Who Are We?


Scott Greenfield wrote yesterday about why we don’t belong in biglaw:

And then there was the bottom line. Regardless of all the things that we hold dear today, there was a baseline requirement that lawyers be gentlemen. Not hold the door open for ladies type of gentlemen, but boarding school type of gentlemen. Choate, Phillips Exeter, sort of thing.
. . . .
Criminal defense lawyers don’t belong in the hallowed offices of Biglaw. We don’t eat properly. We sometimes speak in plain English (or even other languages). We laugh too loud, and usually come from public schools.

Scott’s post reminded me of a book I read in the 80s: Paul Fussell’s Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. Fussell described the social classes present in America: upper, middle, proletarian, and bottom, as you might expect, but also “category X” — people who have voluntarily withdrawn from the class system. (Read a review of the book with more detail.)

The biglaw “gentlemen” described by Scott likely fit into Fussell’s upper class or upper-middle class (the private prep schools he names are upper-class institutions, but eating ribs with a fork and knife is decidedly middle-class behavior). Prosecutors and the bulk of lawyers in small- and medium-firm practices — really, all lawyers with regular paychecks — are mostly upper-middle to middle-middle. (They may have started life in the lower-middle or prole classes, though.) Law school provides an entree to the middle classes, but not, generally, higher. Since the classes are not defined solely by money, many lawyers make a bundle practicing law and remain resolutely middle-class.

The lawyers kvetching here about the unfairness of having gone to law school only to work as a temporary employee for biglaw, reviewing documents in a basement somewhere, are solidly middle-middle and lower-middle — they went to law school to join the upper or upper-middle class, and found that it’s not that easy.

The American middle classes are, by definition, concerned with what other people think of them. They want to be upper-class (or at least upper-middle), and try to behave as though they are.

Topeka district court judge Joe Johnson, formerly a criminal-defense lawyer, used to say:

We’re criminal-defense lawyers. We have no shame. When we fart in a crowded elevator, we look around and, without cracking a smile, say “what, like you don’t do it too?”

If Judge Johnson’s analysis is correct (and I believe that it is), then we criminal-defense lawyers are clearly not middle-class.

Because we have to work for a living, we’re not upper-class. Few of us, on the other hand, are destitute. Where does that leave us?

Some would say that we are Category X (which has nothing to do with Generation X, though some of us could be both) — fugitives from the class system.

Fussell’s Category X, however, seems to have departed the class system because of disdain for the system; criminal-defense lawyers, by contrast, don’t care much about the system — we simply don’t fit in.

In many ways the class that we have the greatest affinity for is the proles. Like “high” proles, we are effectively highly-skilled, highly-paid tradesmen (many plumbers make more than many criminal-defense lawyers); people call us when the well needs fixing. We generally don’t need to impress or to be impressed; we are down-to-Earth, simple folk — traits we’ve developed from helping and befriending society’s outcasts. We don’t, however, suffer fools gladly.

If criminal-defense lawyers are proles, classwise, that would help to explain Scott’s biglaw acquaintance’s response to him:

I asked where he thought a solo practitioner like me belonged in the scheme of lawyers. He was silent for about a minute, and then said, “I really don’t know.” He knew we existed, though he rarely came into contact with someone like me. He understood that we played a role in the legal profession, but there was never a reason for our paths to cross. There was no disdain toward solo practitioners, or criminal-defense lawyers. None at all. We just had no place in Biglaw.

To the Biglaw partner, Scott’s question made no sense. He might as well have been asking about plumbers’ place in the hierarchy of lawyers.


0 responses to “Who Are We?”

  1. Perhaps I’m just hanging out with the wrong kind of BigLaw kids, but wouldn’t be so kind as to call them ‘gentlemanly’.

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