Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Lesson in Education

An unemployed law school friend (who, btw, graduated from my T14
cum laude) forwarded me this Above The Law story about a T14 graduate who got a high-profile and well-paid government job through -how else? - connections:

Fenster, a 29-year-old lawyer who previously worked for a short time at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, was recently selected by Governor David Paterson to serve as executive director of the Workers’ Compensation Board of New York State.

The article notes that Fenster got the job despite having "no experience in workers' comp or labor law". So how did he get this coveted position after being laid off from his biglaw job last year? Via Inside Workers Comp NY:

I have received a number of communications indicating that Fenster got his resume submitted for this position with the help of an old college buddy from the University of Michigan, Debra Feinberg, and their mutual friend, Stephen Levin. Levin, who ran successfully for City Council from Brooklyn this past November was former Chief of Staff to Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who happens to be the chairman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. Feinberg, who was a legislative aide to Assemblyman Lopez, was the campaign manager for Levin.

Lopez’s need to place somebody in a job came up at the same time there was a vacancy at the Workers Comp Board for a “short-timer” as everybody understands that come the first month or two of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration, this job will be filled with someone with real experience.

This is consistent with what we’ve heard here at ATL, in comments and by private emails. We’ve also heard that Debra Feinberg may be more than just Fenster’s “buddy.” From an ATL tipster:

[Fenster’s] girlfriend, Debby Feinberg, works as a Democratic operative in Brooklyn. People don’t just get that type of position by submitting their resume [as Fenster seemed to suggest to the NYT]. Jeff is a good guy and was a reasonably decent student at Michigan, but it was a classic case of “it’s not what you know but who you know.”

I'm not posting this story to bash Mr. Fenster and the method in which he secured an amazing job. Kudos to him. This is simply a reminder to readers that oftentimes doing everything right isn't enough to get the job. Nepotism is a tale as old as time. It happens during good economic times as well as bad and it is still the single most important factor in getting a job. It is how the world's elite and their friends and family keep their hands on the reigns of wealth and power.

I wrote in my inaugural post yesterday about the education myth - that it does not guarantee more wealth and success. Graduates of Tier 2 and 3 law schools know this all too well. I'd like to make an addendum to that statement. Education helps the children of those already in power have a better chance at more wealth and success. The fact that the majority of the students you find at T14 law schools come from upper middle class and wealthy backgrounds is not a mistake. Angel and I come from working class backgrounds. We are an anomaly in the halls of T14 schools and biglaw. This, wherein lies the problem for many of our readers.

Higher education - from rankings to admissions - is a system that for the most part benefits the ruling class. If you're poor or middle class it is often a lose-lose situation. Poor children usually don't receive a quality high school education and don't have the money for test prep courses to make them competitive candidates for the best colleges let alone the best law schools. The brightest of the poor students often turn down opportunities to attend better schools because they can't afford the high tuition. They certainly don't have the connections to get the best jobs after graduation - or any job during a recession. Poor students will nearly always take the greatest risk in investing in a costly yet lower-ranked education. They're damned if they do and they're damned if they don't. Which is why more people are beginning to understand that apprenticeships in a trade such as plumbing might be a better route for working class children. Construction and plumbing pays well and it is a more realistic expectation than, say, becoming the executive director of the Workers’ Compensation Board of New York State. We now know those jobs are off limits to applicants without the right connections.

More from the Above the Law article:

Almost all of the folks we’ve met who have been lucky enough to land legal jobs during the Great Recession did so through networking or connections. This is true not just for people who have found jobs at, say, small law firms, but even some lawyers we now who found jobs with the federal government. It’s helpful to have a friend “on the inside” at a government agency, who can let you know immediately when a position opens up — sometimes even before it’s publicly posted — and who can bring your application to the attention of the hiring authority.

