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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Public Interest Lawyers – Thank You for Not Being Evil

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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I had to laugh at this April 1st article from the Harvard Law School Record, School Holds “Thank You For Not Being Evil” Ceremony:

As part of its continuing campaign to encourage students and graduates to pursue careers in public interest, the law school held a “Thank You For Not Being Evil” ceremony last Wednesday recognizing graduates who chose to take jobs with employers who are not primarily dedicated to destroying weaker businesses, poor people, or the environment.

“You,” Dean Kagan told the assembled crowd, “are exemplifying what this law school is all about: not actively working to make the world a worse place. You should be proud of yourselves for bucking peer pressure and institutional inertia and instead making a courageous choice to live up to your own ideals and the bare minimum standards of human decency.”

Ah ha, ha, ha…… it’s funny cause it’s true. No really.

Stephen Bainbridge of UCLA takes Erwin Chemerinsky, the inaugural dean of the new UC Irvine Law School in Erwin Chemerinsky: A Law School for the 21st Century:

You want to help make society a better place? You want to eliminate poverty? Become a corporate lawyer. Help businesses grow, so that they can create jobs and provide goods and services that make people’s lives better.

Those whose livelihood depends on corporate enterprise cannot be neutral about political systems. Only democratic capitalist societies permit voluntary formation of private corporations and allot them a sphere of economic liberty within which to function, which gives those who value such enterprises a powerful incentive to resist both statism and socialism. Because tyranny is far more likely to come from the public sector than the private, those who for selfish reasons strive to maintain both a democratic capitalist society and, of particular relevance to the present argument, a substantial sphere of economic liberty therein serve the public interest.

I took another look at Chemerinsky’s post A law school for the 21st century for the offending condemnation of corporate lawyers -

Using law to help people and society is neither liberal nor conservative. It is about the duty of every lawyer to use his or her training for the social good. Law schools must instill this throughout the curriculum and must look for ways, such as summer stipends, post-law school fellowships, and loan forgiveness programs, to encourage more law students to pursue careers in public interest law. All law students, whatever their field of practice, should graduate believing that they have the duty to do pro bono work and use their training to improve society.

Hmmmm…. damn law school deans trying to improve society….

Dave Hoffman seems to do a better job explaining it at Concurring Opinions, contending that

The big idea to agree with here is that it is a terrible fact that law deans, and law professors, continually push out the message that corporate lawyering is a less moral & desirable career path than “public interest” lawyering.

Hoffman goes on to offer up some moral implications, but I would argue that the more pertinent question is why we assume that public interest practice (this is a misnomer, IMHO) is somehow immune or unresponsive to the market mechanisms that operate in corporate law land. There is a high degree of market failure in these cases, I’ll grant, but this is not an insurmountable economic problem. Becoming a corporate lawyer is one way to attack that problem, though a lot of people don’t have that long to wait for the benefits to trickle on down. The work of Muhammad Yunus with the Grameen Bank offers a more useful model.

Lawyers representing people in ‘public interest’-type cases need to get a long tail by which I mean a particular method of economic pie-expansion, the biggest hurdle to which I believe lies in the rules governing lawyers in structural and billing practices. I’m working on a business plan relevant to this subject in an Entrepreneurship class I’m taking right now. I’ll post it after I, well, after I actually get around to writing it, and we’ll see where this conversation goes.

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Category: advice to law students, law school, legal careers, public interest law, rants & screeds


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