Harvard Law School just announced that former Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch ’81 will be our Class Day speaker at graduation. The choice is disappointing, but appropriate.
I remember the moment I was certain that I needed to go to law school. A week after the 2016 presidential election, despite a heartbreaking loss, Hillary Clinton kept her commitment to speak at the annual gala for the Children’s Defense Fund. Having worked on the campaign and still reeling in disbelief myself, I could not imagine her strength and sense of service to show up that day. In her speech, she remembered her time as a young law student: “I had lots of hopes and expectations about what a law degree would enable me to do.” She spoke of her friend, Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman, and her early work as a legal activist on behalf of kids. It was a moment of deep inspiration. Three years ago, I, too, entered law school with an idealism about the power of a law degree.
But it doesn’t take much time in law school to pull back the curtain. The mythology of America emphasizes great reverence for our legal system, but the law is not always just, fair, or even logical. The law is about systemic, foundational power: who gets to make the rules — and who gets to break them. I’m pleased that the country has become more attuned to this reality as we reckon with police racism, a recent insurrection, and a Supreme Court legitimacy crisis. As I prepare to graduate this May, as one of my favorite TV lawyers, Ellen Parsons, dramatically quips, “I don’t believe in the law anymore, but I do believe in justice.”
Still, I’m thankful I went to law school. The law can be a powerful tool — a main lever for change on the path towards justice. More immediately, I’ve gained critical insight into corporate law firms and how they operate. These “Big Law” firms are the glue holding our systems of power together, for better or worse. Based on my exposure to such firms over the course of my law school education, fairly often, it’s for the worse. Much of the litigation work done at major law firms is aimed at protecting the Goliaths from the Davids or shielding corporate bad actors from public accountability.
While many of my peers have lofty public service ambitions, most will begin their careers within the Big Law ecosystem. This is in no small part due to what Harvard Law School professor Cass R. Sunstein might call a “nudge” from the HLS administration and legal industry more broadly. Career services for non-private firm opportunities are substantially less robust. Moreover, private firms have extensive resources to spend on recruiting students through a highly structured Early Interview Program process, while public interest and non-profit employers have less access.
Of course, there are also financial trade-offs. Top law firms offer first-year associates a starting salary of over $200,000. There are a number of public and non-profit legal jobs that offer middle-income salaries or better, but for many, it would require great privilege to be able to turn down a chance at quickly repaying student loans. Still, there is a reason then-Presidential candidate and Harvard alumnus Pete Buttigieg’s time at McKinsey & Company earned great scrutiny. Individual financial rationalizations aside, there is a fundamental tension between a lifelong commitment to public service and a stint making a killing for the prototypical corporate villains — against regular folks.
This is how the 83rd Attorney General of the United States Loretta Lynch has spent her post-Obama Administration career. As a partner at a leading Big Law firm, Lynch has taken on a jarring role. With the history-making weight of her honorable service as the first Black woman Attorney General on her shoulders, Lynch has chosen to defend McDonald’s and the NFL against allegations of anti-Black discrimination. Though not uncommon for public sector leaders to return to private practice — her predecessor Eric H. Holder Jr. also returned to Big Law, in addition to championing voting rights efforts — I’ll admit her current trajectory in this charged moment is rather uninspiring.
As a private citizen, Lynch has every right to make whatever career choices are best for her. However — given her recent career arc — as Harvard Law School’s graduation speaker, Lynch symbolizes the haunting emptiness that plagues much of the legal profession.
Kaivan K. Shroff is a fourth-year joint-degree student at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School.