Hannah Castle

“I’m such a sell-out,” “It’ll only be for 10 years, then I’ll do something else,” “The firm does great pro bono work.” Where do these phrases come from? I’m a law supervisor who did his undergraduate degree here. I’ve heard them a lot. They are favourites of second- and third-year students, which is to be expected, but by Lent even the freshers get in on it. And it’s a strange phenomenon, telling random listeners that you are a “sell-out.” What could the speaker want?

The answer is simple: absolution, for a crime against themselves. They believed they entered university pure, with hopes, dreams and possibilities in their hearts. Then they betrayed themselves by doing exactly what everyone told them they would do, but which they had always assumed they alone could resist. Unable to forgive themselves for selling out, they instead they must look to others for relief, cursed to bring it up whenever questioned. This pathology arises from cognitive dissonance. The undergraduate “sell-out” believes firstly that they are a “good person”, that they want to make the world a better place, help people, secure justice, and serve the public. At the same time, they find themselves on a career path desirable precisely because of its salary, one which they suspect, deep down, is not going to help anyone except giant corporations, the super wealthy, and, of course, themselves.

“It was never about reality, it’s about identity”

How does the undergraduate law student reconcile this tension? One option is to readjust their perception of the career — simply believe that corporate law is a way of helping people as good as any other. Aware of this, law firms make it easy, offering “great opportunities to help the community.” Think of it as the 20p donated to charity with every cup of Starbucks coffee: the price of the student’s guilt. No amount of countering evidence or argument will dissuade the guilt-ridden lawyer of this belief once formed. How could it? It was never about reality, it’s about identity. Without it being true, how can they can wake up in the morning and look in the mirror?

The alternate option is to readjust their identity. Stop believing you are good person. Kill a little bit of yourself. No more pressure. Once you do that, you’ll never get it back. But at least you can look in the mirror again.

The hunt for identity is tireless. “I am such a sell-out” is merely one symptom of this psychic pressure. The pressure builds and you must hunt for escape valves to open. Seeking absolution from others is one. Believing you need to be a corporate lawyer to feed your family is another (but what are they eating, crude oil?). A popular choice is to defer identity several years. Take out a spiritual savings account — trade the years of your youth for freedom down the line. “Just 10 years, then something else.” Or, more extreme: “just a Cambridge LLB, Oxford LLM, Harvard LLM, 20 years in Big Pharma, and then I’ll open an independent bookstore.” Living like this is to live in a dream. And it is dangerous. You may never wake up, continuing to say “My real life hasn’t started yet. The real me is still asleep, so that’s why my life is so miserable.” You continue to tell yourself that. And you age, eventually you retire, finally realising the truth on your deathbed: the life you lived was the real thing.

“You haven’t sold out, you are being true to your heart”

The law firms know your plan. They know that yes, maybe the “you” who enters the training contract would, if transported 10 years in the future, quit. But they know something else too: in 10 years you’re not the same person you used to be. You don’t want to leave anymore. You’ve become institutionalised. You like your law firm, or at least depend on it. Maybe it’s too scary to leave; maybe you’re too comfortable and have fallen into a lifestyle trap. Maybe you’ve married into it, both figuratively and literally. Or maybe you just don’t know what else you’d do. So you stay in place, and either keep dreaming (just a few more years), or find another way to resolve your identity with reality.


Mountain View

You graduated, now what?

What is the point? The point is not corporate law: Bad, human rights lawyer: Good. For those who are sober and honest about why they chose corporate law, this article has little to offer. It could be genuine belief, on ideological grounds, that capitalism is great and law firms are necessary for capitalism to function. It could be more material: to please your family, to make a lot of money, to gain the status of a professional, to pay your debts, or simply because you crave security. It doesn’t matter. If you look at that reason and decide it is worth more than whatever your ideals were, and live with that choice, no one will hear the word “sell-out” from your lips. Because you haven’t sold out, you are being true to your heart. It’s just that your heart didn’t particularly value whatever it was that the ‘sell-outs’ valued.

Again, law firms know this and have a lot invested in tipping the scales in the right direction. But that is a story for another time. This article is about something else. It is a warning to the sell-outs, to those who feel they’re drifting helplessly, who tell themselves “I’ll decide later.” Stop. Stop and think. Ask yourself a simple question right now. What do you truly want?