In Code of Capital, Katerina Pistor writes about how one of the fundamental objectives of law is to create and protect wealth, and that lawyers are the skilled craftspeople who engineer this process. “Lawyers,” she writes, “are commonly described as legal service providers. This description, however, greatly understates the contribution that lawyers make in the coding of capital, and through it, to the creation and distribution of wealth in society.”
Not all law firm work meets this description, but a lot of it does. It makes sense when you think about it. Why would anyone pay a 25-year-old right out of law school $180K a year if they weren’t making someone richer? Most people I know didn’t go to law school to make rich people and corporations more money. And yet, that is largely what they ended up doing.
That is not to say I think all corporate law is amoral, though some of it clearly is. The lawyers defending asbestos and tobacco companies surely believed in the righteousness of their work – after all, people are very good at believing their own bullshit – but most of us would not say that they contributed to the greater good. Other legal work, like structuring deals to avoid corporate taxes, may seem morally neutral until you think about the downstream consequences of corporations failing to pay taxes.
But until we are ready to abandon capitalism altogether, there will be a need for corporate lawyers, and much of this work seems relatively unobjectionable. And given this state of affairs, why not go work at a law firm and make a lot of money after law school? Someone will do it, why not you?
But thinking about it this way lets you off the hook too easily. Your goal should not be to make as much money as possible while trying to avoid morally dubious work. Instead, you should try to find work that you believe in. Do you think your work as an associate at a law firm is making the world a better place? If so, carry on. But if not, it’s time to make some hard choices.
I think most public interest-minded law students who choose to go work at law firms understand the trade-off they are making. They understand that they will get paid a lot of money to do work that they won’t be particularly excited about at best, or will hate at worst. After a few years, they will either leave or they will forget what it was ever like not to do that kind of work. But why go through that? Why not just decide that you are going to find work you believe in from the beginning? Is the money worth it?
Life is short and you shouldn’t settle. Someone will take that job at the law firm. The question is: will it be you?