Some of you might not like the role that connections play in the job hunt, since it’s not exactly a pure meritocracy. But it’s the way the world works. So get used to it — and order up some business cards for yourself (even if you’re currently “in transition” / unemployed, or just a law student; you can put your personal contact info on your cards).

True. It is certainly how the world works. But how does a law school grad from Podunk, USA "network"? It isn't so easy for a person who went to school on merit but does not possess the family connections, a boyfriend, or a girlfriend in a position of influence and power to simply network to get a job. Angel and I could go to a hundred networking events and short of marrying a partner or politician, I doubt either of us would come away with a job offer. The job almost always still goes to a friend, a friend of a friend, a daughter, a son, a neighbor's child, a member of their church, temple, alma mater, or boarding school. In short, the job goes to someone who belongs in their social class, their community, their neighborhood, their world. The terms networking and connections are used by people who already have an "in" with a personal link. This recession has taught the poor a lesson in education: it is directly tied to wealth and privilege and no amount of it will put you on the same playing field as someone with a connection.


  1. A Law Degree and Nowhere to Go:

  2. Thanks for the link, anon. The author makes some great points. Also, nice start to your blog. Angel, you might want to add it to the blogroll.

  3. Look, I am not enamored with my prospects. I am likely out of a BigLaw job within the next six months because I won't make partner. But you have to believe the game is winnable, right? Otherwise, what's the point of continuing on in this (mostly horrible) profession?

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Ever once in a while, the underdog wins. Only question is, what are the odds? This author says it's a crapshoot.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Class immobility is indeed the dirty little secret of higher ed. I actually had an epiphany about this the other day (while on a 2 day vacation, my first since 2003) -- while the crashing and burning of my legal career was of course devastating, the truth of the matter is that having grown up in poverty I did (for a few years) get further than I ever thought I would, and definitely further than I "should have."

    But it is just really, really hard to assimilate into the moneyed class. Everybody I knew in Biglaw who succeeded there ultimately did enjoy two big advantages: (1) Class literacy -- they knew how to dress/talk/eat/walk/act/live in a way that "fit in" without it being a huge effort; and (2) Connections to potential clients. If you haven't grown up around those sorts of folks, the world of Biglaw (and this is probably true in other professions too) is like being in a completely alien culture. And I was never able to shake the feeling that people were just able to LOOK at me and see the years of food stamps, government cheese, hand-me-down clothes, and other markers of the poor!


  8. Totally agree with comment Jadz. The upper class is an alien culture and no one explains it to you and my T14 school certainly did nothing to by way of preparation or assimilation to assist me. I used to think it was odd and wasteful for my school not to practically assist me in making the big law dream in the oft chance I make partner and donate big bucks. Then thanks to blogs like these, I realized that they really just wanted my tuition and if I donate great but it isn't worthy any time or effort to provide real assistance. Great blog.

  9. It is sad. Thinking about it some more, the two most f*cked up (reasonably) successful lawyers I know come from working class backgrounds. They're wearing masks, which come off when they leave the office. One is now on wife #3 and the other one has been so abusive in his personal life that all the money in the world couldn't keep anybody around for long.

    Anon I think it's easier for the law school (and specifically C/S) to slot the traditionally-successful-in-OCI and the working-for-daddy types into jobs, and see doing much more as a sunk cost. Short term thinking at its finest.

  10. Thank you Hardknocks, I went for serious but feminine, unfortunately it's no laughing matter. People think of law school like they think of a potential mate: they're in love with the image of the person or what they want that person to be, not the reality, it is the wise one that learns either early on or from the mistakes of others.

  11. Hey Anon! You're on my blog roll now. Great post.
    Hardknocks, great post. You really put your finger on the one thing that always felt off about me... I didn't quite fit in. Money begets money. Maybe we're a new class, "Educated Working Class." I'll never have enough blue blood in me to wine and dine with the elite.

  12. So Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street" WAS right after all, "If you're not 'inside' then you're outside."

