DEVIL'S ADVOCATE

By DAHLIA LITHWICK

This article originally appeared on The New Republic website (www.tnr.com) on July 20, 2000.

NEW YORK -- It's 8:40 a.m., and Mario Cuomo stands at a lectern, offering his "points of view" to a few hundred young lawyers and summer associates in the wood-paneled auditorium of the Assoc7iation of the Bar of New York. Cuomo's remarks, titled "The Soul of the Profession: Thoughts on Being a Lawyer," begin predictably enough. The former New York governor and lion of liberalism opens by expressing his disgust with the "frantic New Age courting" that big corporate firms undertake to hire and keep young lawyers. He laments the "unbelievably high" starting salaries and calls the perk-filled summer-associate programs a "scandal." And then, because he is Cuomo, he segues into the uplifting part of his speech. Putting his notes aside, his voice rising, he insists that most young lawyers cannot be placated by such goodies, because they are searching not for money but for "meaningfulness."

Then something strange happens. Cuomo doesn't say that meaningfulness comes from doing work you love or helping others or building a better nation. Instead, Mario Cuomo, partner at the law firm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher, flagrantly reverses direction, telling the young attorneys that meaningfulness is to be found in, well, money--in "putting food on the table ... and getting the bills paid." Cuomo, it turns out, is not asking the associates gathered here to leave their corporate firms and go forth to make the world a better place. He's telling them to stay put. He's telling them to cash their paychecks and lower their expectations. "Billions of human beings have come and gone, and only an infinitesimal number of them have succeeded in making a difference in the development of this planet," he argues. And, for anyone not yet fully deflated, he adds: "No single soldier ever won a war." So go ahead, spend your days doing due diligence on multibillion-dollar deals. And find your meaningfulness, he says, in the hope that the thousands of hours you bill might somehow, somewhere, create jobs.

It's trickle-down meaningfulness. And it's coming from Cuomo, the man whose oratory reframed, for a moment at least, the national political dialogue. At the 1984 Democratic National Convention, Cuomo's keynote address reminded an America drunk on trickle-down of the "elderly people who tremble in the basements ... [and] people who sleep in the city's streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn't show." For a cynical generation of X's, Cuomo breathed fire into empty words like "love" and "service."

Now Cuomo, who maintains a busy and lucrative speaking schedule, is giving the anti-commencement speech, telling several hundred young attorneys that none of them will ever really make a difference. The problem, says the governor, is not the grinding bottom line of the legal profession or a system that commodifies their hours like so many lumps of coal. The problem is that young lawyers have too many options, too much information, and outrageously high expectations. Maybe it's because they listened too attentively to the old Mario Cuomo.

In closing, Cuomo launches into a parable. A man passes a stonecutter and asks him what he is doing. The stonecutter replies, "I am cutting stone." The man then passes someone pushing a wheelbarrow, who tells him, "I am pushing a wheelbarrow." But when he passes a third man, a bricklayer, and asks him what he is doing, the bricklayer says, "I am building a cathedral." Few people hear the punch line, however, because just as Cuomo says it, something on his lectern begins to smoke. It is the text of his speech, evidently held too close to the lamp. Within seconds, the sheaf of papers has burst into flames, which Cuomo tries to pound out with his bare hand. Laughing, he quips, "Let all of you in the room record that my words burst into flame." A few hundred lawyers turn white upon witnessing a possible divine intervention--or perhaps it's just the tort liability.

By the time Cuomo has extinguished his speech, there is little time for questions. When someone asks about his advice to law students, the former governor lights up just briefly, like a Roman candle. "Tikkun olam," he says, "is Hebrew for `repair the world.' Complete the task of creation." But, by that time, young lawyers are leaking from the room. After all, it's already 9:30, and the breakfast has eaten up almost a full billable hour.


Dahlia Lithwick, a senior Editor at Writ, covers the Supreme Court for Slate.

Reprinted on Findlaw in Writ -- August 4, 2000.

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