Issues of race and class are two of the most explosive issues in American society. Class is even more taboo of a subject than race for many people: Bring this up and people immediately become angry, walk away and attack the messenger. No one wants to be categorized or feel that they are less than another.
Americans are largely groups of people who came over to the United States to escape the rigid class distinctions of Europe and their own countries. Americans want to believe that there are no class distinctions and everyone is equal. In this society, at least, this is incredibly important to people because their relatives and others came to America to escape the whole idea of class distinctions that held them back in their own countries.
No one wants to believe they are lower class, for example, and upper class people often do not want to be told they are upper class either. People who are middle class are more likely to refer to themselves as “upper middle class” than middle class because it makes them feel better about themselves. Just as people are not supposed to talk openly about racism and how it holds (or does not hold) people back, people are also not supposed to talk about social class. This article will upset a lot of people because I am going to talk about both and show you what is going on inside American law firms.
When someone talks about class the tendency is to attack the person who points out the fact that class distinctions exist. By attacking the messenger the attacker does not have to confront who they are and the fact that these distinctions exist. They do exist, they are important, they impact what happens to people inside of law firms and they are all around us. Attacking the messenger is not something that changes this fact because these things will not go away and they have always been—and always will be—with us.
Class and race both have a profound impact on who gets hired and who stays hired in large law firms. I am not a social scientist—I am a legal recruiter—and I am certainly not an expert in anything other than how law firms hire and advance people. Because I am an observer, I also am making observations here and these observations are the product of working with tens of thousands of attorneys throughout my career.
I am also about to say some shocking things; however, my intent here is to show you rules that can help any attorney succeed—upper class, lower class, middle class, black, white and so forth. Without understanding the rules of the game many people fail. My showing you the rules is meant to help, because I care very deeply about what I do and I care about attorneys who really want to get hired and get ahead.
When the British arrived on the Fijian Islands, they had an impossible time getting the native Fijians to work. The Fijians' lives had always been simple and did not require hard work. If they needed something to eat, they picked up a coconut or speared a fish. Then it was time for a nap.
Fed up with the differences in work culture, the British brought over Indians from India to work. The Indians quickly set up shops and worked hard, showing they had the work ethic and drive to get things done. Many hard-working people of Indian descent still call the South Pacific home and they are resented by local Fijians because they are now in positions of power and comprise the majority of professionals, business owners and middle class in large parts of the country.
What is interesting about this, of course, is that the British (who we might term "the upper class") certainly did not want to do the work. They wanted to live off the fruits of others' work. Simultaneously the local Fijians (whom we might term "lower class") did not want to do the work either. They wanted to live off the fruits of nature's work instead. So the British went searching for people who wanted to be middle class and do the work.
Societies have always struggled to find people to do the work. Today, for example, countries like Dubai and Saudi Arabia largely import people to work in lower and middle class professions. Laborers come from India, the Philippines, Thailand, China, and African countries. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants and others come from the United States, Europe and other developed, wealthy countries with lots of middle class workers. Hotels are run and managed by Europeans and Americans and their rooms are cleaned by people from the Philippines, Thailand and other poor countries. Cruise ships that plow the seas are captained, owned and managed by Americans and Europeans and the kitchens are staffed and rooms cleaned by people from the Philippines. Work is done largely by the lower and middle classes in countries like Dubai. The upper classes are those born into wealth (and oil) who are serviced and control those below them on the social hierarchy. This sort of arrangement—in one form or another—is how class, money and status has been divided up in various societies for centuries.
When I was in college I had a profound interest in helping people from the inner city of Detroit integrate into the larger society. Back then Detroit was nearly 100% black and surrounded by nearly 100% white suburbs. Being born there was likely to doom anyone to a life of poverty, drugs and an early death. Babies out of wedlock were the norm for women and a high proportion of men ended up in prison at some point. I operated a business in Detroit hiring black, recovering addicts out of a drug rehabilitation center and tried to help them learn the skills to be successful in society. I was trying to teach them middle class values.
I believe I got interested in this because my mother spent her career working for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights in Detroit and she took it seriously. I watched her working on files and talking on the phone most weekends and evenings, and saw just how badly people were treated and discriminated against. Most of the people filing complaints were from lower and working class backgrounds but were trying to hold onto middle class jobs. Because of the racial make-up of Detroit, the petitioners tended to be blacks trying to work in white-owned businesses.
