Saturday, March 7, 2009
The Fixation on Prestige
“Are you not ashamed of caring so much for the making of money and for fame and prestige, when you neither think nor care about wisdom and truth and the improvement of your soul?” Socrates
Why do you want to be a lawyer? This was the (predictably obvious) question posed to me at a pre-law seminar as a freshman in college. One student raised her hand and proclaimed that she wished to enter the legal profession because she wanted to change the world. How idealistic! I raised my hand and stood to attention. Confidently, and without thinking twice, I stated that I planned on becoming an attorney because I desired the prestige and the money. From the looks of others in the audience, it was the answer they had in mind too, but were ashamed to admit.
I’d like to think my answer was that of an immature eighteen year old, and, to an extent, it was. I ultimately chose to attend law school because I believed I’d be challenged intellectually and have the opportunity to study interesting issues and concepts. I am no longer eighteen and clearly there’s more to life than prestige.
If I keep telling myself that, maybe I can will myself into believing it?
But while I wish the prestige fixation was a lost vestige of the past, I've come to learn that law student’s prestige-focus is second-to-none (ok, maybe Anne Coulter gives us competition, but still…). As I have addressed earlier, (most) prospective law students desire to attend the most prestigious institution possible. For many, acceptance to the illusive “T14” consumes their existence. Undoubtedly, these students are eagerly anticipating the newest edition of U.S. News and World Report’s graduate school rankings. I can picture it now: incoming first years having panic attacks because the law school at which they deposited drops in the rankings.
It doesn’t end there. The next goal for law students is to place on the most prestigious law journal possible. Following that, of course, is fall recruitment. Law students nationwide compare their offers. For all too many, the most important indicator of a prospective employer’s worthiness is their vault ranking or “selectivity.”
Surely, a law student can relax after he or she has locked up a position at a prominent high-paying law firm. Right? You’ve done it! You’re (finally) a success! Think again. The question turns to what position you have on your respective journal’s editorial staff, and, then, (perhaps) to whether you have a prestigious clerkship lined up for post-graduation. Even those who don’t really want to clerk—who aren’t even interested in clerking at all—may choose to clerk. I guess I can’t blame them: it’s “prestigious” (although, in today's economy, risky). But when does this obsession with prestige end? And what’s the source of the law student’s infatuation with prestige?
I don’t have the answers to these central questions, but I do think that I have finally overcome my own prestige-obsession. This isn’t to say that I won’t continue to slosh through the morass of prestige with my peers. I almost certainly will—but, hopefully, for the right reasons: I’ll do what I do because I believe it will make me the best attorney rather than for its own, intrinsically “prestigious” sake.