Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.D. Vance (2016)

Chapter 13

As I began to think a bit more deeply about my own identity, I fell hard for a classmate of mine named Usha. As luck would have it, we were assigned as partners for our first major writing assignment, so we spent a lot of time during that first year getting to know each other. She seemed some sort of genetic anomaly, a combination of every positive quality a human being should have: bright, hardworking, tall, and beautiful. I joked with a buddy that if she had possessed a terrible personality, she would have made an excellent heroine in an Ayn Rand novel, but she had a great sense of humor and an extraordinarily direct way of speaking. Where others might have asked meekly, “Yeah, maybe you could rephrase this?” or “Have you thought about this other idea?” Usha would say simply: “I think this sentence needs work” or “This is a pretty terrible argument.” At a bar, she looked up at a mutual friend of ours and said, without a hint of irony, “You have a very small head.” I had never met anyone like her.

I had dated other girls before, some serious, some not. But Usha occupied an entirely different emotional universe. I thought about her constantly. One friend described me as “heartsick” and another told me he had never seen me like this. Toward the end of our first year, I learned that Usha was single, and I immediately asked her out. After a few weeks of flirtations and a single date, I told her that I was in love with her. It violated every rule of modern dating I’d learned as a young man, but I didn’t care.

Usha was like my Yale spirit guide. She’d attended the university for college, too, and knew all of the best coffee shops and places to eat. Her knowledge went much deeper, however: She instinctively understood the questions I didn’t even know to ask, and she always encouraged me to seek opportunities that I didn’t know existed. “Go to office hours,” she’d tell me. “Professors here like to engage with students. It’s part of the experience here.” In a place that always seemed a little foreign, Usha’s presence made me feel at home.

I went to Yale to earn a law degree. But that first year at Yale taught me most of all that I didn’t know how the world worked. Every August, recruiters from prestigious law firms descend on New Haven, hungry for the next generation of high-quality legal talent. The students call it FIP—short for Fall Interview Program—and it’s a marathon week of dinners, cocktail hours, hospitality suite visits, and interviews. On my first day of FIP, just before second-year classes began, I had six interviews, including one with the firm I most coveted—Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, LLP (Gibson Dunn for short)—which had an elite practice in Washington, D.C.

The interview with Gibson Dunn went well and I was invited to their infamous dinner at one of New Haven’s fanciest restaurants. The rumor mill informed me that the dinner was a kind of intermediate interview: We needed to be funny, charming, and engaging, or we’d never be invited to the D.C. or New York offices for final interviews. When I arrived at the restaurant, I thought it a pity that the most expensive meal I’d ever eaten would take place in such a high-stakes environment.

Before dinner, we were all corralled into a private banquet room for wine and conversation. Women a decade older than I was carried around wine bottles wrapped in beautiful linens, asking every few minutes whether I wanted a new glass of wine or a refill on the old one. At first I was too nervous to drink. But I finally mustered the courage to answer yes when someone asked whether I’d like some wine and, if so, what kind. “I’ll take white,” I said, which I thought would settle the matter. “Would you like sauvignon blanc or chardonnay?”

I thought she was screwing with me. But I used my powers of deduction to determine that those were two separate kinds of white wine. So I ordered a chardonnay, not because I didn’t know what sauvignon blanc was (though I didn’t) but because it was easier to pronounce. I had just dodged my first bullet. The night, however, was young.

At these types of events, you have to strike a balance between shy and overbearing. You don’t want to annoy the partners, but you don’t want them to leave without shaking your hand. I tried to be myself; I’ve always considered myself gregarious but not oppressive. But I was so impressed by the environment that “being myself” meant staring slack-jawed at the fineries of the restaurant and wondering how much they cost.

The wineglasses look like they’ve been Windexed. That dude did not buy his suit at the three-suits-for-one sale at Jos. A. Bank; it looks like it’s made from silk. The linens on the table look softer than my bedsheets; I need to touch them without being weird about it. Long story short, I needed a new plan. By the time we sat down for dinner, I’d resolved to focus on the task at hand—getting a job—and leave the class tourism for later.

My bearing lasted another two minutes. After we sat down, the waitress asked whether I’d like tap or sparkling water. I rolled my eyes at that one: As impressed as I was with the restaurant, calling the water “sparkling” was just too pretentious—like “sparkling” crystal or a “sparkling” diamond. But I ordered the sparkling water anyway. Probably better for me. Fewer contaminants.