My mom quickly came to believe the main reason people were failing and filing complaints was not overt racism, but rather they lacked the work ethics and habits to succeed in a middle class environment. My mom is extremely liberal; she was given her position by a black state senator she worked for previously, and could certainly be described as a socialist. Her conclusion, however, was that class-based discrimination was more prevalent than straight-up racial discrimination. Lower to working class people did not understand how to do middle class jobs.
Something I learned long ago—I am not sure where—is that the upper and lower classes are more like each other than either is like the middle class.
The upper and lower classes are less likely than the middle class to work (and if they do the jobs do not require a lot of thought).
Hard drug use generally starts with the upper class and goes straight to the lower class and bypasses the middle class (the middle class is working!).
Frustrated and not part of the “mainstream” work force, the upper and lower classes often experience various social and other problems to a greater degree than the middle class.
The middle class tries to fit in—the lower classes do not care and the upper classes do not either.
The middle class cares what others think of them and the lower and upper classes often could care less!
Being an attorney is about the most middle class job you can have and requires middle class values of hard work, consistency, predictability, education (and educational accomplishment) and working for the rich (or in some cases, the poor). One of the greatest problems in the legal profession comes when people from lower class and upper class (or, for our purposes, "very wealthy" backgrounds) try to enter the legal profession—especially prestigious law firms. It is generally a recipe for disaster.
Paradoxically—and this bears notice—two of the most successful attorneys of our generation were both out of lower and/or working class backgrounds: Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Clinton was an outstanding student and advanced despite his social class. Barack Obama was also from a lower and/or working class background. We do not know what sort of student Barack was because no one has ever seen his grades and he refuses to release them, but he was likely an excellent student as well. What we do know about these two, though, is they never practiced law. Clinton became a professor and Obama a guest lecturer. This allowed them to think, write, organize communities and be politicians.
Who knows what would have happened to them had they practiced law. My guess is they would have failed. I am almost certain of it. It is one thing to pontificate about Constitutional Law from a lectern or socialize with a bunch of people. It must be nice sitting around reading, writing theoretical papers and holding office hours with 23-year old students in Arkansas—I can only imagine. Most attorneys in major law firms would not have the patience for that sort of stuff, and they certainly would not believe it could lead to being the President of the United States.
It is an entirely different set of skills to put your head down in a New York law firm and work 3,000 hours a year with the expectation that you will turn in impeccable work day after day.
I highly doubt either of the George Bush presidents would have had the patience or work ethic to succeed in a large law firm if they were attorneys. Upper class people do not have that sort of work ethic and most lower class people never learn this work ethic either.
And this is what this article is about.
This "ethic" is everything if an attorney ever expects to work and succeed in a large law firm.
The problem is that people from the upper class and the lower class often do not understand the value of hard work. Without the ability to discern the value of hard work, people from the upper and lower classes are unable to fit into middle class institutions like law firms. Of course this is not always the case. Like all generalizations there are lots of exceptions to this rule. On a global level, though, what makes people succeed in law firms is diligence and understanding the value of hard work.
I have named four American Presidents already (two lower class, two upper class) who I am 100% confident could never hack it in a large law firm. This is hard business and work. Upper and lower class people are both TRAPPED by the ways they think and approach work and this is something that keeps them from succeeding and advancing in the legal world. Ultimately my experience has taught me the following:
African-American people from lower class backgrounds almost always fail in large law firms.
Upper class people from any racial background almost always fail too.
Middle class people fail when they stop taking work seriously or give up.
Lower to working class white attorneys rarely make it into large law firms, and if they do they have generally "become" middle class and learned how to be middle class by the time they get there (I will explain more later).
I am an observer of this. As an observer, I am nothing more. Do I like what I see? NO. But seeing something should not make someone attacked. I would like it to change.
It is about a person's attitude toward work and nothing more. If you are from a lower or upper class background and are trying to get ahead, this could be the most important article you ever read. If you are from a middle class background and see yourself wavering in terms of your career, it is almost certainly due to your attitude towards work. How you see yourself in relationship to your job and work will ultimately determine what happens to you and your career—how you live, how your family lives, your self-esteem and the legacy your career leaves to the world.
Whether it is in high school, college, law school, or a law firm, at some point along the line most people throw in the towel and say, "This is not worth it." What they are really saying is that they are not willing to do the hard work the job requires to get ahead. Unwilling to do this hard work, they fail. Middle class people who want to get ahead—and have never known any other option than hard work—trust the system and generally keep working as long as it takes to get ahead. They succeed based on their will and faith in the system.
Regardless of affirmative action, money or reduced admissions standards for people of certain backgrounds, people who don't understand the value of hard work won't fit into a middle class institution like a law firm and succeed there.
