I come from a working-class family. I have worked very hard in school and graduated college with little debt, so when I was given the opportunity to attend an elite law school, I took it — along with a $150,000 price tag. Some people may scorn me for such a decision, but this was my dream school, and I saw it as a ticket to an echelon of society and opportunity that was otherwise entirely barred to me.
While I entered law school hoping to work in the public interest, I now face the reality of paying back my loans. I took an internship at a big law firm where I am paid very well, and I’ve been invited to work for them once I graduate. The salary would be enough for me to pay off my loans, help my family and establish a basic standard of living for myself — plus maybe own a house or even save for retirement, which would be impossible for me on a public-interest or government salary.
But the firm’s work entails defending large corporations that I’m ethically opposed to, including many polluters and companies that I feel are making the apocalyptic climate situation even worse. Even if I only stay at the firm for a short time to pay off my loans, I would be helping in these efforts for some time.
Basically, I feel torn between two value systems. The first is the value system of my parents, which prizes hard work and self-sufficiency. My parents are very proud of me for working in a high-level job that allows me to support myself. The second is my own personal moral code — the little idealist within me who wants me to drop the corporate angle in order to help as many people as I can, even if it results in a difficult life for me.
I know it is selfish to take this corporate job. But is it unforgivable? Will defending polluters, even for a short time in a junior position, be a permanent black mark on my life? Name Withheld
Congratulations on your achievements thus far — and on asking hard questions about how to use the skills and the qualifications you’re acquiring. Decisions like the one you face are complicated. You will have been taught in law school that everyone accused of a serious crime is entitled to legal counsel. The situation is different when it comes to civil cases and to corporate defendants. (The details here vary with the types of cases and with jurisdictions.) But corporations are generally required to represent themselves with properly licensed lawyers, in both civil and criminal proceedings. And the principle remains that representing a malefactor isn’t, ipso facto, an act of malefaction.
Now, we’re rightly concerned when corporations do damage to the environment, and so to humanity as a whole. But it’s hard to see how the world would be improved if such corporations couldn’t find legal advice and representation. Is a corporation really going to behave better if it doesn’t know what the law is? More than that, the world would most likely be made worse if corporations could only find lawyers who were indifferent to the wrongs their clients were doing. As with criminal defense, we need lawyers who will work diligently for people and associations whether they approve of them or not. Your job, whatever your feelings about your clients, would be to give them what they’re entitled to. That includes effective and committed legal advice and guidance; it does not include helping them to break the law or lie to the authorities. Indeed, you have a duty, as an officer of the court, to tell them they can’t do these things and to refuse to assist them in doing so.
Even if what your clients are doing is legal, you may still feel uncomfortable supplying guidance and representation, because the activities shouldn’t be legal. We ought to have laws and regulations that treat the climate crisis with full seriousness, and we don’t. Refusing to take the corporate-law job does disconnect you from the wrongs these clients do but wouldn’t deprive them of legal assistance. After all, the firm isn’t going to stop serving them if you decline to join it. But you don’t suggest that your career choice will make a difference to what these clients do. You simply don’t want to be involved in helping them to do it. That’s why you speak specifically of a “black mark” on your life.
I’m not sure that this form of moral accounting makes much sense, though. Again, for an adversarial legal system to function justly, there have to be lawyers who are willing to serve clients they disapprove of. If that’s a demerit, it has to appear on somebody’s moral scorecard. But surely it can’t be both good that somebody does it and a demerit for the person who has done it. (You can regret having to do something as part of your job, even if that something isn’t itself wrong.) And, on the bright side, not all of your clients are likely to be evildoers; your company will also be doing some pro bono work for people you may actively enjoy working for.
Some analysts, notably those associated with the effective-altruism movement, might even suggest that the high-paying track could be the morally best one for you to take. In the earning-to-give approach — explored in the philosopher Peter Singer’s book “The Most Good You Can Do” — people with the requisite skills may set out to earn lots of money and give a great deal of it to humanitarian causes, helping the world more than they would have had they devoted themselves directly to doing good. You might, in this scenario, pay off those loans, help your family and then, as a richly remunerated partner, give a big chunk of your earnings to saving lives in the developing world or supporting causes that will advance climate security and justice. You’ll have passed up the low-paying job at the public-interest center, but your generous donations will fund three such positions. If your aim were simply to help as many people as you can, you might conclude, after a careful assessment, that going for the big paycheck was the right thing to do.
Still, one party who matters here is you. Selfishness isn’t a matter of taking your interests and those of your loved ones into account; it’s a matter of giving those interests more weight than they deserve. Getting money to escape debt and help your family is a perfectly reasonable aim, consistent with being an ethically admirable person. But so is taking satisfaction in your work. If much of your time is spent in the service of corporate nogoodniks, you may well end up being unhappy. That’s not a choice you can be obliged to make. On the other hand, if you do become a partner in a firm like the one at which you’re interning, you may be able to change the balance of cases that the firm accepts. Or you could plan on switching jobs later to better align your livelihood with your values, defending the environment rather than those who ill use it. It’s altogether possible that your having worked at the high-paying law firm will give you valuable insight into how corporate polluters operate.
The calculus here involves all these conflicting considerations. Whichever way you go, I suspect, you will be able to do good. Your letter suggests that the “little idealist” within you won’t be taking early retirement; staying on the course you’re now on doesn’t mean that you’ll forget about the causes that matter.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)