“Everyone deserves a lawyer” is one of the dumbest things lawyers say.
Not that there aren’t situations where the justice system requires litigants to have competent and zealous representation – defendants being the most obvious example – it’s that lawyers rarely deploy this as a forceful defense. of Gideonbut as a vapid ethical shield to make their work crafting commodity contracts for Vladimir Putin of a moral nature with the exoneration of innocent people on death row.
Because even if everyone did deserve a lawyer for every legal problem under the sun, they certainly don’t deserve you to be their lawyer. You can take on any case, but everyone is free to judge you for it and, more importantly, other customers are free to decide if they want to confuse you for it.
The New York Times Magazine article Ethicist just addressed this question in the article “Is It OK to Take a Law-Firm Job Defending Climate Villains?” The article concludes that it’s perfectly fine for the debt-ridden law school graduate to take this Biglaw job.
And it’s true… but not necessarily for the reasons of the article.
Here is 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 articled at a big law firm where I get paid very well, and I was invited to work for them when I graduated. 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 owning a house or even saving for retirement, which would be impossible for me in the public interest or the government a salary.
Surprisingly, the ethics expert never singles out law schools in his answer, although that’s definitely where I start. Social media critics of this article blithely suggest that this working-class college student facing $150,000 in debt might just be going to work for a cause in the public interest. Oh! It’s as simple as that, huh?
Here, in reality, law schools are outrageously overpriced. Complain that schools are structurally designed to funnel students into corporate jobs in tacit cooperation with big business if you will, but that’s where we are. More loan forgiveness programs would be great, but my friends in the public interest have struggled even with that help…it’s just not going to comfortably overcome the hurdle created by the law school industrial complex. And it’s not for nothing but general interest jobs are actually competitive! More competitive than imposing yourself in a company of certain schools.
Frankly, the underlying article’s diversions to 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 over to Matt Damon a tuition bill.
This person has an offer in hand, doesn’t seem to have any other options right now, and needs the money. It doesn’t excuse everything in this world, but it does reduce the ethical weight in this equation a lot.
Anyway, there is an additional catch:
But the job of the company is to defend big companies that I am ethically opposed to, including many polluters and companies that I believe are making the climate apocalyptic situation even worse. Even if I only stayed at the firm for a short time to pay off my loans, I would contribute to these efforts for a while.
There is a sliding scale when it comes to these questions and it depends on seniority, role and issue at hand.
Normally, when we talk about a lawyer’s liability to the client, we are talking about associates. The agency matters. Partners can choose to refuse work, but associates cannot. Hanging around a big company for three or four years because the very definition of a cog in the wheel isn’t in the same ballpark of complicity as winning the company “poison clouds of death are awesome “.
Obviously, the juniors have a certain complicity, but they are at the bottom of the sliding scale. Which brings us to the next factor…
What is the role of the lawyer? Litigants who go to court arguing that people should just toughen up when their tap water catches fire are more compromised than someone who writes up futures contracts so energy companies can play the hot potato with the ownership of future natural gas deliveries. In a vague way, all this work “helps” the oil company, but it doesn’t matter what brand of help and comfort the associate offers. Critics seem to assume this graduate will be Erin Brockovich’s villains, when they could write stock option clauses into executive agreements. There’s A LOT more of the latter work out there than the former.
Finally, the question implied questions. Joining a voter suppression company – ahem – where the company’s courtroom antics directly disenfranchise people is different from working with an energy company because – with a few exceptions like joining a SCOTUS-related attack on the Clean Air Act – the courts are not where most of this damage is done. The kind of article alludes to this…
Even if what your clients are doing is legal, you may still feel uncomfortable providing advice and representation because the activities shouldn’t be legal. We should have laws and regulations that treat the climate crisis seriously, and we don’t.
Unfortunately, the author takes this to mean “it’s not like the company wouldn’t continue to do this work without you.” But the best takeaway is that outside of corporate lobbying, the work done for energy companies is not where the battle for climate justice is won or lost. The legislative and regulatory changes are there.
That doesn’t stop the company and its partners from carrying the full weight of judgment to do this work, but a first-year associate, perhaps doing generic corporate work, for an industry that will only be circled by new laws and not new trials? No.
So yeah, it’s good to spend a few years working for a company representing the climate villains. After that…consider your side options.
Is it okay to take a job at a law firm defending climate villains? [New York Times Magazine]
Joe Patrice is an editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email tips, questions or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe is also Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.