What is so astonishing is that people offer their "assistance" to the rich and the downtrodden. The rich are admitted to great institutions they have no business being at, and certain ethnic groups are also given massive preferences. There are reasons for this, which I am not advocating one way or another. What I am saying is no one teaches these groups the value of hard work. Without understanding the value of hard work and the necessity of hard work no one is likely to succeed.
Problems come for the upper and lower classes when they are advanced and pushed along the conveyer belt of high achievement without regards to their skill.
A conversation that I have again and again—week after week—is with attorneys of African American backgrounds who are having issues with their current employer. This is a very sensitive subject and I certainly risk being called "racist" and "insensitive" for getting into it, but I am going to address it because it is enormously important and deserves to be brought out in the open to help both African Americans and law firms. As an aside, I co-taught a class in race relations when I was at the University of Chicago, wrote an (unpublished) book that chronicled the issues African Americans have had integrating into primarily white educational institutions, and have a lot of interest in this so my observations are not racist. They are the informed opinions of a legal recruiter and someone with a long-standing academic interest in this subject matter who has taught classes and studied the issue at a high level and would like to see things change.
We are in such a paranoid time that commenting about race-related matters could be compared to walking on pins and needles during the McCarthy-era when people were afraid of being called communist. Making observations about the state of workers' rights 50 years ago might make someone a communist. Similarly, stating that certain racial groups are hurt by preferential treatment may subject someone to being called a racist today.
I went to the University of Virginia Law School and made it my first choice law school because it was the cheapest school there was. Other kids I knew from middle class backgrounds also wanted to go there because it was the cheapest.
Some of my older friends in college who wanted to go to Virginia got into top Ivy League law schools and not into Virginia, so I assumed it must be a great school. Others got into great Ivy League law schools but chose Virginia because it was (back then) about half the price of every other law school and had a good reputation.
Middle class people want to save money and get the best value they can afford. These were some of the reasons I was so motivated to go to Virginia. Plus I assumed it was pretty difficult to get into.
When I was applying to law schools my mentor asked me which one was my first choice and I asked him "Why?" He said, "If you want to go there I can call them up, put my credibility on the line and promise you will go there and say good things about you to them. It will be a lot of work and it reflects on me. I'm not going to do that for every school."
I told him I was set on Virginia and that is where I ended up going.
When I met my current wife and she found out where I had gone to law school she was not impressed. "That's a horrible school," she said. "One of the dumbest girls I knew in college got in there. She had like a B- grade point average and horrible LSATs. She chose to go to Penn State because they gave her more money."
My wife was not well versed in law school rankings at the time, but she had a point. The girl that was admitted to the University of Virginia Law School was black and that school traditionally had a difficult time recruiting minorities. It is not a racist comment to state that law schools often admit people and give them preferential treatment due to the color of their skin—they do. When I got to University of Virginia Law School, the black students had already been there over a week. The school organized special groups for them to show them how to study, take tests and more. I never had anything like that (and wish I did).
If a law school is having difficulty finding someone from a certain background the school will make drastic exceptions to let them in. The same logic applies to athletes applying to colleges. Many athletes at top schools have no business being at the University of Michigan, for example, but are let in because of their athletic abilities. Schools do this with people whether they are black or white. Schools even have special "academic tracks" for athletes where they give them special tutoring and classes that allow them to draw on "life experiences" so they can get by.
When I am working with minority attorneys as a legal recruiter, I often see the results of this racial preference playing itself out. African Americans often get jobs in law firms without the grades that would normally be expected of them in order to get into large law firms. Moreover, there are some very strange things I see that are upsetting to me.
"You got 'C's' in legal writing and barely made it through law school and now you are a litigator at one of the top litigation law firms in the country?"
"Yes, I am not a great writer. I need to work on that."
What happens to these attorneys is that they start doing work and make so many errors that the partners in the law firms stop giving them assignments. They stop giving them work because the associates' skills are not up to par and they do not want to train them. When they don't receive training and integration, the attorneys do not advance and get discouraged.
As a legal recruiter, I am faced with seeing an attorney who graduated from a top American law school, who is working at a top law firm and looks on the surface to be marketable but does not have the understanding of what it takes to be good at his or her job. The attorney could be from Harvard or some other top law school, but she cannot do the work and has been advanced up the system too far and too fast. The firm has advanced her without the attorney first demonstrating she understands the value of hard work.
