There's been a lot of griping at Harvard Law School recently about political correctness, multiculturalism, and the usual left-liberal causes. Now Harvard Magazine notes that some are trying to extend the activist heat to Harvard's status as a giant of corporate lawyer training:
There’s an inherent tension in HLS’s role as an institution devoted to advancing justice and public welfare, and its role as an elite professional school. Much as undergraduates from institutions like Harvard flock to high-paying business jobs, HLS graduates are drawn in vast numbers to corporate-interest law firms, almost exclusively representing wealthy clients. Of HLS’s class of 2015, more than 60 percent took jobs at private firms or in business. The vast majority of them work at firms of more than 500 lawyers in New York, Washington, San Francisco, and Boston. The class of 2015 had a median starting salary of $160,000, the standard offer for first-year associates—higher than the $130,000 median starting salary for Harvard Business School graduates.
Ralph Nader, LL.B. ’58, a long-time critic of HLS’s pipeline to corporate law, argues that last year’s activism missed an opportunity to question the prominence of corporate law or ask questions about students’ debt to society after graduation. Asked about how well HLS is meeting its stated mission of advancing justice and the well-being of society, Nader seemed surprised by the question: “Well, largely they’re training corporate lawyers,” he says plainly. Early last fall, he gave a talk on campus in which he asked, “What is the purpose of the Harvard Law School?” and urged students to allow their moral and civic conscience, and not the hiring demands of corporate firms, to answer that question. “Harvard Law,” he said then, “is not an institution that provokes any kind of consternation or fear among the power structure.”
The school’s administration points out that it offers a wealth of resources for public interest—and indeed students interested in public service have at their disposal a full office devoted to public-interest advising; generous loan forgiveness; and funding for legal-aid work after graduation. But between the well-established path to corporate law and the demands of a just society, HLS takes no position on where its graduates ought to work, and struggles to articulate a role for itself in a broader justice system. Career options are framed as a matter of personal choice or market demand rather than public need, reflected in the recruiting structure that accommodates corporate law. How pervasive should corporate law be at a top law school? What do Harvard graduates owe to the public? These are questions Harvard hasn’t answered—but the controversies of the last year, and the ones sure to come, suggest that perhaps it needs to.
If the leadership of HLS have a spine (dubious) they'll answer such complaints with a resounding defense of corporate law as public interest law.
I addressed this point in my essay Reflections on Twenty Years of Law Teaching: Remarks at the Rutter Award Ceremony (April 2008), which is available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=1122577. In it, I wrote that:
Legal education pervasively sends law students the message that corporate lawyering is a less moral and socially desirable career path than so-called “public interest” lawyering. The corporate world is viewed as essentially corrupting and alienating, while true self-actualization is possible only in a Legal Aid office.
Our students get these messages not only in law school, of course, but also in the media. Films like “A Civil Action” or “Erin Brockovich” illustrate the general ill repute in which corporations—and corporate lawyers—are held, at least here in Hollywood.
In my teaching, I have chosen to unabashedly embrace a competing view. I tell my students about Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who wrote that: “The limited liability corporation is the greatest single discovery of modern times. Even steam and electricity are less important than the limited liability company.”
I tell them about journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, whose magnificent history, The Company, contends that the corporation is “the basis of the prosperity of the West and the best hope for the future of the rest of the world.” ...
And so I put it to my students this way: You want to help make society a better place? You want to eliminate poverty? Become a corporate lawyer. Help businesses grow, so that they can create jobs and provide goods and services that make people’s lives better.