I promised him I'd think it through a little more and post my thoughts. Which I will do, one of these days. But for now here's a hasty and poorly-thought-out reaction right now. Any conversation about the future of the profession is incomplete if it doesn't acknowledge how pervasive and influential our profession's snobbery about pedigree is. I happen to think it's ugly and stupid, myself, but there is no arguing that it is there, and I think maybe older, well-pedigreed lawyers forget or don't recognize just how strong a pull it exerts on young people.
I mean, I love my life and I love my law firm. I had a great time at my law school and feel that I got a real bargain -- a terrific education with student loans under $50,000. I try to make pretty deliberate choices and follow my own compass (although I still care what people think of me way too much and run astray again and again because of it). I think I've managed to do a really good job fitting my work and my life to what I really want. And yet I still REGULARLY question my choice of law school and of law firm.
Why? Because our profession worships credentials. We assume people from big, fancy law firms are smarter, and we assume people from fancy expensive law schools are better. You're a big liar if you pretend it's not true. Maybe it goes away or subsides after a career of practicing law, but we young lawyers (and certainly those applying to and attending law school) feel it acutely, and I bet the middle-aged lawyers who might have forgotten this need only check their ingrained assumptions to see that it's still there.
I was relatively oblivious to the handicap I was giving myself when I enrolled at UMaine School of Law (and I had both personal and financial reasons keeping me in Maine). But, luckily or unluckily, I did well there and got offers at the fancy skyscraper firms in the big city of my choice for my summer associateship. As a summer associate I began to realize what I was up against when I discovered what an indelicate conversation stopper it was to answer honestly when attorneys asked me where I went to school. (Harvard and Georgetown were the acceptable answers at that particular firm.) Generally, the best the inquiring lawyer could muster was "Er... I went to camp in Maine." Literally, once an attorney froze, turned away, reconsidered, turned back, and asked hopefully where I went to undergrad. When I gave him an answer within the tiny universe of acceptable schools, his relief was visible. He happily changed the conversation to that school.
And EVERYONE -- parents, professors, lawyers, business folks I knew from town -- urged me to accept my offer there, or one from another fancy law firm, even when I explained that I was pretty sure the life I wanted to build looked different than that. "Just for a couple of years," they urged. "It'll open so many doors." I didn't do it, but I recognize that my mobility is limited because I went instead to a firm nobody's ever heard of. I recognize that plenty of lawyers assume that I'm here because I didn't have the option to go somewhere "better." And the SCARIEST thing is that, after a couple of years, I'm doing it, too. I'm impressed by people with a recognizable law firm name on their resume, or a fancy diploma on their wall. Even though I have neither. Talk about low self-esteem. That's ugly. And when I talk to my friends from undergrad who are miserable at the most prestigious of white-shoe firms, I wonder whether I would've could've should've taken that route.
People, this is crap! Let's think about this. Is this really a good way to discern among people in our profession? I thought the Harvard summer associates in my class were the worst of the bunch -- not good writers, not especially impressive thinkers, and with an air of entitlement that was really ugly. The guy in my class who will be the best lawyer is a former merchant marine who didn't have the interest or inclination to go anywhere but UMaine, but he's got a fantastic mind, a real-world practicality and a great work ethic.
I could rant a lot longer (don't get me started on law review, for example, which I'm reading a lot of law students blog about) but the gist of it is, our profession exerts a nearly irresistible pressure on talented young people to climb to the highest rung of a specific and extremely narrow ladder. To do so, they incur big big debt, and take on impossibly demanding schedules, at school and in the beginnings of their professional career. And then the golden handcuffs kick in (and the professional snobbery sinks deeper) and making a different choice means admitting you can't "hack it". It's a real trap for the unwary.
Can any of you seasoned lawyers help me see this in a different way?