I have also seen this with American Indians and people of other ethnic groups. One of my first placements was of an American Indian attorney who went to Harvard Law School and then got a position at a major American law firm. She was ill-equipped to do the work and was getting horrible reviews. Within months she had turned into a crystal meth addict and had all sorts of problems. She did not have the ability to do the work at such a high level and there was little reason she should have been advanced that far. She spent years cleaning herself up and is now working as a criminal defense attorney on an Indian reservation.
I know of a federal judge who hired an African American woman out of Harvard Law School. The quality of her work was so poor that, to avoid being called a racist (and being ridiculed by other judges), he was relegated to doing all her writing himself and getting a special allowance to hire an "emergency clerk" to finish opinions.
Of course this is not the case for all African Americans by any means. In most cases the underlying problem is class-based and not race-based. This is my entire point.
African Americans, American Indians and others who come out of middle class backgrounds are more likely than not to be superstars. They may have gone to great schools and the odds are always pretty good they deserved to be there. Their parents may have been doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers and other middle class professions. Their parents inculcated into them the value of hard work and showed them the value of working hard. They most likely grew up surrounded by other groups of people who also understood the value of hard work and appreciated it. Like a good athlete who gets a "boost" in being admitted to a competitive school that still requires good academics (for example, Princeton), the athlete still understands he or she needs to work hard and not continuously be given special treatment.
Hard work and an understanding that you need to work hard to succeed is also, incidentally, what makes some middle class people successful and not others. When a middle class person does not understand the value of hard work—or stops appreciating the value of hard work—he or she starts to fail. When people expect to be advanced and become accustomed to being advanced without working hard (the rich, certain ethnic groups from lower class backgrounds, etc.), this is when everything goes to hell.
I've been in the legal recruiting industry my entire career and when I see attorneys who are failing, dropping out, not making partner and having issues with the practice of law it is mostly because they do not understand the value of hard work and constant improvement. It does not matter what race or social class you are: Your success as an attorney is based, in large part, on your ability to understand the value of constant, never-ending commitment and unwavering discipline to improve and be the best you can be.
Rich people often believe that their wealth and influence can buy them entry into good schools and jobs—and to some extent they are right. Children of affluence are often advanced far beyond their means and get into good schools and jobs based on this affluence. They even get into certain law firms based on affluence. As recently as 10 years ago, I was reading a Wall Street Journal article about how it is much easier to get into colleges like Duke if your parents make a big donation or are alumni who give over $5,000 a year. Schools like Duke that favor affluence often create a culture that has an undercurrent of people that get ahead based on wealth and not working hard.
I've seen people get into major American law firms who have no business being there, just because their parents were rich and powerful—and they always failed (because they did not understand the value of hard work). Someone using money-based connections to get into a major American law firm can sometimes succeed but it almost never lasts. Advancing without appreciating the value of hard work and paying your dues at the firm is unlikely to lead anywhere.
At the first firm I worked at, Quinn Emanuel, a white graduate of a fourth-tier law school was hired who was in the middle of his class. He was hired without all of the announcements and so forth that typically characterized any new hire. At the time my law firm was mainly comprised of law graduates from Harvard, Yale, and Stanford (I was the first UVA graduate hired in the history of the firm) and so this was incredibly unusual. Within weeks of arriving, I saw a partner down the hall from me sitting at his desk and tutoring the attorney in basic grammar, sentence structure and legal terminology. It made no sense to me and all of the associates in the law firm were trying to figure out what was going on. Eventually someone learned he was the son of a major law firm client.
This attorney asked BCG Attorney Search for help with his job search several times throughout the years. Since I knew him when he was practicing at my firm I was happy to speak with him and give him advice. Eventually, after leaving his job at my former firm (because people would not give him work), he wound up doing the sort of job he should be doing—at the salary that people like him that graduate from fourth tier law schools make.
It is a profound problem when the upper and lower classes are advanced on something other than merit. They develop expectations that they should be making large salaries, that they should be surrounded by attorneys who went to great schools (often like them!), that they should be doing work on behalf of major corporations, and that they should have a shot at being a partner in a major American law firm.
But this never works out. They are not performing at that level and they do not understand the value of hard work—very hard work. They often have not learned the sorts of middle class values that are necessary to succeed in this sort of atmosphere. It is not to say they cannot learn it, it is to say they need to.
This week I was talking to an African American attorney from a poor family who managed to graduate from a top 25 law school and get into a good law firm. He told me the sort of thing I hear regularly. He:
started out at the firm,
turned in his work,
was told it was sloppy,
worked for multiple partners,
stopped receiving work,
was told the firm did not have a lot of work (but other associates were busy),
asked to be switched to another practice area where he thought he would do better,
was interested in getting a good job now,
would like to make as much as he was making before,
and is interested in contract work or a staff attorney job. He asked if I have anything "in-house".
