by Conor Friedersdorf

Over at Above the Law, Elie Mystal responds to my two blog posts on how professional elites are hired, headlining his item, "The World Hates Lawyers: Mainstream Media Manages to Criticize Big Law AND Public Sector Lawyers in The Same Breath." This exaggerates the dislike of attorneys in a tiresome bid to claim victim status on behalf of the ATL audience. It's a side of American discourse that drives me crazy: Qualified criticism of an identifiable group is twisted by its self-appointed representatives in the blogosphere, who insist, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that it is an all out attack on all conservatives or Muslims or rappers or Christians or women or teachers or working class Americans... or in this case, all lawyers.

Mr. Mystal takes the tone of a righteous defender of attorneys, but the effect of the post is to mislead them into thinking that they've been subject to more virulent and broad criticism than is in fact the case. Most egregiously, he bizarrely asserts that I speak on behalf of the whole mainstream media, mistakes my criticism of how Big Law recruits as an attack on its associates, and implies that I attacked all public sector lawyers.

In fact, I criticized a small subset of lawyers who attended elite schools, chose to work in the public sector, and carried a chip on their shoulder about it. In the latter post, I softened even that criticism. I understand that the ATL schtick is hyperbolic snark, but it's only effective when its truths being exaggerated.

I've enjoyed all the e-mail I've received from lawyers, whether pushing back against my arguments, agreeing with them, or expressing desire for changes in the Big Law status quo. Few displayed the sort of elitist entitlement under discussion, but I can't say the same for the post at ATL, where we find passages like this one:

I don’t need to tell you guys that the days of five-star bottles and pliable models are long gone. But they existed once. And, who knows, if the American economy recovers and India magically sinks into the ocean, those days might come once again.

But even if we accept Friedersdorf’s premise about recruiting, what is wrong with that way of attracting talent? What is wrong with private companies doing whatever it takes to get top associates to join their firms? Would Friedersdorf prefer if new law school graduates were placed in steel cages and forced to fight to the death for the opportunity to work you know, like they have to do now? Is that somehow morally preferable? If you’re talented, and more than one person wants to hire you, then people have to compete for your services. That’s what recruitment means.

As much as I sympathize with law school graduates unable to find work in a rough economy, the conceit that recruiting and hiring is now akin to a steel cage death match is overwrought in a way that betrays a stange lack of awareness. For many Americans, the job market and the application process is many times worse than what law school graduates face even in a bad legal market. That doesn't mean  unemployment as loan deadlines approach is morally preferable to lavish recruiting. Of course, that binary choice was asserted for rhetorical effect: it neither bears resemblance to what I wrote nor any conceivable reality, and it's utter nonsense to think that we're forced to choose between those options.

Unfortunately, we're not done with that rhetorical tactic:

Yes, yes, yes… and somewhere in Bangladesh a child could be saved from starvation based on what I just ate as a snack. But I don’t compare my career success to that child. You know why? ‘Cause I’m not a low-expectation-having mutherf***er. I was born into a middle-class family, in a safe suburb, to two parents, both of whom graduated from college. I could compare myself to some black guy who was born to a crackhead and is now in jail and say, “Oh gee golly, I’m doing so well,” but that would be weak. From my starting point, I’m not supposed to go to jail. I’ve had every advantage handed to me, and so the only people that it’s actually worth comparing myself to are others who had the same kind of opportunities that I had. (Yes, I’m failing in that comparison, please shut up now and let me get back to my point.)

Similarly, these government lawyers aren’t supposed to compare themselves to “their fellow Americans.” What does that even mean? A government lawyer is doing better than a subsistence farmer in Idaho? And that’s supposed to make him happy? What kind of country would we be if people were satisfied once they achieved “mediocrity”?

As it happens, this is precisely the kind of attitude that I sometimes observe in America's meritocratic ruling class, and that I find objectionable: sure, I'm luckier than the vast majority of people, but due to the family and privileged circumstances I was born into I'm superior to them, so I'm entitled to much more than merely being far better off than most people in the wealthiest country on earth. Mr. Mystal's only justification for this attitude is to pretend that government lawyers must either compare themselves to Big Firm lawschool classmates earning huge salaries, or else Idaho subsistence farmers, and since this false dichotomy is even more absurd than the last, I am unpersuaded.

To be clear, I do not think that Mr. Mystal's words reflect the prevailing sentiment among elite law grads who joined the public sector, and I thank e-mailers for helping me to see that with perfect clarity. I'm merely saying that the attitude does exist, and Mr. Mystal has done a rather good job expressing it (and confirming that it's owed partly to the disparity between private and public sector salaries).

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