“When a Gentile loses his job, he calls himself unemployed. When a Jew loses his job, he calls himself a consultant.” Comedian Jackie Mason.
There were indeed lots of consultants at my recent Harvard Law School reunion. While I suspect that most migrated into that role by choice, it amazed me how many of my classmates were no longer practicing law. Since the reunion celebration also included alumni marking 5, 15, 30, 40, and even 60 years since leaving Harvard, there were senators, congressman, captains of industry, judges, hedge fund managers, investment bankers, law professors, and representatives from nearly 50 countries, including members of the Brazilian, Japanese, Mexican and Turkish governments. There were also several serving in the Obama administration (both Barack and his wife Michelle are graduates of the law school, though this wasn’t a reunion year for either of them).
There were a few who made dramatic career choices recently, motivated at least in part by the current market environment. There was an American lawyer who returned home after five years at a major Moscow law firm to change careers. She is now enrolled in a shoe and bag design program at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. One classmate grew his hedge fund to over $2 billion before it collapsed last year under excessive leverage and poor liquidity, wiping out nearly all investor capital. He is now enrolled in a mid-career public policy program at another Harvard faculty. Another classmate is dedicated to establishing a Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Slavery next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Yet another is working full-time managing the business affairs of his American Indian tribe, which enjoys many interests across the country. I was especially delighted to reconnect with a classmate who hosts a daily radio talk show in San Diego, addressing topics similar to those addressed by this column.
Some are full-time mothers and fathers. Many have dialed back their professional ambitions to focus on family, some by necessity and others by choice. The reunion included formal sessions discussing the lessons learned over the course of two decades such as: “How we’ve balanced our career choices with our personal lives” and “What are our personal and professional goals for the next 20 years?”
Whether attributable to the passage of time, the maturing of the participants, or the current recession, there was a refreshing air of humility throughout the reunion weekend. People were extraordinarily deferential to one another. There was genuine pleasure in the successes of our colleagues and genuine empathy expressed to those who’ve coped with challenge and struggle. A dozen of our classmates have passed away since graduation; from illness, accidents, old age or suicide. We were told that is statistically consistent given a graduating class of over 500 students, but that didn’t mitigate our sense of loss.
I was exceptionally impressed by - and grateful for - how assiduously the law school kept up with its alumni. I believe Israeli universities can, and must, learn from their American colleagues about cultivating and preserving these alumni relationships. All major US schools have entire staffs dedicated exclusively to that purpose. Most are doing a wonderful job ensuring that graduates remain connected long after they left campus. I submit that Harvard Law School is among the best in that endeavor.
The new Dean, Martha Minow, taught many of us as students. She, along with many other faculty members, were with us around the clock, eating, drinking, discussing, disputing and then drinking some more! Several faculty and other alumni have served as government regulators. Many alumni have been and still are on the other side of that regulation. The policy debate was spirited, riveting, and inspiring.
Wall Street professionals were arguing with Professor Elizabeth Warren, also currently serving as head of the Congressional Oversight Panel. She addressed the flaws in the auto industry bailout, saving America’s banks, monitoring the funds distributed through the stimulus package, foreclosure projections and how American taxpayers have been short-changed throughout the last year. She shared how when her panel asked whether Goldman Sachs was paying a fair price for the options it issued and now wanted to buy back from the government, Goldman immediately doubled its offer. A cynic commented that proved conclusively that the Treasury department was still getting ripped-off.
Lobbyists were jousting with Professor Larry Lessig, who now heads the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard Law School, as he dissected the institutional corruption in Washington and explained how everything from health care to immigration policy to intellectual property law is dictated by special interest groups. One professor discussing the genesis of a Latin American free trade agreement was corrected, gently, by a graduate who had negotiated that agreement.
While the intellectual discourse was indeed stimulating, most people came to network. They were not disappointed. Whatever one’s line of work, whether in the private or public sector, the connections to be made were invaluable. And, unlike when we were students competing for top grades, top judicial clerkships and top jobs, now everyone genuinely wanted to help each other. Many were also eager to give something back to the school. This could mean writing a check (Harvard University’s endowment fell 25% last year a loss of nearly $10 billion!) or helping current students find jobs.
Amazingly, this has become a real problem, even for graduates from America’s top law school. In this recession they find themselves competing with veteran attorneys, seasoned in the “real” world, but now victims of major law firms trimming their associate ranks. This has also been manifest among students seeking the choicest judicial clerkships, as judges are now also able to choose among practicing lawyers whose law firm careers are less promising in the current economic environment.
Increasing numbers of law school graduates and practicing attorneys are also seeking career opportunities in the public sector or at not-for-profits. While this may be motivated principally by social responsibility, one must also acknowledge that the current opportunity cost of a public interest job is a lot lower that it was before the recession.
Reunions are very popular in America. After this past weekend, it’s easy to understand why. The essence of networking is that your connections become your assets and they need to be cultivated to preserve and enhance their productivity. To quote Alfred Lord Tennyson, “I am a part of all that I have met.” In that spirit, one couldn’t help but feel enriched by the camaraderie and goodwill that permeated our reunion. On average, people may be a bit poorer that they were last year. Some may have to work a bit longer than they might have hoped. However, there’s no reason to feel sorry for a group with so many valuable assets, especially one another.
Lyon (Lenny) Roth is a senior executive at an international wealth management firm and a member of Ben Gurion University's Board of Governors.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on November 16, 2009
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