Journey through the Legal Profession

Speaker’s Corner From The Practice May/June 2018
James J. Sandman on finding harmony between who you are and what you do

James J. Sandman is president of the Legal Services Corporation, the United States’ largest funder of civil legal aid programs. He practiced law with Arnold & Porter for 30 years and served as the firm’s managing partner for a decade. He is a past president of the District of Columbia Bar and a former general counsel for the District of Columbia Public Schools. Sandman recently sat down with David B. Wilkins, Lester Kissel Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and faculty director of the Center on the Legal Profession, for a one-on-one conversation on professional-identity formation across a career and across the legal profession.

David B. Wilkins: You have had so many interesting and varied roles inside the profession, and you’ve interacted with lawyers in such a broad variety of ways. But to start, we want you to think back to the beginning of your career. What inspired you to go to law school in the first place?

James J. Sandman: I went to law school for two reasons. First, I wanted a career that would allow me to make a difference in some way. Law allows you to make a difference. When I graduated from college in 1973, I’d seen lawyers play a critical role in the civil rights movement and in Watergate. I saw the differences they were making in real time. The second reason I went to law school was just to keep options open. I went straight from college to law school. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, but I saw people with law degrees making a difference in government, in journalism, in business, in the public-interest and nonprofit worlds, and as practicing lawyers. In choosing to go to law school, I did not think I was making a decision to become a practicing lawyer. I thought that was one of the things I could do, but it was not something that I was committing myself to. I was just taking things one step at a time.

Wilkins: During this time period, did you think about private practice versus public interest?

Sandman: No. My thinking was not nearly that developed. Among my classmates, I saw variety in what people hoped to accomplish with their law degrees. There were clearly people who were public-interest oriented and had a goal of working in a public-interest setting. There were people who wanted to go into a law firm, and then there were people like me who just didn’t know. What I found was that the placement process—the career services process—gives you a powerful push in the direction of law firms, because law firms represent the overwhelming majority of the employers who come to your law school campus to recruit you. It’s the path of least resistance. If you want to do something different from that, you have to take initiative, you have to find your own way, and you’re often competing for far fewer jobs than there are in big law firms.

Wilkins: Is that what drew you to Arnold & Porter?

I wanted a career that would allow me to make a difference in some way. Law allows you to make a difference.

James J. Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation and former firm managing partner at Arnold & Porter

Sandman: I had an intermediate stop, and a very important one. I clerked for Judge Max Rosenn on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit the year after I graduated. He was my first and most important mentor and role model as a lawyer—and a wonderful judge. He lived the life of a lawyer as a public citizen. I was blessed at the very outset of my career to spend a year at the elbow of a person like that from whom I could learn. A former chief judge of the Third Circuit, the great Edward Becker, once described Judge Rosenn as “a man of almost divine grace,” and that was accurate. He was deeply involved in and revered by his community. He was always giving back. He used his powers of analysis and expression and persuasion for the good of others. He showed me that being kind and generous need never be inconsistent with professional success. Since the day I left my clerkship in 1977, I’ve wanted to be Max Rosenn.

Wilkins: What a wonderful tribute. After clerking, why go to a corporate firm? Why Arnold & Porter, where you stayed for a significant part of your career and eventually became its managing partner?

Sandman: My experience with Judge Rosenn taught me a lesson in being comfortable with the alignment between what you do for a living and who you are as a person. I saw a harmony in the way he lived his life. There was no compartmentalizing. He led a rich, integrated life. That affected me deeply in my expectations about what I was looking for in a job.

I went to Arnold & Porter because I had two friends who had gone there directly from law school, and they recommended the firm very highly. They were having a good experience. And what I learned from friends I knew and trusted carried a lot of weight.

I was also attracted to the firm by three things that set it apart from every other firm I interviewed. First, the firm was not departmentalized at the time. I had never practiced law before, and I didn’t think I had a basis for choosing a specialty. I liked the idea of working at a firm that would allow me to try different things and wouldn’t force me to specialize before I was ready to make an informed decision. Second, the firm had a pro bono program unlike any I’d ever seen. Arnold & Porter had done Gideon v. Wainwright some years before. The partners did a lot of pro bono, not just the associates. You were encouraged to spend up to 15 percent of your time on pro bono work. And my friends who were then working at the firm told me the firm’s commitment to pro bono was true and not just a recruiting gimmick. So there was something about the culture and values of the firm that resonated with me. Finally, my experience interviewing at the firm was unlike any that I’d had elsewhere. I can remember to this day every person I met. I remember them because they were all characters, individuals, each different from one another. I liked that. They seemed to feel comfortable being themselves. And my sense of them, and of the firm, turned out to be accurate.

