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Who Cares About Opening Doors When You Can Own the Building?

Like many of my lawyer colleagues with college-aged students, I’ve been tracking the college admissions scandal with interest, particularly the involvement of Gordon Caplan , co-chair at Wilkie, Farr & Gallagher who paid $75,000 to bribe the proctor of an ACT exam to boost his daughter’s chances of admission to a top school.  Quite honestly, the only thing that surprises me about this scandal is that more lawyers weren’t involved.  After all, there are few professions that place as much stock as lawyers in school rankings and pedigree and brand name firms as a way to advance a career. 

But of course, most lawyers are nothing if not risk averse. And if you’re looking for a safe bet, even today, a big name law school is still the way to go – provided that you do well enough to wind up at the top of the class — odds that can be improved with tutors and study guides which are readily available for the right price. And once you have that degree from a top school, it functions as a key to open doors to an impressive judicial clerkship or a lucrative associate position at a large firm or a plum government job or on the Hill or maybe even at a big tech company like Google or Facebook.  For many young people and their worried lawyer-parents, the doors that can be opened with a fancy degree are simply too good to be true and are worth pursuing at any cost. 

Unfortunately, most lawyers are myopically obsessed with opening doors — not just as a smooth path to career success but for other aspects of law practice. In litigation, many lawyers strive to intimidate opposing counsel to shut the door on what might be a meritorious case (if you don’t believe it, take a look at how esteemed lawyer David Boies operated when called upon to defend Elizabeth Holmes in the Theranos debacle). We look for ways to distinguish facts or precedent to squeeze our case through the door left open by the one before instead of arguing for entirely new precedent.  And not surprisingly, we have staunchly blocked the door to the practice of law to non-lawyers – even if no one else is beating down the door to serve clients.

But there’s two things about doors to keep in mind. First, they have two sides. So for every opportunity that a lawyer may be unable to access on one side, a chiral option exists on the other. In simpler terms, maybe a student graduating from a so-called Tier 3 school with middling grades and no connections will never work at biglaw. But no reason why he can’t litigate against them – as I’ve done most of my career. Or rule against big firms from the bench – as these extraordinary women of color,predominantly from solo practices, will have an opportunity to do.

And that’s the second thing about doors: as wide as they may swing open when pushed by someone holding the right degree or connection, ultimately, the very purpose of a door is to limit, to confine and separate.  Even a door left ajar so wide that every Ivy League graduate can pass through will never match the extraordinary scope of human imagination to envision and actualize an entirely different path.

So that’s why I’ve never believed in the so-called meritocracy of a fancy degree. Whether or not those degrees open doors doesn’t matter because those doors lead to conventional opportunities that don’t inspire me. I’d rather skip right past the door, and figure out a way to construct my own building. If top tier law schools are worth even a penny of what they cost, that’s the lesson they ought to teach.

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