You get the idea. This is someone who was advanced all the way to the top but got there without the skills necessary to compete at a high level. This happens to white attorneys from lower to working class backgrounds. It happens to attorneys from upper class backgrounds and it happens to minority attorneys from working class to lower class backgrounds as well.
With lower to working class attorneys here is a problem I commonly see: They view their jobs as exchanging a certain amount of time for a certain amount of money. That is it. If 2,000 hours is required, that is what they are going to try and do. If they need to work occasionally on the weekend, then that is what they will do. It is an attitude of I am selling my labor for this amount of money and that is what you get in return.
This attitude of "I am selling my work for this amount and you get this in return" misses a hugely important point:
It is the quality of the labor that counts.
It is the passion behind the labor.
It is being an advocate and not a seller of labor that counts.
It is being on the same team as the attorneys and the client that counts.
It is seeing yourself as essential and not just a pawn that counts.
Many lower and working class people show up and flip burgers at a fast food restaurant and see little point in the work they are doing. They are there only for the money. They have no passion for what they do. The same goes for day laborers standing on the side of the road willing to do any sort of manual work you give them—provided you pay them $10 an hour.
Being an attorney is different. It is a profession you grow into, develop a reputation in, become more and more skilled at, grow in and spend your life doing. YOU ARE NOT SELLING LABOR AND YOUR TIME. YOU ARE SELLING SOMETHING MORE SIGNIFICANT. YOU ARE AN ADVOCATE FOR COMPANIES AND PEOPLE WHO DEPEND ON YOU BEING PASSIONATE ABOUT WHAT YOU DO.
If a lower class person does not like working for a certain yard service, the person finds another. If a working class person is unhappy being a cook in one diner and gets in a fight with a boss, the person finds another job. This is the attitude of the working class and that works just fine inside of diners and in the yard maintenance industry. It does not work inside of law firms—and this is where the disconnect happens.
Liberal admission representatives and others can do all they want to help people from certain backgrounds get ahead; however, when it comes down to it the only thing that helps people get ahead is understanding the value of work and doing what it takes to get ahead.
On my computer I keep a PDF copy of a bunch of writing and other work tips that I share with my candidates who come from these sorts of backgrounds where they do not understand the value of hard work. I make sure they read articles like this one and I also tell them that they need to IMPROVE THEIR WORK and COMMIT TO PRACTICING LAW in order to get ahead. I lecture them about all of this and in most instances it is the only time they ever hear this sort of lecture—or have ever heard it in their entire lives. No one ever told them what was important. And because no one ever told them what was important they've been having all sorts of issues.
It does not matter if the person is white or black. These issues are, more often than not, class-based. I see plenty of white people who managed to get great LSAT scores and grades in college and get into exceptional law schools. They got out of these law schools, though, without understanding the rules of the game. They did not have the work ethic, commitment, or drive to improve and all the other skills that are necessary to get over the first bump of becoming a good attorney. Afraid of criticism, they quickly gave up and became contract attorneys or hid from the criticism and pressure of a large law firm. They did not have the right attitude towards work.
This is very common among white and black students from lower to working class backgrounds who attend state schools like the University of Michigan, UCLA, the University of Texas and others. These schools are more purely "numbers driven" than most schools and they often do not look at the drive behind the person, the desire to improve and the potential malleability of the person—in a way that other schools somehow do. That said, the people from lower to working class backgrounds who show up at these schools and graduate from them often do not understand (or even learn) the middle class habits necessary to achieve at a high level in law firms. It is not necessarily an attorney's ability to succeed at taking tests that makes the attorney successful. It is the drive to improve work product, get along with others, learn from others and more.
When most attorneys start work they have very little idea of what they are doing. They are expected to improve and learn from their mistakes, and commit to being attorneys. Committing means learning about the personalities they are working for (clients and partners) and giving them what they want. It means putting in extra hours to learn the nuances of what they are doing. It requires eating, sleeping and drinking in becoming the best at something, 24 hours a day. It is not taking a test and advancing because you answered the questions correctly.
I have worked with people who graduated in the top five students in their class from schools like UCLA and the University of Texas and they had no idea. In most instances, these lower class-raised individuals believed they were selling their time for a certain amount per hour. This sort of attitude missed the idea that an attorney is more than someone skilled at solving puzzles: Lawyering requires commitment and a deep, visceral appreciation and understanding of the subject matter and material they are dealing with.