Arnold & Porter allowed me to find my own way as a lawyer at my own pace and to be myself. I did antitrust law,  employment law, product liability law, and all kinds of commercial litigation, in addition to doing pro bono work. I served as managing partner for 10 years, which was a fascinating experience. As managing partner, I got to deal with everything from information technology to accounting and finance to recruiting to commercial real estate to strategic planning to every personnel issue imaginable.

Wilkins: Did your sense of what it means to be a lawyer change during that period, between entering as a young lawyer through becoming a managing partner (all of which was occurring during a period in which the legal profession itself was changing!)?

I thought it was important, as managing partner, to do pro bono work myself—to show that it wasn’t just for associates.

Sandman: My sense of being a lawyer definitely evolved over that time. At first, I was just focused on my work: the cases I was assigned to and the cases that I volunteered to do pro bono. But I found as time passed, and particularly as my management role grew, that I had an opportunity to have a broader impact, both within my firm and outside it. I had opportunities to join the boards of public-interest organizations and nonprofits. I had an opportunity, particularly when I was managing partner, to address issues that I thought were important to the profession. I was regularly invited to speak at conferences around the country.

Take pro bono, for example. I had a wonderful platform at Arnold & Porter to promote pro bono not only within the firm but also outside of it. Within the firm, I felt one of my most important jobs as managing partner was to build on and expand the firm’s already strong pro bono culture. I thought the firm’s pro bono program was a great institutional asset and a core value. It was something that distinguished us from other firms in a marketplace that was looking increasingly homogenous. So I did everything I could to support the program, especially as the firm grew geographically. I wanted every office of the firm, including new ones with lateral partners who had come from other law firms, to reflect our historical commitment to pro bono. And I thought it was important, as managing partner, to do pro bono work myself—to show that it wasn’t just for associates. Outside the firm, I regularly spoke about the importance of pro bono work, and about the business case for big law firms to have strong pro bono programs.

I also had a platform to address issues like diversity in the profession, both within my firm and outside. I found that as a white male managing partner of a big law firm, my talking about diversity caught attention. I wasn’t a usual suspect. And I think what I had to say caused some people to perk up, because they weren’t expecting to hear a strong diversity message from someone who looked like me and had the position I did.

And I felt strongly, particularly as big law firms grew and as the profession became evermore money driven, to emphasize training and mentoring for new lawyers. I had an opportunity to do that within my own firm, but I was also able to focus attention on the importance of training and mentoring more broadly within the profession.

So as my position at Arnold & Porter evolved, my sense of my role as a lawyer evolved. And I thought, what a wonderful opportunity I have to be able to have a broader impact beyond just my own little world.

Wilkins: You made a point about the profession being more money driven and more competitive. Did that have anything to do with your deciding to eventually leave and become the general counsel of the D.C. Public Schools?

Sandman: It had everything to do with it. That’s why I changed careers. I loved my law firm. I spent 30 years there. I was managing partner for a decade. But I became increasingly uncomfortable with the world of BigLaw and with the direction in which the big-firm segment of the profession was moving. It just came to feel to me as if it were all and only about money. I came to feel as if I were devoting my life to making rich people richer. I’m not talking about the clients—I’m talking about my colleagues. If you’re a managing partner of a big law firm, you have to be able to pay your starting associates the going rate, which today is $180,000/year, and you need to be able to pay your partners seven figures. People who make that much money are rich. Making them richer was not among the reasons I had gone to law school.

I’d had a very comfortable professional existence in the same law firm for 30 years. And suddenly I found myself in a very different kind of organization not devoted to the practice of law, with very different people.

I came to feel a disconnect between my personal values and what I was doing for a living. It happened gradually. There were so many things I liked about my position, and my life, that caused me to rationalize the discomfort I was feeling. But eventually I realized that I needed to make a change. My wife, Beth Mullin, who is also a lawyer, was very helpful and supportive as I thought about these things. One thing I never had to worry about was the willingness of my family to support me in moving to a very different and less remunerative career.

I thought about this over a period of several years. It was not a snap decision. But when I ultimately did make the change, it appeared to be very hasty. In the fall of 2007, I went to the annual pro bono breakfast of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. The speaker was Michelle Rhee, who had recently become chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. She was not yet at that point the face of urban public education reform she later became. She gave this electrifying speech to an audience of lawyers about what she was trying to do to turn around what was then widely regarded as the worst performing public school system in the United States. At the end of her speech to this group of lawyers, she said, “So what can you all do to be helpful to me?” She ticked off three or four things that lawyers could do to be helpful. I remember only the last one. She said, “If any of you know where I could find a good general counsel, I really need one. I’m surrounded by lawyers who only know how to say no.” I know it sounds impetuous, but right there on the spot I decided, “I want that job. And I’m going to take a chance. I’m going to take a risk. I’m going to go to work for her if I can.”

