Serfdom Without Overlords: Lawyers and the Fight Against Class Inequality
39 Pages Posted: 17 Jul 2016 Last revised: 16 Mar 2017
Date Written: July 14, 2016
Lawyers are not very engaged in the public discourse about class inequality in America, reflecting a belief that class inequality is primarily an economic and political problem rather than a legal one. Because lawyers are not commonly perceived to be a cause of the class problem, some believe that lawyers should not be part of the solution. This article challenges the legal profession’s passive stance on class inequality, arguing that all lawyers have an important role to play in the fight against inequality.
The article first identifies a class challenge for lawyers, the rise of an increasingly segregated and stratified legal profession, based on attorneys’ socioeconomic status, showing that the well-documented and growing opportunity gap among our kids will result in a growing opportunity gap among our lawyers. It then disproves an enticing retort dismissing the growing opportunity gaps among our kids and lawyers as somebody else’s problems, asserting that lawyers in their (neglected) role as public citizens have a special duty to address inequalities affecting our kids, and that lawyers as officers of the legal system must combat inequality within the profession.
The rest of the article explores the means by which law schools, law firms, lawyers and the organized bar can and should help fight class inequality. Its main claim is that all lawyers must take part in a capital campaign designed to narrow our kids’ and lawyers’ opportunity gaps, a campaign involving no expenditure of economic capital. Rather, American lawyers, the affluent as well as the less prosperous, possess ample social and cultural capital — connections, relationships, and ties, as well as knowledge, information, and experience — which are the very assets that explain the opportunity gaps.
Law schools amplify lawyers’ opportunity gap by using admission, teaching and grading policies that privilege the affluent at the expense of the less fortunate, and can become part of the solution by replacing these criteria with policies that give everybody an equal opportunity to be admitted and excel based on merit considerations. Law firms systematically, if implicitly, trade in and rely on their lawyers’ social, cultural, and identity capital to make hiring and promotion decisions. They can become part of the solution by transparently acknowledging the role of social, cultural, and identity capital in their practices and providing all lawyers equal opportunities to acquire the requisite capital needed for success within their ranks. Lawyers, in turn, must lend their social and cultural capital assets to help build the capital endowments of the underprivileged. Finally, the organized bar must act as an intermediary connecting lawyers with disadvantaged kids and lawyers, and support the roles of lawyers as public citizens and officers of the legal system. In sum, the legal profession can and should play a meaningful role in narrowing the opportunity gap afflicting our kids and our lawyers.
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