In the legal recruiting realm, for example, an average recruiter will say "I have an opening here" and then pursue it. The truly exceptional recruiter will understand you, the market, the people, your background, how you approach work and interviews and more dynamics than you could possibly ever see on your own. Once that recruiter has understood that information, like a good attorney, he or she will get behind you and get you the best result. A good recruiter—like a good attorney—does not just parrot back information for a certain amount of money. There is far, far more involved in being good at anything than just being an answer box for a certain amount of money. Here are some potential solutions a good legal recruiter will offer his attorneys:
If an attorney is told his or her writing sucks, the attorney needs to read books about being a better writer in his or her spare time, take classes at night if necessary and do everything within his or her power to improve his or her writing. It is incredibly important. This is a skill the attorney will need throughout his or her entire career. This skill can be learned with hard work.
If an attorney is told his work is sloppy and not well-thought through, the attorney needs to put his head down. He must become obsessive about details and do everything within his power to avoid errors. This skill can be learned with hard work.
If an attorney finds herself not caring about the work she is doing, then she needs to start finding out how to care. The attorney needs to do work she cares about, or start connecting more to the work and finding ways to make it more interesting. If I were a legal recruiter just cold calling attorneys about one opening, and I was not interested in recruiting issues like the one I am writing about here, I would be very bored and not care about the work. There is a lot of depth and excellence in everything and this is why the best attorneys (in every practice group) can make millions of dollars a year.
In fact, every skill that is necessary to being an outstanding attorney can be learned and every attorney can learn these skills. But it takes hard work. I have seen the following scenarios too often:
A middle class kid makes it into a good college based on merit. He does well but ultimately fails. The kid stops appreciating the value of hard work and what got him there. I cannot tell you how many people I have met who went to Yale, Harvard and schools of that caliber and worked like crazy to get in there. They somehow believed they had "made it" and their work ethic and skill went down from there. Nothing much ever happened in their lives ever again.
Others worked hard in college and then got into good law schools. Then they stopped working hard because they believed they made it after getting into law school. Their careers never amounted to much.
Others worked hard in law school and then got good jobs. Then they stopped working hard and their careers did not amount to their full potential.
Others advanced way up the chain when they had no business being advanced like this—due to their wealth or race—and the results were disastrous.
If I were suddenly the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and decided that based on my wealth I would now be a wide receiver of the team, the results would be disastrous. They would try throwing the ball to me a few times (giving me work), but I would not do well and so the team would simply work around me. They would have no choice but to let me play, but they would not give me the ball. My self-esteem would be low. They might try giving me the ball a few times, but I would drop it and make the team look very bad to their fans (i.e., the clients). I might be so depressed about all of this I would never play football again.
The truth of the matter is I played football in high school and would do okay if I played with a group of similarly skilled middle-aged men. I would also enjoy it. I would not enjoy, however, playing in a game where I am so far out of my league that no one likes me and I am an embarrassment to the team. I would know I had no right to be there and that I was in the role simply because of my wealth and connections.
There is a movie with Warren Beatty about this exact sort of thing happening. It is called Heaven Can Wait. Here, Beatty dies as a football player and is reincarnated as a rich man—with no discernable skill as a football player. However, in Heaven Can Wait the rich guy, Warren Beatty, works very hard to get in shape for the team and be a good player. He is a former football star reincarnated into someone else's out-of-shape body. So he works as hard as he can—running, lifting weights, training—to get his body in the position where he can play professional football. And it works.
The advice, then, is if you are advanced up the ladder because of your wealth (or parents' influence or race) then work your hardest and make the most of it. People like Rashida Jones, for example, the child of a famous musician who went to private schools growing up and got into Harvard with only 1100s on her SATs (and not the best grades), have made the most of the advantages they were given. They have worked hard and advanced their connections by doing their best and giving back to society, and have become very productive—and even grateful for their advantages. Jones is proud of the fact that she went to Harvard (she talks about it in every interview it seems), but she has not used the fact that she has a great education or a rich and famous pedigree, or that she may have been favored because of her race, as an excuse not to work hard. She has had an outstanding career as an actress, producer and more, and is extremely motivated.
The access that the rich and the poor get to good schools and jobs generally does not make them any more likely to succeed. Administrators, hiring partners and others believe they are doing the "right thing" by hiring someone to please clients. ("We hired your son—now can you send us some more business!" "Look! Now we have a black attorney! Can we do your labor and employment work now?") But they are just hurting everyone involved when they hire people that should not be there to begin with.
When I was in high school I attended a private boarding high school and observed all of this firsthand.