I live in D.C., as well as work in D.C., and I don’t think there’s a more important local issue than public education. I was intrigued by the prospect of working with Michelle. I also knew what she meant when she said she was surrounded by lawyers who only know how to say no—the kind of lawyer who spots problems but doesn’t do anything to solve them. What she was saying was, “I need a thought partner who can help me get where I’m trying to go.” I’ve known lots of clients who have had bad experiences with lawyers, and so I had a sense, I thought, of what she might be looking for. So I followed up. And seven weeks later, I was working for the D.C. Public Schools. If you’re looking to make a change in your career, try moving from a big law firm to the D.C. Public Schools. It was wild. It was also one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.

Wilkins: Once you got there, what was the experience like? Did it fulfill what you had hoped it would in connecting heart and work?

Sandman: It sure did. But it was scary at first. I’d had a very comfortable professional existence in the same law firm for 30 years. And suddenly I found myself in a very different kind of organization not devoted to the practice of law, with very different people. I had to learn a new area of law—education law—that I knew nothing about when I walked in! You want to feel competent in what you do, and I was very self-conscious initially about what I didn’t know. I had a sense of déjà vu. I had felt this way before. When was it? Oh yes, it was when I was a summer associate, when every project I got was something I had never done before! But what I found was that your basic lawyering skills—your ability to read a contract, to read a statute, to interpret a regulation, to talk through a problem with a client and help them figure out where they’re trying to go and how to get there—are transferable. You can learn a new substantive area of the law. It takes a little while, but you can do it. And once I got comfortable, I just loved the practice setting.

I came to feel a disconnect between my personal values and what I was doing for a living. It happened gradually.

I think I did my best work as a practicing lawyer when I was at the D.C. Public Schools. Why? Because of the experience of literally living with my clients. Being in-house, I felt completely integrated into my client’s work. I had a better understanding of how my work related to what my client was trying to accomplish than I ever had in private practice. I felt that I could be helpful to my clients on a much deeper level than I had ever felt in private practice. And I was working with really smart, incredibly dedicated, and energetic people. Michelle was a talent magnet. She attracted people from across the country who wanted to be a part of what she was doing here. I sat in meetings that were as smart and interesting as any meetings I’d ever attended in a big-time corporate practice.

Working at the D.C. Public Schools was also a very important diversity experience for me. For the first time in my professional life, I regularly had the experience of being the only male in the room. Education at the elementary and secondary school levels is as dominated by women as big law firms are by men. I also, not infrequently, had the experience of being the only white person in the room. I was often the oldest person in the room (and I didn’t think of myself as all that old!). And I found myself engaging in what diversity experts call “self-censoring”—either not speaking, or changing what I wanted to say because of my concern that what I said might be heard through the filter of what I looked like. I would think before I spoke, “Am I about to say a middle-aged white guy thing?” And I realized that if I feel this way—this degree of self-consciousness—when I’m in my 50s, and have gray hair and a really nice title, what must it be like for the 24-year-old woman of color who’s the only one in the room? Women and people of color had told me about their experiences with these phenomena previously, but I had never experienced them myself. Every white male needs to have those experiences.

Wilkins: So in a way, the professional role actually put you more in touch with other parts of your identity that you might not otherwise have connected with in a setting in which those roles weren’t so salient?

Sandman: Yes, it really pushed me out of my comfort zone. I felt embarrassed, really, that it hadn’t happened earlier in my life. But I’m glad it did.

Wilkins: And then you took another leap, moving from being the general counsel of D.C. Public Schools to being the president of the Legal Services Corporation. How and why did that move come about, and how did that factor into this development of your professional identity?

I didn’t realize until I left Arnold & Porter that only 15 percent of the legal profession works in big law firms.

Sandman: I made the move because the then-mayor of the District of Columbia was defeated in his bid for reelection. He had appointed Michelle Rhee as chancellor, and I knew that when he moved on, she would be moving on. I didn’t know who her successor would be. It was during that period of uncertainty and transition, where I didn’t know who or what was coming next, that I heard about the opening at LSC. They had a search going on for a new president. And I thought, what a terrific opportunity to use my management experience running a substantial nonprofit corporation and to pursue a mission that I really care very deeply about—access to justice for people who can’t afford to pay for a lawyer. I had known from my previous thinking about making a career move back when I was still at Arnold & Porter and before I moved to the D.C. Public Schools that the challenge is to find the right combination of mission and job. You can go to work for an organization that’s got a great mission, but in a job that doesn’t do anything for you, and you won’t be happy. You have to like what you’re doing day to day. It can be really hard to find that combination. I thought that this would be exactly the right combination—interesting work day-to-day that would draw on the breadth of my prior experience, in pursuit of a mission that I cared deeply about. I’m not a lawyer anymore, though.

