It Ends in Suits (How Law Firms Buy the Best Students)

It’s 2016 and I’m at a networking event run by one of the major law firms in Sydney, Australia. Around me, canapés are being served by waiters in tuxedos. They ask me if I would like the salmon tartar. I politely decline. It’s a formal event, so I am dressed in my one and only suit. At the same time, I am desperate to look as casual as possible. Around me, employers are circling around the room, asking questions to each and every one of us. They tell us that there are no right or wrong answers. They are lying.

In a backroom there’s a wall with our headshots stuck onto it. As the night wears on, senior partners will take turns writing notes under each photo. Good eye contact. Strong work ethic. Strong cultural fit. By the end of the night, a shortlist of candidates will be drawn up. The best candidates will be invited back to interview with the firm at the end of the month. A year from now, the lucky few will start working in this very room. A room with a million-dollar view. A room with a starting salary of $74, 000. In other words, every broke law student’s dream.

Seduction is a delicate art. The law firm however, is prepared. Glossy brochures line the walls promising a great work-life balance, exciting travel opportunities and the best clients in the world. The job itself is framed as challenging, exciting, cutting edge and meaningful. Pictures of courtrooms feature prominently. In the glossy brochures we – the prospective employees – are called rockstars. Repeatedly.

There will be fifty of these corporate sponsored events in the first term of law school alone. There will be over 200 by the time I graduate. They range from networking events and cocktail evenings to job presentations, public talks and boat cruises. All of them will be funded by a major law, accounting or consulting firm. All of them will be geared towards the same goal – getting the smartest people in the world to change their minds. Making students realize that their whole life’s mission (for charity, for justice, or even for a balanced working life) has been misplaced, and that actually, all they really need to do is make money.

Events like this happen at law schools all over the world, from America to Canada to the UK and Europe. During my stay at Oxford University, I attended a similar event hosted by a Magic Circle firm. At Oxford, the firm provided beer and burgers, free of charge. The weather was colder, the attire was more casual but it was essentially the same event, just in an entirely different country. The attendees were the elite of student society, the top 1%, if you will. Intelligence is no barrier to this kind of seduction.

Back in Sydney, the senior associates have had a little too much to drink. Their tongues start loosening as the night wears on. Soon, the truth starts pouring out. Sitting at the bar, a senior associate approaches me and asks for my name. I tell him and he grins, making a mental note for the wall in the backroom. I’m making an impression. I just don’t know what impression that is.

“I just got back from New York,” he tells me conspiratorially, “You wouldn’t believe the things I saw over there.”

“Try me,” I say.

The associate, Ben, we’ll call him, received an offer from a major New York law firm after graduating from Sydney Law. He accepted immediately, beginning a career trajectory with unexpected results. “In New York, everyone’s on something,” he says, “You need it, for the long hours. At first, I tried not to give in, but you need it, you really do. Ritalin, coke, it’s all there and it’s all so readily available. Then there’s the night life. You’d see senior partners at parties with a woman under each arm… their wife and kids waiting for them at home. Living the dream, man, living the dream.”

Ben is separated from his wife, he’s estranged from his kids and he’s a recovering alcoholic. He tells me this with a drink in his left hand, slurring his words. When I ask him about being a lawyer, he laughs bitterly and orders another beer.

“Let me tell you about being a lawyer,” he says, proceeding to do just that.

Ben tells me that he spent the best years of his life sacrificing everything for that major New York law firm. All with one goal in mind: making junior partner. He got very close too. In 2007, he was next in line for promotion. Then the GFC hit. The entire dream came crashing down around him like a set of tumbling stock prices.

“No more promotions,” he tells me at the bar, laughing in pain, “No new partners. The firm was trying to fire people, let them go. I was lucky to keep my job. But I’d lost everything else at that point. The wife, the kids. Life’s funny like that, isn’t it? You can’t predict how things will turn out.”

I gaze out at the million-dollar view of Sydney Harbor and have a sudden urge to leave the building. Looking around, I can see the champagne bubbling away and the canapés running on empty. I think to myself about that idea from economics – that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The drinks here are not really free. Neither are the canapés. The law firms are not giving us free food. They are here to trade. We give them the best years of our lives and in return they give us canapés and a few nights out. Who gets the free lunch in that deal?

I remember Ben all these years later because of how sad he looked, sitting at the bar. He was thirty-five but he looked closer to fifty. He clutched his beer in one hand as if his life depended on it. And he had that sad, pathetic jealousy in his eyes that older people get when they’ve made the wrong choices in their life. He was desperate to be one of the young graduates in the room, to be among us, in the crowd, with all of life’s opportunities ahead. He wanted another go around the wagon, a chance to do things differently.

That is what “living the dream” did to him.

What will it do to you?

Many people have this strange impression that peer pressure ends at the age of eighteen. After a few years of drinking too much and partying too hard, there’s a perception that everyone snaps back to their individual lives, fully autonomous and free from any external influence. This is a false belief. Ben was wallowing in peer pressure at age thirty-five. He still felt like he had to prove himself to the world. The strangest thing about him was how little he had learnt from the whole experience.

“But don’t let me dissuade you,” he said to me at the end of the night, “Law is a great profession. You should try it.”

Why do people like Ben keep telling people like me to go into law?

Because no one wants to be the first person on the Titanic to yell that there’s an iceberg ahead. It’s better socially to wait for the ship to sink. Even better if even more people get on board before it does so. That way, there are people even stupider than you, people who made the same mistake as you did, but after you did, when it was so obviously a mistake. When he tells me that law is a great profession, Ben isn’t saying I should be a lawyer. He is saying he wants me to get on the sinking ship. Ben is desperate not to drown alone.

When lawyers and law students are surveyed, almost 1 in 3 reveal that they have suffered depression in the last year. This is four times higher than the general population. At the same time, lawyers are the fourth highest profession when it comes to suicide. I have documented elsewhere the crippling effects that the long hours, stress and work strain has on individual lawyers in firms, but there is something larger at stake here. When companies present law as a glamorous profession with work-life balance, seducing young graduates to change career paths regardless of the health risks involved, should those same companies be held responsible for lives they change?

How much accountability can be placed on a glossy brochure, a boat cruise or cocktail night? What about students who wanted to pursue a career in public service, before being seduced into the world of high-dollar clients and canapé lunches?

In 2011, Marina Keegan, an english major at Yale, published an article questioning why 25 percent of all Yale graduates go into consulting. When she surveyed first year students, she couldn’t find a single student who wanted to be a consultant. Barely any knew what the word meant. Still, dutifully, a full quarter went on to pick the job at graduation. In her essay, she details the reasons why. It is all very simple, she says. Top students get headhunted by the big firms with personalized emails. The firms know which clubs and societies the student has joined and so they appear friendly and interested in the student’s personal life. Don’t be anxious about your future, the firms say, because options exist. Of course, there is only one option available to you. Working for a major firm at graduation.

This is the long and short of it. The major firms are there to seduce you, whether or not you want to join them or not.

How a company’s dream can so easily be repackaged as your dream and how at the end of that dream, you can discover how little of substance was ever there to begin with, is scary to me. What is presented as a normal, everyday par for the course at university, seems to me to hide an insidiousness, a toxic undercurrent.

Four years after that event in Sydney, I look around and I feel sad. I feel defeated. I have witnessed the best minds of my generation go through this and not come out the other side. Friends who have slaughtered themselves at law firms, who see them as mere numbers in the balance sheet. Law schools who turn a blind eye to the corporate propaganda they spread.

But I still try to have some hope. That my generation might be able to rise above the seduction, to think for ourselves and to craft a new path. That is my dream.