The Pursuit of Gold Stars

Last post, I talked about how law schools and the legal market encourage students to abandon their public interest dreams. Today, I will talk about how our individual personalities may lead to that result as well.

Law school attracts certain kinds of people. To get in, you have to have a fairly strong undergraduate record. Unsurprisingly then, many aspiring lawyers are hard-working, ambitious, and achievement-driven. People who go to law school also tend not to be rule-breakers. Law is quite literally a system of rules that govern society, and lawyers become representatives of this system. Rebels and revolutionaries are unlikely to find the legal profession a compelling career path.

Does this describe everyone who goes to law school? No. But anyone who has gone to law school knows that people that match this description outnumber those who don’t. And what people like this usually want more than anything else is gold stars, those markers of achievement that identify them as a success.

Throughout high school and college, these gold stars take the form of awards and letters of admission. To get these gold stars, young people need good grades and high test scores, but that usually isn’t sufficient. They also need to show commitment to extra-curricular activities such as sports, art or music, and usually also a commitment to public service of some kind.

Take the Rhodes Scholarship, perhaps the most prestigious scholarship one can earn as an undergraduate. The four criteria for Rhodes Scholar are:

  • Literary and scholastic achievements (academic excellence)
  • Energy to use one’s talent to the full (as demonstrated by mastery in areas such as sports, music, debate, dance, theater, artistic pursuits, particularly where teamwork is involved).
  • Truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness, and fellowship.
  • Moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in one’s fellow human beings.

Requirements of this type exist throughout high school and college, up and through applying for law school. For students who are interested in public interest, their passions are in line with their ambitions.

In law school, however, the gold stars start to change. There are no more schools to apply for, no more scholarships to win. Suddenly everyone is competing over offers from corporate law firms. People begin to compete over things like salaries and corporate perks, and then later, over wine cellars, beach houses, and penthouse apartments. These things are not only valued for their own sake, but also for the status they confer. Status, it turns out, is the ultimate gold star.

A law student interested in public interest must resist the urge to compete for these gold stars. But they often can’t because they are the kind of person from whom gold stars are irresistible. In the end, I believe that their motivation and drive to succeed often wins out over their noble aspirations for going to law school, aspirations that until then have been encouraged and nurtured by the gold star system.

One way to tackle this problem is to start awarding gold stars to students going into public interest law. National fellowships like the Skadden Fellowship already do this to some extent. But nothing will ever change the fact that corporate lawyers will always make more money (considerably more money in many cases) than public interest lawyers.

And so many of the best and brightest students who go to law school will come out with an offer from a corporate law firm, even if that was not their goal going in. They will justify their decision in many ways. They’ll say it’s just for a few years until they pay off their loans, or that their firm will let them do a lot of pro bono work, or that they want to gain skills they can use to help people later on. These justifications may be true in individual cases. The problem arises when most people make the same decision based on the same ostensibly personal justifications.

You might think I am being too harsh. Maybe public interest jobs pay so little that people are forced to take corporate jobs. No one needs a wine cellar, but we all want to live a good life. More on that in the next post.

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