L’Affaire(s) Spitzer may be old news, but New York lawyers won’t stop talking about it. The Harvard Law School graduate and former attorney general left the law for politics when he assumed the governorship, but based on what I’m seeing and hearing in person, in print, and online (a search for “Spitzer” and “prostitute” on a law-blog search engine returns almost 1,000 results), it’s clear that lawyers still harbor a sense of ownership of his disgrace, a feeling that his fall was at least in part “our” scandal.
Why does the Spitzer implosion rankle Big Law lawyers? Of course, there’s the hoary (sorry!) comparison of the learned profession and the oldest profession, but given the particular confluence of these threads in this story, it’s worth a closer look.
Consider the billable hour: The Spitzer scandal, with its frequent, voyeuristic mentions of how much Emperors Club prostitutes charged for their services, was a stark reminder of a life measured by the hour—or the six-minute increment thereof.
It’s not simply the method of payment, either. As former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant told the San Francisco Chronicle, “A mid-range online escort who books her own clients makes $200 to $300 an hour. … If you look at what a lawyer makes [in a particular city], that’s what an escort makes.” Another good reason to drop the billable hour!
Also, both professions reflect the unequal station of women in society. If Silda Wall Spitzer, also a Harvard Law graduate and highly accomplished lawyer, had remained at Skadden Arps and made partner, she would probably bill out somewhere between $700 and $900 an hour today. Meanwhile, high-school dropout “Kristen” charges clients like Ms. Spitzer’s husband a cool $1,000 an hour, and that’s the low end of high-class hookers.
While at Skadden, Silda—whose name, she claims, means “Teutonic war maiden”—billed over 3,000 hours a year. But whether a female lawyer as hardworking and talented as she would have made partner at Skadden or a similar large firm is open to question, and perhaps belied by the statistical data.
“It is unfortunately true that plenty of women, Silda Spitzer included, probably have a better chance of making five diamonds at the Emperors Club than they do of becoming an equity partner at Dechert, Mayer Brown, Blank Rome, Kramer Levin, or Cravath,” wrote Michele Landis Dauber, a Stanford law professor and director and officer of Building a Better Legal Profession, which works to increase gender diversity at large law firms.
“But you don’t have to go to the extreme ‘hooker scenario’ to see that women still in 2008 have crappy odds of success in high-status professions and receive way more attention for their sexual availability and attractiveness than for their intellectual abilities,” continued Ms. Dauber in an e-mail. “Just go to Toys R Us and spend five minutes in the highly sexist ‘girl’ section perusing the unbelievably offensive array of pre-prostitute presents parents are buying their daughters. Two words: Paris. Hilton.”
Finally, law and prostitution are service professions characterized by a principle of nonjudgmentalism. Both generally take all comers, making themselves available to anyone willing to pay their hourly rates. Just as a lawyer doesn’t castigate clients for, say, committing securities fraud or polluting, a prostitute doesn’t chide a john for being married or making an unorthodox sexual request.
But along with the absence of judgment comes a stack of rules—rules rooted not necessarily in ethics, but in self-interest. For example, prostitutes will generally not have unprotected sex with clients. Kristen had a way of dealing with such requests: “Listen, dude, do you really want the sex?” Similarly, lawyers may fight to avoid having to produce certain documents in discovery—but they will produce if ordered to do so. Listen, dude, do you really want the discovery?
There are other similarities between Big Law and Big Pimpin’, including intense status stratification and status anxiety, and arguable exploitation of a young workforce by an older, largely male management.
In the end, though, perhaps the most basic commonality is that both prostitution and lawyering arise out of human imperfection (and particularly ugly or unpleasant imperfection). If we could resolve all our disputes on our own, we wouldn’t need lawyers; if we could fulfill all our sexual needs on our own, or at least with people who wouldn’t charge us for the privilege, we wouldn’t need prostitutes.
This may explain our ambivalent relationship with the unloved practitioners of law and prostitution. We need them both badly, and hate the fact that we do.