In Obama's America, Road to Power No Longer Runs Through Law Firms
There's a massive silver lining to the Obama and McCain campaigns' escalating war to rid each other of staffers and advisors with ties to lobbyists and corporate America: suddenly, slaving away at a big law firm no longer seems like a path to power, but an express off-ramp.
When men as well connected as former Obama VP search committee head Jim Johnson and former McCain advisor (and lobbyist for Burma's military junta) Doug Goodyear can be ousted for their lobbying work on behalf of sketchy companies, it sends a powerful message to current law students (and recent college graduates): the revolving door between the corridors of power and the corridors of greed is rapidly closing.
Now, lawyers will have to choose: spend your career serving your country, or spend it serving your corporation.
This choice will have enormous benefits for the public. Right now, it's common for lawyers (and others) to spend years fattening their bank accounts at big firms and then to soothe their guilty consciences by entering public service with a high powered job in the administration or in Congress.
Unfortunately, you can take the lawyer out of the firm, but you can't take the firm out of the lawyer. Even the most well-intentioned attorneys absorb the culture and values of law firm life: a focus on, above all else, figuring out ways to help corporations maximize their profits while staying within (or at least evading) the law.
After years in this cushy cocoon, most firm lawyers lack the contacts and experience with other interests that government must also represent: the working and middle classes. Of course, many attorneys have quite another goal in mind when they enter government service. They want to pad their resumes with a prestigious office so they can then command a higher salary, maybe even a partnership at a big firm, by peddling the contacts and experience they gained from their years in government.
This type of lawyer runs wild in the Bush administration, with disastrous consequences. People like former Interior Secretary Gale Norton (now of Shell Oil), current Forest Service boss Mark Rey (formerly of the American Forest & Paper Association), and former Chief of Staff Andy Card (now a Union Pacific board member) were less concerned with the public interest than with the interests of their once and future masters in the private sector, who they hoped would reward them once they left office with a job or sweetheart contracts. As a result, they've been willing to let these companies plunder the public's resources and the public's trust.
But in this new era, the Mark Reys of the world are beginning to seem like anachronisms.
Of course, as we shut the revolving door, we have to make sure that those who embrace public service can make a decent living. Because not everyone chooses a career at a law firm out of pure greed. As chronicled in Daniel Brook's brilliant must-read book The Trap, "In the 1980's, people sold out to enjoy a life of luxury; now, they sell out to stay afloat."
As the rich got richer while real wages at the middle and lower end of the spectrum have stagnated or fallen, it can be hard to make ends meet even as a fairly senior government staffer. It's not uncommon for middle class people to pay 50 percent or more of their income on rent or mortgage payments; meanwhile, students loans as well as skyrocketing food and gasoline prices are making the subsidized law firm cafeteria (and the $150,000 plus starting salary) seem worth a little soul-selling.
If we're going to make government servants something more than the current mix of what Brook describes as "moral giants, mental midgets, and trust fund babies," we're going to have to address these more basic cost-of-living issues that cut across the entire society. Not only will that deliver broader prosperity, it will also deliver more honest government.
So lawyers, law students, and aspiring Washington players, I've got a message for you: either get hip to Washington's new power map and get out of the firm -- or get used to being on the outside looking in.
© 2008 Glenn Hurowitz