The smuggest $15 you'll ever spend.

Commentary about business and finance.
July 17 2007 4:23 PM

Fifteen Dollars' Worth of Smug

What a New York law firm's charity-lunch program reveals about America.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

Sometimes it takes a brilliant, carefully crafted novel, such as Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now or Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, to capture a culture of money, ambition, and corporate avarice. And sometimes it takes just a few paragraphs, as with this 224-word article by Louise Kramer (fourth item down) in the Sunday New York Times business section, which describes a philanthropic trend at big New York law firms. Under the Chow for Charity program, now in its fifth year, summer associates at the giant law firm Simpson Thacher can elect not to enjoy a $60 per person lunch with a firm lawyer. Instead, if they choose to eat with the lawyer at a more down-scale joint and spend $15 or less each, the firm will donate the difference ($45 per person) to a nonprofit legal group like Legal Aid.

How does this small piece neatly encapsulate several important trends?

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1. A Touch of Conscience. These days, any company that markets to or needs to hire well-educated proto-yuppies must take bold action on topics of concern ranging from global warming to poverty. Or, if it doesn't actually want to take the action, it must at least appear to be concerned. Doing good isn't a serious commitment or an end in itself. Rather, it's an ornament, like a wall sconce, that makes consumers or employees feel good about themselves and the company. The Times paraphrases a recruiter who notes that such efforts "are part of an emerging trend to add a touch of social conscience to lavish recruiting practices for top students in a competitive market." The greatest desideratum of firms is to undertake publicity-generating good works that don't require them to spend extra money or change the way they do business. Buy some renewable energy, by all means, but continue to maintain that fleet of corporate jets. Chow for Charity is a perfect case, since it doesn't cost the firm a dime.

2. The New Gilded Age. This is a golden age for corporations, and for the professional firms that service them, such as Simpson Thacher. According to the American Lawyer, Simpson racked up profits of $2.5 million per partner in 2006. (Given that, loudly trumpeting a program that generates about $50,000 in charitable donations seems a little gauche.) But this style of philanthropy neatly encapsulates the frequent obliviousness of the very rich, and of the publications that cater to them, to the nation's glaring income inequality. (Last week, the New York Times ran largely unironic articles about $60,000 beds and $225,000 parking spots.) Only in this new gilded age could a $15 lunch for a 23-year-old student be seen as a self-abnegating act. I can assure you that it is quite easy to gorge yourself on excellent food in New York for $15—a fine all-you-can-eat Indian buffet, a sublime pastrami sandwich from Katz's Deli, four street-side schawarmas. And plenty of New Yorkers would be thrilled to have $15 a day to spend on food. In the recent congressional food stamp challenge, several solons tried, without much success, to live for a week on the average food stamp budget: $3 a day.

3. Defining Public Service Down. For more and more of us, public service is something that other people do—other people with lower incomes, smaller apartments, and less nice stuff. (For the Iraq war version of this trend, see National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg.) The Times article quotes a recruiter who says law firms do this sort of charity because their recruits are really interested in community work. Now, law school is very expensive, and students take on large sums of debt to pay for it. So it may well be that many of Simpson Thacher's summer associates are just working there for the summer so they can go toil as community organizers upon graduation without excessive debt loads. But most are there because law firms such as Simpson pay massive salaries ($160,000 to start) and provide entree to even more-lucrative gigs at consulting firms, private-equity firms, and investment banks. Today, thanks to the benevolence of Simpson Thacher, you can pursue community work by taking your lunch at Pret a Manger instead of Le Bernardin.

4. It's Good To Be the King. In this economy, management and owners of capital always win. The partners of law firms have been among the most fortunate owners in this economy. They don't face competition from China. They mark up the labor of junior associates and then pass on the costs associated with that labor—copying, car services, long-distance phone calls—to their deep-pocketed clients. Summer associates are already a great deal for law firms—their hours are billed out to clients at hourly rates of between $200 and $300, but the firms don't have to pay any benefits. Not surprisingly, this charitable endeavor presents the partners with yet another opportunity to profit. "Lawyers like having lunch with a summer associate because it means a faster meal, not the typical time-sapping 1.5 hours," the article notes. Translation: It's a double-winner when kids pick the cheap meals over leisurely lunches. First, senior lawyers don't have to spend as much time feigning interest in the ambitions of 23-year-olds. And it leaves one more hour of daylight in which they can bill out their own time—and that of the community-minded summer associates.

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster . Follow him on Twitter.