I took one sip and literally spit it out. It was the grossest thing I’d ever tasted. I remember once getting a Diet Coke at a Subway without realizing that the fountain machine didn’t have enough Diet Coke syrup. That’s exactly what this fancy place’s “sparkling” water tasted like. “Something’s wrong with that water,” I protested. The waitress apologized and told me she’d get me another Pellegrino. That was when I realized that “sparkling” water meant “carbonated” water. I was mortified, but luckily only one other person noticed what had happened, and she was a classmate. I was in the clear. No more mistakes.

Immediately thereafter, I looked down at the place setting and observed an absurd number of instruments. Nine utensils? Why, I wondered, did I need three spoons? Why were there multiple butter knives? Then I recalled a scene from a movie and realized there was some social convention surrounding the placement and size of the cutlery. I excused myself to the restroom and called my spirit guide: “What do I do with all these damned forks? I don’t want to make a fool of myself.” Armed with Usha’s reply—“Go from outside to inside, and don’t use the same utensil for separate dishes; oh, and use the fat spoon for soup”—I returned to dinner, ready to dazzle my future employers.

The rest of the evening was uneventful. I chatted politely and remembered Lindsay’s admonition to chew with my mouth closed. Those at our table talked about law and law school, firm culture, and even a little politics. The recruiters we ate with were very nice, and everyone at my table landed a job offer—even the guy who spit out his sparkling water.

It was at this meal, on the first of five grueling days of interviews, that I began to understand that I was seeing the inner workings of a system that lay hidden to most of my kind. Our career office had emphasized the importance of sounding natural and being someone the interviewers wouldn’t mind sitting with on an airplane. It made perfect sense—after all, who wants to work with an asshole?—but it seemed an odd emphasis for what felt like the most important moment of a young career. Our interviews weren’t so much about grades or résumés, we were told; thanks to a Yale Law pedigree, one foot was already in the door. The interviews were about passing a social test—a test of belonging, of holding your own in a corporate boardroom, of making connections with potential future clients.

The most difficult test was the one I wasn’t even required to take: getting an audience in the first place. All week I marveled at the ease of access to the most esteemed lawyers in the country. All of my friends had at least a dozen interviews, and most led to job offers. I had sixteen when the week began, though by the end I was so spoiled (and exhausted) by the process that I turned down a couple of interviews. Two years earlier, I had applied to dozens of places in the hope of landing a well-paying job after college but was rebuffed every time. Now, after only a year at Yale Law, my classmates and I were being handed six-figure salaries by men who had argued before the United States Supreme Court.

It was pretty clear that there was some mysterious force at work, and I had just tapped into it for the first time. I had always thought that when you need a job, you look online for job postings. And then you submit a dozen résumés. And then you hope that someone calls you back. If you’re lucky, maybe a friend puts your résumé at the top of the pile. If you’re qualified for a very high-demand profession, like accounting, maybe the job search comes a bit easier. But the rules are basically the same.

The problem is, virtually everyone who plays by those rules fails. That week of interviews showed me that successful people are playing an entirely different game. They don’t flood the job market with résumés, hoping that some employer will grace them with an interview. They network. They email a friend of a friend to make sure their name gets the look it deserves. They have their uncles call old college buddies. They have their school’s career service office set up interviews months in advance on their behalf. They have parents tell them how to dress, what to say, and whom to schmooze.

That doesn’t mean the strength of your résumé or interview performance is irrelevant. Those things certainly matter. But there is enormous value in what economists call social capital. It’s a professor’s term, but the concept is pretty simple: The networks of people and institutions around us have real economic value. They connect us to the right people, ensure that we have opportunities, and impart valuable information. Without them, we’re going it alone.

I learned this the hard way during one of my final interviews of the marathon FIP week. At that point, the interviews were like a broken record. People asked about my interests, my favorite classes, my expected legal specialty. Then they asked if I had any questions. After a dozen tries, my answers were polished, and my questions made me sound like a seasoned consumer of law firm information. The truth was that I had no idea what I wanted to do and no idea what field of law I expected to practice in. I wasn’t even sure what my questions about “firm culture” and “work-life balance” meant. The whole process was little more than a dog and pony show. But I didn’t seem like an asshole, so I was coasting.

