“Everyone deserves a lawyer” is one of the dumbest things lawyers say.
Not that there aren’t situations where the justice system demands that litigants have competent, zealous representation — criminal defendants being the most obvious example — it’s that lawyers rarely deploy this as a spirited defense of Gideon, but as a vapid ethical shield to make their work drawing up commodities contracts for Vladimir Putin of a moral kind with exonerating innocent death row inmates.
Because even if everyone did deserve a lawyer for every legal issue under the sun, they certainly don’t deserve you to be their lawyer. You can take on whatever case you want, but everyone else is free to judge you for it and — most importantly — other clients are free to decide if they want to get mixed up with you for it.
The Ethicist feature in the New York Times Magazine just tackled this issue in the article “Is It OK to Take a Law-Firm Job Defending Climate Villains?” The piece concludes that it’s perfectly fine for the indebted law school graduate to take this Biglaw job.
And that’s right… but not necessarily for the reasons in the article.
Here’s the story:
While I entered law school hoping to work in the public interest, I now face the reality of paying back my loans. I took an internship at a big law firm where I am paid very well, and I’ve been invited to work for them once I graduate. The salary would be enough for me to pay off my loans, help my family and establish a basic standard of living for myself — plus maybe own a house or even save for retirement, which would be impossible for me on a public-interest or government salary.
Surprisingly, the ethics expert never points the finger at law schools in the response, though that’s definitely where I’m starting. Social media critics of this article blithely suggest that this working-class student facing $150K in debt could just go work for a public interest cause. Oh! It’s just that easy, huh?
Here in reality, law schools are outrageously too expensive. Complain that the schools are structurally designed to funnel students into corporate jobs in tacit cooperation with the major firms if you want, but that’s where we are. More loan forgiveness programs would be great, but my public interest friends struggled even with that help… it’s just not going to comfortably get over the hump created by the law school industrial complex. And not for nothing but public interest jobs are actually competitive! More competitive than catching on at a firm at some schools.
Frankly, the underlying article’s diversions into moral accounting and Peter Singer could be cut entirely in favor of a GIF of Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting repeating “it’s not your fault” while handing Matt Damon a tuition bill.
This person has an offer in hand, doesn’t seem to have other options at the moment, and needs the money. That doesn’t excuse everything in this world, but it reduces a lot of the ethical weight in this equation.
Anyway, there’s an additional catch:
But the firm’s work entails defending large corporations that I’m ethically opposed to, including many polluters and companies that I feel are making the apocalyptic climate situation even worse. Even if I only stay at the firm for a short time to pay off my loans, I would be helping in these efforts for some time.
There’s a sliding scale when it comes to these questions and it depends on seniority, role, and the issue involved.
Normally when we talk about a lawyer’s responsibility for the client, we’re talking about partners. Agency matters. Partners can choose to turn down work, but associates can’t. Hanging out at a big firm for three or four years as the very definition of a cog in the wheel is not in the same complicity ballpark as winning the “poison death clouds are awesome” business.
Obviously juniors bear some measure of complicity, but they’re on the very lowest rung of the sliding scale. Which brings us to the next factor…
What is the attorney’s role? Litigators going to court to argue that people should just toughen up when their tap water catches fire are more compromised than someone drafting forward contracts so energy companies can play hot potato with ownership of future natural gas deliveries. In a vague way, all this work is “helping” the oil company, but it matters what brand of aid and comfort the associate offers. Critics seem to assume this graduate will be the villains from Erin Brockovich, when they could be writing up stock options clauses in executive agreements. There’s a LOT more of the latter work out there than the former.
Finally, the issue involved matters. Joining a voter suppression firm — ahem — where the firm’s courtroom antics directly deprive people of their rights is different than working with an energy company because — with a few exceptions like joining some SCOTUS bound assault on the Clean Air Act — the courts aren’t where most of this damage is done. The article kind of hints at this…
Even if what your clients are doing is legal, you may still feel uncomfortable supplying guidance and representation, because the activities shouldn’t be legal. We ought to have laws and regulations that treat the climate crisis with full seriousness, and we don’t.
Unfortunately, the author takes this in a “it’s not like the firm isn’t going to keep doing this work without you” direction. But the better takeaway is that outside of lobbying firms, the work being done for energy companies isn’t where the battle for climate justice is won or lost. Statutory and regulatory change is where it’s at.
This doesn’t alleviate the firm and its partners from bearing the full weight of judgment for doing this work, but a first-year associate, possibly doing generic corporate work, for a sector that will only be corralled by new laws not new lawsuits? Nah.
So, yes, it’s fine to spend a few years working for a firm representing climate villains. After that… consider your lateraling options.
Is It OK to Take a Law-Firm Job Defending Climate Villains? [New York Times Magazine]
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.
Leave a Reply