  13. Sure, who you know almost always trumps what you know. This isn't news, though, this is how it's been for a long, long, time. You can actually make the case that this has gotten better as affirmative action laws have kicked in and/or companies (like mine) actually strive to showcase and promote "diversity" in their workplace.

    Still, back to how it's impossible to network if you're not blue-blooded, I think that's wrong. You're always networking. Everyone you're working with should go in your address book, because you never know how they'll help you out later.

    I got my job (primarily) through networking. While in law school, I emailed my resume to someone who used to work for me (she had made a career change from consultant to HR) so she could review it. She gave it to an in-house attorney who had gone to my law school, he hired me straight away, etc. And that job led to the next one, then through temping to today's job. That's how networking works.

    Some people think networking is you go to a cocktail party, rub shoulders, get a business card, and show up on Monday. I don't know that it EVER works like that. Just stay in touch w/ the people you know, and you never know how that stuff will benefit you.

  14. Great post and strong comments! I noticed the class literacy thing when I was in law school too. BTW, Jadz, could you please start your own law blog, but still comment here? We need more articulate, intelligent people like you to share your stories with potential law students. We need more solid info out there.

    Anyway, I noticed that minority men and women working in the AG's office or the local county attorney's office were usually the most stressed out. They were seeking to really prove themselves. I won a motion to produce hearing, and a black prosecutor grabbed my arm in court and barked: "Don't go anywhere. I'm going across the street to grab your tape!" I was taken aback. This person was probably 32 or so, but looked like a 45 year old man.

    I can only imagine how it is for brown and black people to fit in at white shoe firms, especially when said minorities are from humble backgrounds.

  15. Thank you for the acknowledgment Angel...

  16. class literacy is not the issue.

    i grew up in an affluent area, no government cheese. Although i dabbled in BigLaw, and did reasonably well at a T14, I never found the BigLaw culture appealing and was always on the outside looking in.

    I could probably learn the secret handshake, I grew up around very rich people and but for having gone to law school might have been one someday, but I'm not culturally one of those BigLaw people. BigLaw is a clique, no different than what goes on in 7th grade. But unlike 7th grade, do you really want to "belong?"

    Being a great lawyer, winning cases, attracting clients, doesn't really mean jack to these people. It's an old boys club, and some people are shooed right in, or out, very quickly. I've seen people from very humble backgrounds admitted to the club and thrive in it. Poverty for me was strictly a post-law school experience.

    They aren't judging you for your modest upbringing. It's just that you have a soul.

  17. Anon -- I would love to do some law blogging (to supplement my mommy blog!), but my career path has been so untraditional (for somebody who has basically stayed in the law) I am not sure how helpful it will be. Am also worried about being outed and fired by my law school before hubby has a job w/health insurance.

    Perhaps I should take a straw vote. : )

  18. Pro-networking anon:

    I'm not knocking networking. Like you, I've gotten some of my "best" jobs either through school ties or from using one of those jobs as a stepping stone to the next. For me, what has been difficult is the "internal" networking/schmoozing/whatever you want to call it on the inside, which you've got to do in order to move up. It's a lot harder (at least for me) to "pass" surrounded by the elite 24/7 than it is to get through a few days of interviewing. Plus for some folks there is the affirmative action issue (i.e., firm wants to hire some number of women and/or minority lawyers for their numbers), in which you can get in the door but the concrete ceiling stays firmly in place.

  19. Jadz, you are so right, and your experience matches mine. Every time you had to turn down your "classmates'" invitation for a social event because you just couldn't afford it, every time you showed up in a suit that wasn't as posh as theirs, every time you went to a school mixer where your casual clothes weren't the right kind of casual, it was reinforced that you weren't one of them. So the networks didn't form, and the jobs didn't come, and you never really got out of Podunk.

  20. Talk about needing connections ,
    Few Minorities are Court Law Clerks, Staff Attorneys, Mary Alice Robbins, Texas Lawyer:



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