It’s mid-September. I’m talking with a client , a 3L at a top-tier school.
“Here’s how it works,” she explains. “There’s the have’s and the have-nots. Either you have a job offer, or you don’t. If you don’t, it sucks. You feel like an illegal alien.”
Unfortunately, she’s a have-not. Yes, she’s working to correct that situation – trawling small firms in her hometown, attempting to milk connections. But “have-not” might as well be printed on her forehead. Around her peers, she says, it’s the body language that betrays have-not status. As a have-not, you don’t talk much, keep your eyes down, and behave generally like the undocumented guy lugging tubs of dirty dishes back to the kitchen. The aroma of failure – let’s say it, loser-hood – clings to the fabric of your clothes.
Some thoughtful charity – maybe it was Oxfam – threw a fund raiser dinner some years back, with the worthy goal of educating socialites about world hunger. The guests were divided the way the world is divided. Behind velvet-ropes, at a small central table, a handful of diners savored a gourmet meal. Across the ropes, a larger group picked at bowls of plain rice. Further out, beyond non-velvet barriers, a sizable fringe of outsiders observed the others and listened to their own empty stomachs rumble.
It was just like law school – at least at the good law schools. At the second and third tier joints, it seems like everyone’s a have-not. If the personal experience of poverty derives from comparing oneself to one’s peers, then maybe everyone feels less impoverished at the lower-tier schools, where no one gets a job, everyone’s in massive, crippling debt – and the whole class occupies the same boat.
From what I can gather, at some of the more prestigious schools the have/have-not ratio is about 50/50. Maybe at your school it’s 30/70. Whatever the precise figures, I’m guessing there are a few empty stomachs rumbling out beyond the non-velvet barrier. As Heidi Klum puts it with characteristic pith: You’re either in, or you’re out.
My have-not client wound up in law for an odd reason. She stumbled on a bizarre aptitude for the LSAT. It was her friend who was studying for the test, but she took a sample one for the heck of it and scored 178. By some stroke of fate, that unlucky fluke resulted in her current educational and financial incarceration.
Now she could kill that guy. He crashed and burned on the LSAT and – as a result – is debt-free, working for a company developing green energy alternatives.
Naturally, having a weird aptitude for an aptitude test didn’t translate into possessing actual aptitude. She got B’s on her first year exams. By the time the cavalry arrived with her second year A’s, it was too late – she was already a have-not. Firms can pick anyone they want – and they want perfection.
Feeling a little…imperfect? Welcome to Have-not-ville.
As I talked to Ms. Have-not, I remembered another client, who’s starting his 3L year as a “have.” From the moment this guy got his offer, everything changed. He positively glowed, and strutted around like a self-satisfied bantam.
I offered congratulations, but couldn’t quite adjust to the new mindset. In my day, everyone got jobs – that’s why you went to law school. If you were any good, the firms took you out to lunch and laid it on. I remember a partner from Shearman & Sterling pitching me over the phone to come back after the summer program. I humored him, then impudently hustled off to Sullivan & Cromwell.
In those days, the law school have/have-not divide was limited in scope. For about two weeks, my best friend, a Latvian, hated my guts because I had an offer and he didn’t. But that was it – two weeks. He ended up with exactly what he wanted – an offer from a maritime law boutique, and eventually returned to Riga.
That was then. This is now.
My client, Mr. Have, was in full-on gloat mode. It got a little creepy. That gleam in his eye announced the arrival of compassion fatigue:
I’m in. Those other bastards aren’t my problem any more than kids in Gambia with intestinal parasites are my problem. Times are tough. I got mine. You’ll have to work something out on your own.
That’s my best attempt to recreate his internal monologue. In reality, Mr. Have jabbered on and on about stuff that, in my day, never would have crossed my mind. He announced he could date again – any girl would want to go out with someone with a big firm job. He could plan. He could live. He had a future. He wasn’t unemployed. He could look his parents in the eye. He could breathe easy.
No kidding. It sounded a little nuts.
I envisioned the reality of big firm life interacting with this guy’s future. He wasn’t in for a picnic – his trophy, his grand prize, was an offer from a faceless biglaw sweatshop. Working late nights and weekends, the usual abuse from partners – all that can be taken for granted. But it could play out different ways. He might get assigned to some hideous litigation that goes to trial and consumes his life. He might endure endless doc review. He might end up slumped at his desk surfing blogs until he gets laid off. That last scenario seems the most likely.
He doesn’t care. He only needs a job – a golden ticket out of the slums.
Another client tried to explain the logic of the situation, at least as she saw it. She was recently laid off as a 3d year, after two years at a biglaw hellhole.
“It seems fair,” she explained. “The firm somehow or other hired a bunch of 1st years and now they have to try to find them work. I got my two years of big-law salary, and funneled every cent into loans. Now I’m down to $80k. I’ll have that $80k for the next thirty years – but at least it’s only $80k. Those first-years should get the same chance.”
That’s the ultimate trophy, the grandest prize – two weird, unpleasant years to live like a pauper and pay obeisance to the equivalent of a mortgage until it resembles a car loan – a car loan on a Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
Under the circumstances…that’s nothing to sniff at. $80k beats $180k. Owing $80k, you can (maybe) escape law and get on with your life. You can’t do that owing $180k.
So, sure, in the back of my mind I wonder how my “have” client is going to like biglaw. But I can see why he doesn’t care. He won the lottery by getting in. Now he can pay down part of his loans. That’s a rare luxury.
My have-not client might not savor such luxuries. Even if she snags a small firm job in her hometown, she’ll be earning $60k, not $160k. That won’t make a dent in her loans – not for decades. They may congeal into perma-debt, and out-live her.
I imagined introducing Mr. Have to Ms. Have-not. Not a pretty thought. But that’s how things are right now at law schools: un-pretty. Each interaction with a peer affords an opportunity to stare into the face of a have – and remember your status as an Untouchable. You can listen in on so-and-so’s tales of “summering” at Yadda & Yadda – like it’s a beach resort, not an anonymous meat-grinder. Then cringe whilst two Have’s compare notes on Yadda & Yadda versus Malice, Evil & Rancor – like 1950’s coeds sparring over Vassar versus Wellesley.
You – the have-not – crouch beyond the fence – you don’t even get a bowl of rice. You watch. And listen to your stomach growl.
Gather round Have-nots, Dalit caste of the legal world. I do not shrink away from your smell of loser-hood. I cast no reproach upon your expressions of despair.
Look into my eyes. I’ll tell you what I told Ms. Have-not:
You are young, capable, motivated and unique. Your value is infinite. An offer from a law firm means exactly nothing to what you are worth as a human being.
Please – do not buy into this bullshit.
This entire process makes me sick, and it’s wrong. You’re going to get through it, and put it behind you. It’ll be a war story. Trust me, your life can still have a happy ending.
Do not let yourself be treated this way.
Do not forget who you are.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I can also heartily recommend my first book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)