From Aspen: America’s opportunity gap – and why it’s bad for lawyers

By Alison Frankel
June 28, 2013

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.

You could say the same thing about the Weil associates who lost their jobs. I know what you’re thinking: These are highly educated, well-advantaged young lawyers, not struggling small-business owners in poverty-blighted cities. But I think there’s a parallel. Much of what happens to us is out of our control. Fate does not distribute opportunity in equal shares, and your own talent and hard work cannot always bridge the opportunity chasm, whether you’re born in the wrong place or chose to join the wrong law firm.

The theme of unequal opportunity reverberated in panel after panel. Chrystia Freeland of Reuters spoke about the growing divide between the super-rich – the 0.1 percent – and everyone else. One of the hedge fund megamillionaires she quoted made a chilling comment about globalization and the fall of America’s middle class. If four Chinese people rise out of poverty at the expense of one middle-class American who loses a job, Freeland quoted the hedgie saying, “why should we worry?” Freeland’s talk answered the question. We should worry because America is becoming a country in which people born into poverty can’t get out of it. Wealth is self-perpetuating: The rich can give their children advantages that the poor cannot.

George Mitchell of DLA Piper made a similar point on a panel entitled “The Politics of the Possible.” A former Senate majority leader, Northern Ireland peacemaker and all-around eminent statesman, Mitchell began life as the son of a janitor in Maine. He rose to prominence, he said, at a time when Americans could work their way up. That path is now clogged for too many people in poverty. Mitchell said that income inequality and the loss of economic opportunity is the severest problem the country faces. He called on the festival audience to do something about it.

“This is not a representative group of the American people here today,” he said. “We have to focus more of the attention of our society on this idea: In the United States, no person should be guaranteed success, but every person should have a chance to succeed. The consequence of (political) gridlock is that large numbers of Americans are not about to achieve success.”

Why does the opportunity gap matter to lawyers? If you extend the analogy of wealthy parents making sure their kids have the chance to remain wealthy to law firms, you can see how the wealthiest firms can entrench themselves. The most talented law school graduates will be increasingly likelier to go work for firms where they’re least likely to be laid off. If you’re a 3L at the top of your class at a top law school, would you rather go work for Weil Gotshal or Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz?

In the bigger sense, though, the opportunity divide is depriving lawyers of the clients of tomorrow. I wrote yesterday about exhortations from successful Aspen panelists to be bold and take risks. They all started on the right side of fate, with the education and capital to execute their great ideas. Millions of Americans are not as lucky. Who knows how many businesses haven’t been started by these people, or haven’t succeeded?

I’ll close with a comment New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu made to Blankfein at the panel on Goldman’s program to help small businesses succeed. The bank often lends money to the businesspeople who go through the programs, and Blankfein said that those investments usually turn out well for the bank. Landrieu picked up on that point. The Goldman program makes businesses better credit risks, he said, so it stands to reason that Goldman’s investments have paid off. “That’s what you do, right?” Landrieu said. Goldman lends money and expects returns, whether on a large scale or a small one. Helping people bridge the opportunity divide is good business.

For law firms as well.

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