Periodically the school would let in the unqualified child of some very rich alumni. Every year there would be a few of these kids who would show up in my class. The school I went to was pretty demanding and required a lot of homework. They sent multiple students to every Ivy League school each year, including MIT, CalTech and other schools.
The problem with these students was not that they were not nice people. It was that they would quickly fall behind in class, start getting poor grades, and then to cope with the pressure would start doing antisocial things like using drugs or sneaking off campus and getting caught doing so. They would then get kicked out of the school and go on a downward spiral that they were not on when they attended the local public high school where they were from. There were stories of rehab and other issues. Most ended up attending local community colleges after all of this. I saw this multiple times; it was more than a pattern.
In most instances, these kids did not see the value of hard work. They were from extremely wealthy backgrounds, had been coddled their entire lives, already had expensive German cars and nice clothes, took expensive vacations, lived in beautiful homes, were members of expensive country clubs, often got plenty of attention from the opposite sex due to their parents wealth (especially the men), and more. With all of this—and already living the good life—I am sure you can see why these sorts of kids did not understand the value of hard work and were expelled from a school that rewarded middle class values (just as the middle class kids would feel out of water being part of their country clubs, or wealthy social circles).
In fact, most of the middle class kids at my high school were working hard because they were jealous of kids like this and hoped to give their own children similar opportunities one day!
The point of all of this is that the children of the wealthy do not see the value of hard work. Because they never see the value of hard work, their lives are often full of resentment and kissing up to their parents so they can one day (hopefully) have access to their wealth.
When you see the children of the wealthy who have not led successful lives or had successful careers, it is often not because they are intellectually incapable of this (although very wealthy, self-made men have a more-likely-than-not tendency to marry women based on looks and not intelligence, which can create not-so-intelligent offspring). It is because they do not understand the value of hard work. The price of working hard is not worth it when you have been coddled your entire life and you expect (with the right dose of manipulation from your parents) that this coddling will continue indefinitely.
Another thing I noticed was that because my school started in kindergarten (when no scholarships were available and it was easier to get in), the kids who went all the way through the school also went to the worst colleges. They went to rich kids' colleges for the most part—small, very expensive, private colleges with low admissions standards. Like the rich kids who flunked out, these children also tended to be from very wealthy families. They may have understood how to do the work to get by; however, they lacked a high level of motivation for wanting to get ahead because they started out ahead and were from very wealthy backgrounds.
The same thing goes for attorneys. An attorney from an upper class background may see working incredible hours among ultra-competitive attorneys to be a waste of time—especially when they can simply go over to their parents' vacation house any time and relax. Maybe they already have a trust fund. Working hard and being an attorney is something for the middle class. For the most part attorneys work for people who are making much more money than them. Attorneys in large law firms are servants of rich companies and people. Because they are middle class, they make a good living, but certainly nowhere near as much money as the companies and clients they are working for.
Being a servant of the rich requires that attorneys always be available, work long hours, be attentive to the needs of the rich and compete with one other to advance up the middle class chain. This is what the job is. The job of an attorney is to be a servant of the rich and this is one reason that people from upper class backgrounds do so poorly in these positions—even when they are given positions they should not be given gratuitously.
Middle class people are raised with the skills and attitudes to serve the rich. They are schooled, pushed and taught these skills and the importance of pleasing superiors from a very young age. They also watch their parents do it and they go to schools that push this and show them how to do this. This is why middle class people do so well as attorneys. They are told they should be doctors, lawyers, accountants and other middle class professions and the necessity for stability and a career is drilled into them from the moment they can first talk.
In contrast, upper class people are raised watching their parents hire and fire lawyers. They sit in meetings and sign trust documents for lawyers, and the lawyers basically kiss their ass. Lawyers are people to serve you. They grovel and want your business.
In contrast, the lower class person is not even exposed to attorneys at all. They are also not exposed to the middle class work ethic and how important it is to do well in school, to impress the upper class and to develop the habits that will be useful to the upper class. They know nothing about working with groups of other middle class people to get the best results.
The parents of lower class people are unlikely to set an example either. Working class people often view the employer as the "enemy" and someone to unionize against, who is exploiting them and not paying them enough per hour. They will work the minimum they can because "working for the man" is not a profession—it is just a job. Because lower to working class people see work as a "job" they never see what they do as important, or a mission. Because it is not a mission, they approach everything as a tradeoff—this much work for this much money.
