How Our Professional Elites Are Hired

by Conor Friedersdorf

The details of how elite law and business consulting firms recruit astonish me every time I hear them. Even getting an interview often requires attending an Ivy League professional school or a very few top tier equivalents. Folks who succeed in that round are invited to spend a summer working at the firm, the most sane aspect of the process.

But subsequently, they participate in sell events where they're plied with food and alcohol in the most lavish settings imaginable: five star resort hotels, fine cigar bars, the priciest restaurants. A fancy dinner will be scheduled in a faraway city. Summer associates will fly there that evening, spend several hundred dollars on the meal, spend the night in a hotel, and fly back the next morning in time for a 10 am client meeting. They'll expense steak dinners or $150 cab rides without a second thought. The whole process is designed to appeal to their status conscious side, to accustom them to a kind of luxury that requires them to retain highly paying jobs, and to keep them busy enough during their summer tryout that anyone unable to commit their whole lives to the firm won't stick around.

The prize firms are after: talented people, to be sure, but also the ability to tell clients, "We can put together a team for your company that is entirely made up of Ivy League graduates." Apparently this is enormously appealing to companies, which makes sense, given that law firms and especially consulting firms are often used as a kind of responsibility deferral system, allowing managers to fall back on some variation on, Yes, technically I approved this consequential decision that didn't actually work out for the company, but as you can see we hired the most prestigious consulting firm in America -- a whole room full of Harvard graduates! -- who affirmed that this was the best option.

As they used to say, nobody gets fired for going with IBM.

Though it isn't defensible, it is unsurprising that a lot of people who eschew offers to work at these firms, favoring public sector work instead,  imagine that they are making an enormous personal sacrifice by taking government work. The palpable sense of entitlement some of these public sector folks exude is owed partly to how few of "our best and brightest" do eschew the big firm route (due partly to increasing debt levels among today's graduates, no doubt).

Being outside this culture, I'd be quite curious to hear stories, and/or analysis of what I've gotten right or wrong, whether in defense of the status quo or otherwise. Needless to say, any e-mails I publish from that batch will be anonymous unless you specifically tell me to use your name. (Use with "Professionals" in the subject line). What I do know is that this is one place where the American divide between elites and non-elites is most starkly illustrated, though given the tasks performed and hours worked by the business and legal elites I know, it isn't at all clear that their side of the divide is the desirable one.