carrying over $200,000 in non-dischargeable debt from law school. That’s $15,000/year in interest alone, with the juice running immediately after graduation.
Which brings me back to law professors. Although there is variation within every faculty, most law professors consider themselves to be liberals. They express their liberalism by teaching classes on international law, social justice, feminist theory, and constitutional law. They have a real opportunity to indoctrinate a number of bright young minds with left wing ideology — an opportunity I would clearly relish. Beyond teaching, these liberals attend academic symposiums, consult with nonprofit organizations, and generally rub elbows with a certain class of the liberal elite. Indeed, being a leftist, and even an activist, is a central aspect of the identity that many law professors project to the world. They argue that the law can be used to prevent exploitation and to achieve justice. They analyze legal doctrine and propose alternative analytical frameworks so that courts might better serve the interests of women, and minorities, and the indigent.
But it should be clear by now that this avowed liberalism is hollow. Because law professors enjoy their privileged status as a class by exploiting their students. Their fat salaries and cushy hours result from the Law School Racket, which burdens law students with an unconscionable amount of debt — debt that they can never discharge in bankruptcy. Debt that, for some, will be with them for decades, or even longer.
Even before the job market cratered, this level of tuition was completely unjustified. The salaries and benefits of law professors were completely unjustified. Even when big firms were hiring en masse, they were only hiring graduates in the top 10 or 15% of the class. Most smaller law firms weren’t paying the big salaries that someone would need to get out of debt, even if they paid for a decade. Public interest certainly didn’t (although if you put in ten years straight, you could get your loans waived under certain circumstances).
Now, think back to what exactly big law firms do. They exploit. They perpetuate income inequality and injustice. They use the legal system to protect entrenched privilege and power.
In order to pay off your exorbitant law school loans within any reasonable period of time, that’s who you’d have to work for.You have to be exploited by an organization that, in turn, exploits society.
That’s where the money for the six figure, 20 hour/week tenured job ultimately comes from. Direct exploitation of students through obscene tuition rates, and indirect exploitation of everyone else, when those students go work for a big law firm to pay off their loans. It’s a connection that most law professors, brilliant scholars that they are, should easily be able to make. One that, unsurprisingly, I’ve never heard discussed by a faculty member, because it undermines the entire identity that they’ve projected to the world and their peers.
And mind you, there are some liberal activist law professors who are clearly just going through the motions. I had one such professor who was always talking about her work on voting rights, but who was 15 minutes late for our 80 minute class nearly every day.
This is the moral decay that comes with unjustified privilege. It seeps into your consciousness and blinds you to your own blatant hypocrisy. It drives “activists” to cover their eyes and close their mouths, lest their comfortable routine be disrupted. It makes people who preach a set of principles day in and day out violate those principles.