One of the problems with lower to working class attorneys (and minority attorneys from these backgrounds, in particular) is that they view the fact that they have a certain piece of paper (a law degree from a good school) as a right to trade a certain amount of time for a certain amount of money with an employer. This blue-collar thinking hurts them because, like the blue-collar worker, they often view the employer as an "opponent" of sorts. They are involved in a game where they are getting as much as they can for as little work as they can possibly give.
The idea of using your time away from work for improving your ability to cut grass faster, lift more boxes at once, or clean floors more quickly would be foreign and insane to most blue-collar workers. In a similar vein, many attorneys from lower class backgrounds cling to a blue-collar attitude and think I am insane for suggesting they improve the quality of their writing by taking writing classes outside work.
What makes all of this the most interesting, in fact, is that the value of hard work and middle class thinking is available to all. Attorneys inside of law firms that understand these middle class values can do well. You can also learn to be middle class, just as you can learn to be upper class.
Nothing is more interesting to me than how quickly people learn to be upper class once they make a bunch of money. Their accents even change! I am sure you know plenty of people who have made boatloads of money who suddenly changed their friends, neighborhoods, children's schools, dress, attitude and more after their success. Many aggressively avoid their former lives and selves because they now believe they are of a different social class. Even attorneys who win huge verdicts and suddenly become multimillionaires (or more) go from middle to upper class in how they relate to the world.
You may wonder why I have not written about a crisis of working class and underclass whites working inside of law firms and having issues. The reason is because they hardly make it into these law firms. Unless they are very talented intellectually, they rarely make it into good colleges and law schools. When they do get into good colleges and law schools, they tend to very quickly assimilate with other whites and the predominantly middle class people in these schools and they learn from them and absorb their ways of thinking, talking, acting and thinking about work.
Moreover, these whites are weeded out very quickly and never are admitted to certain schools. Their careers stop the moment they stop performing well on tests and academically—unless, of course, they are the children of the very wealthy.
In contrast, unless they are from middle class backgrounds, black students tend to go to most major universities and schools and socialize and spend the majority of their time with other blacks. This creates a self-reinforcing loop where lower to working class blacks never learn and socialize with other middle class people and learn how to think and act like them. When they do socialize with other middle class people, they often feel out of sorts and like they do not fit in. They then retreat to their racially predominant groups. Despite the fact that they are busy advancing up the ladder (academically, at least), they are not learning the crucial social skills and ways of thinking of the middle class.
The special meeting to train African American students how to be students at the University of Virginia Law School when I arrived—something many major law schools do—was an acknowledgement, of sorts, that these students needed to depend on each other because the odds are that they would not be learning closely and socializing with other middle class (white and Asian, for example) students. Because they would not be socializing and studying with these students they were going to be on their own and that was that.
If a white college student is from a working class environment and enjoys heavy metal, country music and talks with an exaggerated Southern twang, other white students are likely to have relatives like them and like these students. They will bring them in and these students will join the same fraternities, sororities and clubs and learn from the other white middle class students and advance up the chain. In contrast, this does not hold for black lower to working class students. The differences and ability to identify are not there—from a relative standpoint, to music and ways of thinking about the world. Again, these black students will then tend to socialize with other black students and never learn middle class values. Then then will be promoted up the food chain to law schools and then law firms without the ability to compete.
And this is a large part of the problem. One reason you do not see white working class and lower class people having the same problems as blacks from similar backgrounds is due to the fact that they (1) are never promoted farther than their academic achievements permit them to be and (2) they are integrated and socialized much more seamlessly at the college and law school level than blacks are. This problem is systematic and it is class based. It is not racist. If anything, putting people in a position where they are likely to fail and that causes them great pain—which I see every single day—is the real problem.
How can someone succeed at a high level when they are intellectually and socially ill-equipped to do so? The only solution is for people to work harder than the people that may have a social or intellectual edge on them. In the law firm world that values hours so highly, this is often a very good idea.
You would have to be blind not to realize class is something that largely determines what happens to attorneys inside of law firms. In particular, the lower class and the upper class often have serious issues fitting in and doing well.
What the practice of law requires is that you treat being an attorney as a mission and something that is part of who you are. If you are on a mission you will continue doing everything you possibly can to constantly improve and get better and better at what you are doing. You will learn everything you can from those around you and will get better and better and better. You will not give up.
Ultimately, I think there is some prejudice against people in the legal profession against both the upper and lower class. In order to be middle class you need to play by middle class rules. Law is a very, very middle class profession. Regardless of someone's social class, or race, all it takes to "fit in" is to be like the people you are working with. People have been assimilating to different environments and classes as long as they have existed. If you want to be a successful attorney in a large law firm, though, you need to learn how to be middle class.