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July 24, 2013 5:35 PM Paper Chase Redux

By Ed Kilgore

I read with some interest Noam Scheiber’s much-discussed TNR article on the recession that’s hit America’s “white shoe” law firms. Still, like Daniel Luzer at College Guide, I have to reject Scheiber’s characterization of this situation as “a crisis in the profession.” I know there are those who think the only real lawyers are at elite firms, just as Mitt Romney probably thought the small fry gobbled up by Bain Capital or its clients weren’t real job-creators. The very rich are not like me or you. But they do not exclusively define any large profession.

Reading Scheiber’s piece, I’m reminded of watching the movie (later turned into a sit-com) The Paper Chase while a student at the University of Georgia School of Law. Throughout the flick, I kept thinking C’mon, nobody at Harvard Law School understands real pressure. The real “paper chase” is where you don’t know if you’ll have a job at all when you graduate. This was not a theoretical observation. Roughly half my class at UGA (a distinguished but non-elite school) had a job nailed down at graduation. A handful went to DC or Wall Street; a larger sliver at the top of the class went to the big Atlanta firms. Everyone else had long given up on dreams of great avarice. Some would go home and hang up a shingle or join a small family firm, or get in on the ground floor of a prosecutorial or criminal defense practice. Others, like me, had decided to use the degree as a back door into some other career like government and politics.

I’m sure that’s pretty much the situation for most aspiring lawyers today, for whom the chaos at the top of the profession is like the sound of distant thunder. I’m not saying I recommend law school for most young people. It’s a hell of a boring way to spend three whole years of your life, acquiring knowledge you will rarely use in an actual legal career, much less anything else. But it’s probably no worse a bet than it ever was, and as the old saying goes, it’s the last refuge of the unimaginative.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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