Last year, Situationist Contributor Jon Hanson and Situationist Fellow Goutam Jois wrote an article for the Harvard Law Record about the situation of law students at elite law schools. It’s recruitment season again, so we thought it was time to share their article, in chunks, with Situationist readers.
* * *
Just as it does every year this time, the season has clearly changed at Harvard Law School. We’re not referring to the falling leaves or the failed Sox. We’re talking about hundreds of 2Ls donning business attire for their annual migration to the Charles Hotel. We’re talking about interview season.
Much has been written about the stressful, transformative, and often harmful effect of the Harvard Law School experience on the lives and careers of its students. Certainly Dean Kagan’s tenure has done much to alleviate many of these effects. Still, the interviewing season, except for some added efficiencies, has remained fairly constant. Many students continue to find this period to be the most harried and disconcerting of their three years at HLS. Some sense that their futures are taking directions that seem more predestined than chosen. As one alum describes: “By the time Harvard Law students make the decision to take a job with the high-powered firm they ‘summered at’ the previous year (or another just like it), it is not eminence they feel, but rather resignation, confusion, and a loss of their capacity to chart their own futures or make things happen.”
This all seems a little puzzling. If most students come here because of the amazing career opportunities that a Harvard Law School education affords (and of course they do), then why do so many of those students find the actual job-hunting process so unsatisfying?
* * *
Over forty years ago, Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, distinguished between two types of decisionmakers: maximizers and satisficers. The maximizers seek the “best” outcome and exhaustively search all possibilities; the satisficers look for an outcome that is “good enough.” Flipping through channels with the TV remote, the maximizer is frantic with concern that, on one of the other 300 channels, a more entertaining show may be underway. The satisficer is happy with any option that isn’t home shopping. Sitting at Chez Henri, where the options include the Rice Crusted Tuna or the Chupe de Longosta, or perhaps the Star Anise & Plum Glazed Duck Breast, a maximizer pores over the menu, scrutinizes the ingredients, cross-examines the waiter, and factors in her tablemates’ selections. A satisficer picks the first entrée that sounds good and returns to the conversation.
At the risk of stating the obvious, HLS is brimming with maximizers. Indeed, the urge to maximize is a de facto prerequisite for admission. At least since high school, we have been making good grades and excelling at extracurriculars to separate ourselves, the few who have gained admittance, from the thousands who, sour grapes aside, wish they had. Not only does maximizing open the HLS doors, it is the main reason that most of us opt to enter. This is an institution that attracts high achievers who, though often uncertain exactly what they want to do with their lives, crave many rewarding options to choose among. As Alexa Shabecoff summarized in these pages a few weeks ago:
many of you may have ended up in law school because you lack a strong sense of what you want to do for a living. Having left college without specific training, and knowing that further education is highly valued, you find comfort in a place that will not only give you more time to prepare for the “real world” but will also give you skills that can be applied in numerous settings.
And once here, the maximization decision strategy is only reinforced. We teach and learn in our courses that policymakers maximize wealth, that consumers maximize utility, and that corporations maximize profit. Professors are measured by their citation ranking while students are measured according to how well they maximize grade points as they as they prepare for positions that increasingly involve maximization of billable hours. In short, most HLS students and professors are here because we were maximizers in the past, are maximizers in the present, and expect to be maximizers in the future.
* * *
That brings us back to interview season. We are in the middle of the hectic job-searching phase in which summer jobs and clerkships are being traded like cattle futures. Mark Weber, who heads the on-campus portion of the interviewing program, describes the process as “intense, exciting, and busy” and the season itself as an “exciting, overwhelming, and emotional time.” Alexa Shabecoff calls it simply, the “fall insanity.”
Here is the strange part. The alleged source of this craziness is–take a breath to let this sink in–too many opportunities. According to Weber, HLS students are “curse[d]” (and blessed) with too “many choices and options.” They “face seemingly endless career choices requiring quick decisions.” As one 2L recently lamented in the Record, “there are so many incredible choices that I’ll never be able to make up my mind.”
Since when did having too many choices become a problem for HLS students? When selecting from the menu at Chez Henri, we maximizers proved our capacity for astute decision-making by gathering information, seeking advice, and, in the end, thoroughly enjoying French cuisine “with a Cuban twist.” Harvard types are proven choosers! Surely HLS students must be at least as good at picking career trajectories and employers – major life decisions that they have been anticipating for years.
* * *
Part II of this series will pick up there — explaining the problem that too many choices create.