Near the end of a delightful interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival, CBS journalist Rita Braver asked Williams & Connolly superlawyer Robert Barnett – who also happens to be her husband of many decades – what advice he would offer to young attorneys. Could they, Braver asked, replicate his career path, which took him from a Supreme Court clerkship to the representation of publishing and political luminaries, and service as a sachem of the Democratic party? Barnett said no.
The competition to win a job at a firm like Williams & Connolly is fiercer than ever – Barnett said his firm received 6,000 resumes last year – and the prize at many firms is “drudgery.” (Barnett took care to except W&C’s work from the “drudgery” category.) “If I were a regular practicing lawyer at a megafirm, I would have been out of the law long ago,” he said.
It was a discouraging comment in an otherwise sparkling hour of conversation between Braver and Barnett, who met as undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s and have managed to balance their work and family life. Among Barnett’s specialties is preparing Democratic candidates for presidential and vice presidential debates, but Braver told the audience that he stepped aside in 1996, despite his long allegiance with Bill Clinton, so that she could serve as White House correspondent for CBS; Barnett joked that he won the Best Husband Award in his condominium that year.
For all of the charming give-and-take between Barnett and Braver (who was as delightful when we chatted in line for the women’s bathroom as she was in questioning her husband), Barnett’s pessimism about the practice of law matched the tone of some of the other panels I’ve attended as the Ideas Festival continued on Friday. It also tracks with the conversation I had with two big-firm lawyers Thursday night at a Thompson Reuters reception. They told me that they were troubled by this week’s mass layoffs at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, mostly because they’re convinced that Weil is the snowball that starts an avalanche of layoffs. They’re not worried about their firms, both of which rank high on the Am Law profitability charts, but about shops that haven’t proactively planned for changing times.
That conversation brought home a message from a panel I attended Thursday evening, in which Goldman Sachs chief Lloyd Blankfein discussed the bank’s $500 million program to train, mentor and provide capital to people running small businesses. On the panel with Blankfein were (among others) former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who has taught community college professors how to implement Goldman’s training program, and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, whose city has had 180 small business operators complete the Goldman program over the last six years. What all of them emphasized – including Blankfein – is the talent and brains of the small-business owners they’ve come to know. Blankfein said that the only difference between some of the graduates of the program and Goldman bankers is opportunity. Many of the small-business owners are first- or second-generation Americans who didn’t have the education of your typical Goldman banker. Or they didn’t have connections or access to capital. Fate put them on the wrong side of the opportunity divide.