Inequality and Life Chances: Going to Law School or Going to Prison
Sociologist Max Weber observed that one’s opportunities, what sociologists call “life chances,” are shaped by our class and status. While we tend to think of success as the sole result of our talent and effort, our social position is in many ways a result of our family’s social status.
Imagine two young men from vastly different backgrounds—both bright, neither exactly sure what direction they want their lives to take. One resides in an impoverished area of Los Angeles in a neighborhood plagued by gangs and violence. The other grows up in Washington, D.C. and attends an exclusive prep school with children of the political elite. Neither is particularly committed to their studies, and both find themselves adrift. Can you guess who ends up in law school and who ends up in prison?
This is not a hypothetical example, but one that attorney Ian Graham details in his memoir, Unbillable Hours: A True Story. The book focuses on Graham’s experience working to free Mario Rocha from prison, who was serving a double-life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit.
Rocha had drifted from being an honors student to skipping school to hang out with his friends, and at fifteen was placed on probation after riding as a passenger in a stolen car. In 1996, when he was sixteen, Rocha attended a party crashed by gang members, who shot and killed an honors student. Rocha wasn’t in a gang, but a party goer identified him as one of the shooters from a photo line-up—where his picture ended up after his arrest the year before. Despite the lack of evidence of a third shooter, Rocha was arrested for murder. (To learn more about the case, watch Mario's Story on DVD).
His mother, who scraped by as a custodian, took out a $17,000 mortgage on her home in order to pay for what the family hoped would be better legal representation than a public defender could offer. But the attorney they hired (who had approached the family soliciting his services) barely did any work on Rocha’s behalf, and he allowed the prosecution to try Rocha along with the two known gang members. Rocha was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Meanwhile, Graham finished college with what he writes were less than stellar grades and without a clear plan. And yet he was able to secure an entry level job as a staffer on Capitol Hill while he figured out what he wanted to do—a job that someone from Rocha’s background would have a hard time getting even with good grades.
While peer pressure led many in Rocha’s neighborhood to join gangs and drop out of school school, Graham’s friends went to graduate school or got high paying jobs on Wall Street. Feeling like he was “falling behind,” he decided to go to law school and try and figure things out there.
After doing well his first year, large law firms courted Graham with fancy dinners and the promise of a six-figure salary. By his own admission, he had little interest in working for a big law firm but was tempted by the money and found himself working long hours doing mind-numbing work. (The work sounded so dull that after reading about it I actually had a nightmare about being locked in a room all night to analyze documents I couldn’t understand. Anyone who is planning on going into law should read his description of life at a big firm.)
In order to do something that might be more interesting, Graham volunteered to work on one of the firm’s pro bono cases. Coincidentally, the firm had recently agreed to take on Rocha’s case and try and win him a new trial, and the book details how Graham and his colleagues set about to help Rocha gain his freedom. (In 2006 Rocha was released from prison and is now attending college in Washington, D.C.)
Although this story has something of a happy ending—Rocha got out of prison and Graham left the big law firm—it serves as a reminder of the different obstacles and opportunities people might face based on social class.
Their struggles to find a sense of purpose and freedom led each on remarkably different paths. Graham worked crazy hours, pulling many all-nighters to try and manage an impossible workload. But he was well compensated, although shackled by “golden handcuffs” of a big salary that made it difficult to leave the firm. But for Rocha the costs were far higher. His shackles were real, as he spent ten years in a maximum-security prison and endured two brutal stabbings by other inmates. While both eventually found direction, Rocha had lost years of valuable young adult experiences learning to survive on his own. Today he is dealing with many of the same challenges people a decade younger struggle with.
“Mario was at least as bright as I was, possibly more so,” Graham writes, “but he had grown up in the LA barrio, without the opportunities, benefits, and second chances of a privileged upbringing. I wondered how I would have fared growing up in his world, and he in mine.”
A good reminder of how social class impacts our life chances.