A Question of Class
White-Collar Lawyers With Blue-Collar Backgrounds Often Straddle Dissimilar Worlds
Posted Jul 13, 2004 2:20 PM CST
By Stephanie Francis Ward
It’s unlikely that Scott T. Schutte, the son of a mailman and a receptionist, will ever get business from family connections. But the Chicago large-firm litigator is OK with that. Over the years, he’s come to terms with having a working-class background, and says he stands out in a profession with many second-, third- and sometimes fourth-generation lawyers.
“I have a theory that people who come from a background like mine are perhaps people you should want to work with, because we’re a little hungrier,” he says.
“That’s not to say that people who don’t come from the same background aren’t, but if I have a choice between working with an associate who’s had every privilege all the way through, as opposed to someone who went to the best law school he could afford, I would pick the latter.”
Schutte definitely understands the meaning of hard work. Growing up, one of his first jobs was milking cows on a dairy farm near his home in downstate Illinois. You had to be at work by 3 a.m., no matter what the weather was like. “I work a lot of hours, but I don’t work any more hours than those guys at the dairy farm,” he says. “My back doesn’t hurt, and I’m not out in the cold.” When he started practicing law, Schutte was somewhat embarrassed about his background. Today, he displays a picture of the farm in his office at Jenner & Block.
Alfred Lubrano, a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, has coined a term for people from blue-collar families who now hold white-collar jobs. He calls them “straddlers,” in that they are straddling the line between the working and middle classes. A book Lubrano wrote about the group—Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams—was published this year by John Wiley & Sons Inc.
A graduate of Columbia University and the son of a Brooklyn bricklayer, Lubrano interviewed 100 people for his book. He tells their stories in chapters dealing with topics such as transition, value clashes and identity struggles.
“There’s a cherished myth that we all have equal opportunities and can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” he says. “We all know a janitor whose son is a pediatrician, but that’s not the norm.”
The book has generated different responses, and some who are not from working-class backgrounds don’t get it, Lubrano says. “I liken it to white people who say there’s no racism, or men who say there’s no glass ceiling,” he continues. “If you’re born middle-class, to a family where your parents were college-educated, where books were discussed and you went through the motions of middle-class life, these are advantages that pull you up and make a difference.”
Many lawyer-straddlers say they were surprised by some of the differences they discovered between their blue-collar background and their white-collar world.
“I had read a great deal of biographies, and I just assumed that in this country, you have the opportunity through education to advance. It would require work, but it was easy to do if you were relatively smart and hard-working,” says Timothy W. Burns, a Chicago lawyer who practices with Schutte. Burns’ family owned a barbecue restaurant in Utah. “I didn’t realize until I came here how uneven the playing field is.”
When Burns made partner, he noticed how colleagues’ teenagers often attended summer camps sponsored by Ivy League universities, followed by great internship opportunities in college. “There’s certainly an opportunity to make something of family connections,” Burns says.
Even everyday aspects of the private practice world— like wearing the right suit, knowing the difference between a salad and dinner fork, and making small talk with your boss—can catch straddlers off guard. Much of this knowledge lies outside the normal script of working-class households, say lawyers raised by firefighters, factory workers and postal employees.
Some lawyer straddlers say they felt forced to choose between avoiding certain social situations or simply stumbling along, risking any gaffes that might result. “I don’t think there’s overt discrimination, but a person from a working-class background has to be very careful in how he conducts himself,” says John A. Burke, the son of a San Francisco firefighter who grew up in the city’s Mission District long before it gentrified.
“I didn’t have the natural advantage of going to a good school, or having a background where folks at the dinner table discuss things other than how the San Francisco Giants played,” says the former Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison senior associate, who is now a solo in Walnut Creek.
Burke’s mother died when he was 13. Three years later, his father remarried and moved to a different city, leaving Burke to fend for himself in the Mission. He got a studio apartment and an evening job at a hospital cafeteria. During the day, he attended St. Ignatius College Prep, then an all-boys school run by the Jesuits. An uncle influenced his decision to attend the school, and Burke’s cafeteria wages covered tuition.
Later, Burke enrolled at City College of San Francisco with plans of becoming a police officer, like his uncles. His then-girlfriend—now wife—convinced Burke otherwise, and he wound up with a biochemistry degree from San Francisco State University. Down the road, he decided to go to law school, largely because his $24,000 yearly salary as a lab technician wasn’t going far.
“I applied to the University of San Francisco School of Law—I didn’t even know about Hastings,” he says, referring to the University of California’s law school in San Francisco, a place from which many large law firms hire. “The only school I even knew about was the University of San Francisco, because some people I had run across had went there.”
Burke graduated in 1989, in the top of his class. The market was good, and law firms were in a recruiting frenzy.
“When I went on recruiting trips, that’s when I realized my background might be a handicap,” he says. “I’d go to these lunches with attorneys from these white-shoe firms, and they would discuss topics and issues that weren’t even in my jargon.” Conversation would turn to popular culture or politics, “and I’d just sort of fake it.”
