Friday, October 30, 2009

Equal Justice Works

Last Saturday I attended the Equal Justice Works Conference and Career Fair in Washington D.C. The two-day event is one of the largest gatherings of public service law employers and law students in the nation. EJW also puts on a similar job fair later in the fall at the University of Richmond, and between the two, I've landed both my summer jobs. So I get pretty excited about EJW. The way it works is students apply for interviews through a website, a month or so before the career fair. Employers take a few weeks to sort through the applications, then decide who they want to interview, and we get notified by checking the website. This year I had two half-hour interviews, both of which went fairly well, and I stopped to talk with a third employer that did not offer me an interview, but was willing to take another look at my resume, transcript, and writing sample.

Another great part about EJW is the speakers they bring in. This year's featured speaker was Ralph Nader, consumer advocate (we can thank him for seat belt laws) and of course, perpetual presidential candidate. Many people blame Nader for Bush's election in 2000, but I tend to side with the camp that believes there were a lot of other things going on — the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach, the 200,000 Florida Democrats who voted for Bush, the Gore campaign's weak effort to win a recount and of course one of the worst decisions ever to come out of the U.S. Supreme Court: Bush v. Gore. All of this is to say that it's certainly useless and most likely wrong to blame Nader for Bush's presidency. A Harvard Law grad, Nader is amazingly smart and a dynamic speaker, so it was fun to hear him lecture a bunch of eager law students frantically searching for jobs. At 75 years old and with an accomplished career of activism, Nader can take the long view.

Nader spoke about the deficiencies of legal education, a topic that interests me a great deal. In particular, he talked about how the law school curriculum focuses on areas of the law that serve to protect corporate interests. He used an example from his Harvard days. He asked the crowd, "How many of you studied landlord/tenant law?" Because we all took property as first-year law students, we all raised our hands. Nader said he was excited to study landlord/tenant law as well, but at Harvard, somehow they never got to the "tenant" part. That is to say, the vast majority of landlord/tenant law has to do with a landlord's rights. Tenants have few rights. This is no accident. Nader then discussed the deficiencies of how the subject of contracts is taught. He focused on contracts of adhesion (e.g., the lengthy, standard form contracts you sign every time you sign for a loan, download a piece of software, or purchase a cell phone plan). Nader said that 99% of the contracts we sign in our lifetimes are contracts of adhesion, but most contracts professors don't even spend a day of class discussing them. (I believe my contracts professor spent several days more than that, but his point is well taken.) A big problem with contracts of adhesion is that large corporations tend to use the same language in their contracts, so that if you don't like the terms of a loan that one bank offers you, it will do little good to "shop around," because other banks offer essentially the same terms. In Nader's view, there is too much collusion, too little competition, and a whole lot of oppressing the person who signs for the loan. The "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" refutation of Nader's argument, of course, is that if you don't like the terms, don't get the loan. And that would be fine for A) someone who comes from a family with a lot of money who doesn't need to worry about loans, or B) someone who never plans on going to college, buying a car, or buying a home. "There is no freedom of contract," Nader said. Contracts of adhesion "represent the private legislature of the corporation." In other words, these contracts suck, and the best way to fix them is through federal legislation and regulations, which is what Nader has pushed for most of his adult life.

Nader also spoke about the need for law students to organize to do social good in the 21st century. We have more ways of connecting with one another than ever before, and yet we think of our cell phones and email "as toys, not as tools." The guy from EJW who introduced Nader used this opportunity to recall the Student Hurricane Network, which was started at an EJW conference in 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina, when law students from Tulane University in New Orleans connected with law students from around the country who wanted to help however they could. Nader wants us to do more of that. Nader spoke of the need for law students and young lawyers to have passion so that they can affect social change. "What does it take to get law students angry — really angry?" he asked. "If you don't have fire in your belly, it doesn't matter." Finally, he called on us to raise the level of small talk in law schools across the country. Instead of asking each other about the latest drinking adventures and job interviews, we might ask one another about what we're doing to change the world.

The other phenomenal speaker at EJW was Harold Koh, formerly the dean of Yale Law School and now legal adviser to the U.S. Department of State. Koh gave a hilarious, inspiring talk in which he discussed the Top 10 reasons to do public interest legal work. He was preaching to the choir, of course, because we were all at the conference seeking this kind of work, but it was still a great speech. In addition to being an incredibly accomplished lawyer, he's a self-deprecating humorist. He talked about his wife, Mary Christy-Fisher, who is director of the New Haven Legal Assistance Program, which provides legal aid to the poor people of Connecticut. Koh spent his first years as an attorney working at a large law firm, so in his marriage, his wife has at least historically been more of the public interest lawyer of the two. "When I got this invitation to speak, I asked my wife," Koh said, "'Honey, in your wildest dreams did you ever think I'd be speaking at Equal Justice Works?' She replied, "Dear, I'm sorry to tell you this, but you're not in my wildest dreams.'"

Koh spoke at length about why it does not make sense to take a job at a big law firm after school simply to pay off loans. He said that taking a job for the money is the same as taking a job for no reason at all. "People who say they're taking a firm job to pay off loans are admitting they don't know why they came to law school," he said.

Koh told several stories about his family, and how they had influenced his career choices. At his law school graduation, a distinguished professor came over to congratulate Koh on his "accomplishments" — graduating in the top 10% of his class, becoming a member of a well-known legal fraternity, etc. When the professor walked away, his sister told him, "Harold, you haven't accomplished anything." He asked what she meant, because he had all these awards, which were all accomplishments to him. She said that lots of people who have never gotten degrees or awards have accomplished more in a day through real work than he ever accomplished at law school. Another time, when he told his mother about the offer he got to work at a big law firm, she congratulated him and then proceeded to screw up the name of the firm. She asked who his clients would be, and he told her (mostly big corporations). "Then she told me something I'll never forget," Koh said. "She said, 'You have the most privilege. Shouldn't you be working to serve those with the least privilege?'" Finally, Koh told a story about his young son's view of his father's work. One night on television the son saw his dad speaking about a case. The caption read, "Harold Koh, human rights lawyer." The son asked his dad what a human rights lawyer was. Koh replied, "A human rights lawyer is an international lawyer who got mad." Later, the son presented a paper in class about the person he loves the most: his father. He gave two reasons, Koh said. "The first reason is that my dad loves beer." The second reason was that his dad works for people who don't have much, people who are told by others that they can't do the things they want to do. "My dad is a human rights lawyer."

Koh wrapped up his talk by saying that public interest lawyers can do lot of good, even if they aren't perfect people themselves. He said that principle reminded him of someone—Michael Jackson. Koh ended by quoting Jackson, to huge applause: "If you want to make the world a better place, you gotta look in the mirror and make a change. And, don't stop till you get enough."