Wilkins: Unlike virtually every other job that you’ve have since law school, you’re not a practicing lawyer anymore. You’re running a very large, quite complex organization—one that is also tied into the government. Do you miss being a lawyer and that part of your identity?

Sandman: I miss practicing. I liked being a lawyer. I liked the intellectual challenge of it. I’m now a client in my organization; we have a general counsel and a legal department. But I still get plenty of opportunities to express my opinions on legal matters. I do miss full-time practice. Still, there have been more than offsetting benefits. LSC is the largest funder of civil legal aid programs in the country, and that gives us a perspective on the state of access to justice in civil cases for low-income people that is very useful and important to talk about. It also gives us a convening power that permits us to influence policy and thinking on civil legal services.

Wilkins: You’ve worked with a very wide spectrum of lawyers. Do you see differences in the way in which lawyers understand their professional identities as lawyers? Speaking as a law professor, students still tend to draw a dichotomous view between public-interest work and private practice. As somebody who’s trying to put together an organization that bridges all these gaps—and then has to speak to people in all these different capacities—how do you see it? Is it really a dichotomy, or is that a misleading characterization?

Sandman: I don’t see that dichotomy or compartmentalization. I see lawyers across a number of settings—lawyers in private practice, lawyers in government, lawyers doing public-interest work—overlapping in the way they think of themselves as lawyers and the way they approach their work. The easiest example is the big-firm lawyer who does a lot of pro bono work, who’s deeply involved in the community, who sits on the boards of public-interest organizations. That lawyer has a very rich life, both as a person and lawyer, without in any way selling out. She or he is contributing to the community. Also, many of the people in the legal aid world that I deal with manage substantial businesses. They are chief executive officers of significant nonprofit corporations with multimillion-dollar budgets and scores of employees. To be successful, they have had to master good management, fundraising, government relations, accounting, and finance—they need a very, very broad skill set. And I see similar things in government lawyers.

You can go to work for an organization that’s got a great mission, but in a job that doesn’t do anything for you, and you won’t be happy. You have to like what you’re doing day to day.

One thing I have taken from my experience is that a career is long. You have many opportunities to do many different things, not only within a job but from job to job. You can make changes. I see more lawyers than I’d like get trapped by inertia, and by golden handcuffs, lawyers who are very risk-averse and should be making a change but can’t. But I see others who, over the course of time, like me, have done a number of different things, each of which they might have never predicted, but all of which have given them a very rich life as a lawyer. When I speak to law students, I try to remind them that your first job is only that—your first job. But when you’re in law school, you’re so obsessed with that that you make more of it than you should. I think it’s really important to take the long view (see “Mosaics of Lawyer Identities”), to realize that you have choices at many points in your career, and that you can be a public-interest lawyer and a lawyer in private practice and a government lawyer all in the same life.

Wilkins: Looking back, what advice would you give law students and law schools about how we can better prepare students to see the possibilities of the full life that you’re describing—a life that can integrate the deepest things about yourself and the deepest things about being a lawyer across the arc of a career?

Sandman: I think it’s really important that law schools expose their students to a variety of lawyers who can model what the possibilities are—possibilities that law students on their own might never be able to imagine. Your perspective as a law student is narrow. If you didn’t grow up in a family with lawyers, if you’re the first in your family to have gone to college or to law school, you tend to get exposed to what comes easily at the law school. And at a school like Harvard, that’s lots of big law firm recruiters. I didn’t realize until I left Arnold & Porter that only 15 percent of the legal profession works in big law firms. When I moved to the D.C. Public Schools, the 17 lawyers whom I worked with in my office had never heard of Above the Law or the American Lawyer. I had no idea how small my bubble had been. Law students need role models and inspiration. That’s why Judge Rosenn was so important to me. He modeled a life as a lawyer that I’d never learned about in law school. I was fortunate to get the benefit of his example in my very first year out of law school. That was really, really important to me. My advice to law students is to take advantage of every opportunity your law school provides to get exposed to lawyers in a wide variety of practice settings. Get your nose out of the books. Acquainting yourself with what opportunities are out there, with people who are doing things you’ve never thought of doing, should be a really important part of your legal education.

James J. Sandman is president of the Legal Services Corporation and a former managing partner at Arnold & Porter, president of the District of Columbia Bar, and general counsel for the District of Columbia Public Schools.

David B. Wilkins is the Lester Kissel Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, vice dean for Global Initiatives on the Legal Profession, and faculty director of the Center on the Legal Profession.