Burke also felt self-conscious about how he spoke. “The first year I went to a party at a senior partner’s house, and I made sure I stayed away from all the decision-makers because I didn’t want them to hear me speak.”
Still, he made some mistakes around associates. Once, while reading aloud a passage mentioning Frederic Chopin, Burke mispronounced the 18th-century composer’s last name. At that point, Burke decided to educate himself.
“I kind of had an attitude, and I decided I wasn’t going to do well in a big firm with that kind of diction,” he says. “I worked very hard on grammar, and I would take out the dictionary just to go through it and learn words.”
Some researchers have suggested that work ethic can be another differentiation point. While attorneys and other white-collar professionals work hard, those from a working-class background may have a special appreciation of what hard work means. “You come from a tradition that you have to bust your ass to get something done,” agrees Lubrano. “And a lot of blue-collar people come from conservative backgrounds, where work ethic is extremely important.”
Thomas L. Shaffer, a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, agrees. In 1991 Shaffer and his daughter, Mary, wrote a book about legal ethics and how lawyers’ culture and religion influence their beliefs on the subject. Titled American Lawyers and Their Communities, it included material Shaffer gathered in interviews with Italian-American lawyers from working-class families. “There was a very strong emphasis on working hard, and one reason the children of the blue-collar families went to law school was to get ahead,” Shaffer says.
Coming to terms with class differences can be a struggle, says Angela McCaffrey, a professor at Minnesota’s Hamline University School of Law. McCaffrey wrote an article on the subject, titled “The Healing Presence of Clients in Law School,” published in 2003 by the William Mitchell Law Review. The daughter of a housewife and a rural mail carrier, she graduated from law school in 1979 and says that during that time, class made her feel more out of place than gender.
“I felt like an outsider, but the reality is that so many people are outsiders for so many different reasons, that the outsiders are probably in the majority,” she says.
Law schools, she says, should include courses about issues of importance to the working class, in addition to matters for the wealthy.
“It makes a difference in terms of comfort level, and students from every background have something to offer,” McCaffrey continues. “If they feel comfortable, they will flourish, and we’ll have a bar that’s more powerful and will be able to help more people.”
The fact that law schools, and some firms, already try to do this for women and people of color is not lost on Burke.
“I think there’s an assumption that if you’re white, even if you are blue-collar, you still have all the advantages of your skin color,” he says. “And if you’re male, we don’t have to worry about you. While I think it’s true that I wasn’t disadvantaged because of being male, or being white, obviously the background I had created some limitations that I had to overcome.”
Discrimination, Burke says, would be the wrong term when talking about class in the legal profession. “It’s a much more subtle form of disadvantage,” he says. “If you have that background, you need to work a little bit harder, work on your diction, read a lot and try to catch up, because you don’t want to be in a situation where you mispronounce Chopin.”
Some lawyers raised in blue-collar families, however, have refused to put themselves in a position where they have to straddle the class line. Los Angeles legal aid lawyer Steven Armin Zrucky didn’t have to come to terms with his background because he never tried to leave it behind. For Zrucky, the ultimate white-collar law job—a position at a big defense firm—was never an option.
“My dad would have been very disappointed,” says Zrucky, the son of a Hormel meatpacking plant employee. “I would never consider it. I couldn’t stomach it.” Instead, Zrucky has dedicated the past 23 years to representing low-wage workers.
The inspiration for his career choice came directly from his blue-collar upbringing. His father was a union man in Minnesota and would often talk about how bad plant conditions were before the shop was unionized.
“He would tell the story of how his dad, without a union, once a year would get fired, so he never had any seniority, he had no rights, worked long hours and was verbally abused by his boss,” Zrucky recalls. “He taught me that the benefit of people having a union was dignity, decent pay, vacation and good medical care.” During college, Zrucky also worked for Hormel, on hog-kill cleanup duty. Later, he was a shop steward in the Dinty Moore Beef Stew canning section.
“I had a good view of the problems,” Zrucky recalls. “It gave me perspective.”
Today, he sees Los Angeles losing union jobs, and the income gap between the rich and poor widening. Zrucky works out of the legal aid agency’s South Central office. The area at one point had many factory jobs with good pay.
“A lot of my clients are working two jobs, making minimum wage, and it’s not enough to live decently,” he says. “It’s a real problem, especially in the urban areas.”
Although Zrucky has made a career at legal aid, he does concede his professional degree has affected his ability to claim true consanguinity with the blue-collar community.
“By the time a person goes through college and law school, they are more or less groomed to take on the characteristics of higher-class people,” Zrucky says. “I think they’re kind of branded.”
Ultimately, Zrucky says he embraces his background because it makes him a better lawyer. “When clients tell me about the abuses employers put on them, and other indignities, it’s easy for me to believe them,” he says. “Because I’ve seen it.”
"A Question of Class," July, 2004, page 36, misidentified the era of the 19th-century composer Chopin. The Journal regrets the error.
Stephanie Francis Ward is a legal affairs writer for the ABA Journal.