Power players and grizzled veterans often do not understand how profoundly newcomers or outsiders to elite law schools — I count myself a little of both, but I mean first-year students — are prone to worry about why they are there. Students engage in constant self-questioning: Can I reconcile my politics with my self-interest? Am I really devoting myself to a career that will lead to systemic change, or to one that will reproduce hierarchy instead? The ethical struggles of elite law students might seem the pinnacle of first-world problems, but they are real nonetheless.
And while the question of whom law school really serves can haunt individual consciences, it drives rationalization at the institutional level, too. Every year, law schools produce glossy booklets and press releases advertising their social virtue. Nowhere is this image management more troubling than when it mystifies the real function of law schools in reorienting the hopes and even reshaping the personalities of the young people who enter them. Having entertained inchoate dreams about social transformation, the students themselves are transformed the most, especially when they accept a set of beliefs about how the world is likeliest to change — through a politics of marginal legal reform by insiders to the system. That is, if the world can change at all.
Data show that large numbers of students entering law school say that they hope to work in the public interest, but then end up working for large firms instead — though debate rages about when precisely they defect and why. Debt burden is one explanation, but informal expectation and institutional pressures are probably more to blame. And the realities of this “public-interest drift” fit very poorly with the self-advertised rationales about how legal training in its current form serves social justice.