Then I hit a wall. The last interviewer asked me a question I was unprepared to answer: Why did I want to work for a law firm? It was a softball, but I’d gotten so used to talking about my budding interest in antitrust litigation (an interest that was at least a little fabricated) that I was laughably unprepared. I should have said something about learning from the best or working on high-stakes litigation. I should have said anything other than what came from my mouth: “I don’t really know, but the pay isn’t bad! Ha ha!” The interviewer looked at me like I had three eyes, and the conversation never recovered.

I was certain I was toast. I had flubbed the interview in the worst way. But behind the scenes, one of my recommenders was already working the phones. She told the hiring partner that I was a smart, good kid and would make an excellent lawyer. “She raved about you,” I later heard. So when the recruiters called to schedule the next round of interviews, I made the cut. I eventually got the job, despite failing miserably at what I perceived was the most important part of the recruiting process. The old adage says that it’s better to be lucky than good. Apparently having the right network is better than both.

At Yale, networking power is like the air we breathe—so pervasive that it’s easy to miss. Toward the end of our first year, most of us were studying for The Yale Law Journal writing competition. The Journal publishes lengthy pieces of legal analysis, mostly for an academic audience. The articles read like radiator manuals—dry, formulaic, and partially written in another language. (A sampling: “Despite grading’s great promise, we show that the regulatory design, implementation, and practice suffer from serious flaws: jurisdictions fudge more than nudge.”) Kidding aside, Journal membership is serious business. It is the single most significant extracurricular activity for legal employers, some of whom hire only from the publication’s editorial board.

Some kids came to the law school with a plan for admission to The Yale Law Journal. The writing competition kicked off in April. By March, some people were weeks into preparation. On the advice of recent graduates (who were also close friends), a good friend had begun studying before Christmas. The alumni of elite consulting firms gathered together to grill each other on editorial techniques. One second-year student helped his old Harvard roommate (a first-year student) design a study strategy for the final month before the test. At every turn, people were tapping into friendship circles and alumni groups to learn about the most important test of our first year.

I had no idea what was going on. There was no Ohio State alumni group—when I arrived, I was one of two Ohio State graduates at the entire law school. I suspected the Journal was important, because Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor had been a member. But I didn’t know why. I didn’t even know what the Journal did. The entire process was a black box, and no one I knew had the key.

There were official channels of information. But they telegraphed conflicting messages. Yale prides itself on being a low-stress, noncompetitive law school. Unfortunately, that ethos sometimes manifests itself in confused messaging. No one seemed to know what value the credential actually held. We were told that the Journal was a huge career boost but that it wasn’t that important, that we shouldn’t stress about it but that it was a prerequisite for certain types of jobs. This was undoubtedly true: For many career paths and interests, Journal membership was merely wasted time. But I didn’t know which career paths that applied to. And I was unsure how to find out.

It was around this time that Amy Chua, one of my professors, stepped in and told me exactly how things worked: “Journal membership is useful if you want to work for a judge or if you want to be an academic. Otherwise, it’s a waste. But if you’re unsure what you want to do, go ahead and try out.” It was million-dollar advice. Because I was unsure what I wanted, I followed it. Though I didn’t make it during my first year, I made the cut during my second year and became an editor of the prestigious publication. Whether I made it isn’t the point. What mattered was that, with a professor’s help, I had closed the information gap. It was like I’d learned to see.

This wasn’t the last time Amy helped me navigate unfamiliar terrain. Law school is a three-year obstacle course of life and career decisions. One the one hand, it’s nice to have so many opportunities. On the other hand, I had no idea what to do with those opportunities or any clue which opportunities served some long-term goal. Hell, I didn’t even have a long-term goal. I just wanted to graduate and get a good job. I had some vague notion that I’d like to do public service after I repaid my law school debt. But I didn’t have a job in mind.

Life didn’t wait. Almost immediately after I committed to a law firm, people started talking about clerkship applications for after graduation. Judicial clerkships are one-year stints with federal judges. It’s a fantastic learning experience for young lawyers: Clerks read court filings, research legal issues for a judge, and even help the judge draft opinions. Every former clerk raves about the experience, and private-sector employers often shell out tens of thousands in signing bonuses for recent clerks.

That’s what I knew about clerkships, and it was completely true. It was also very superficial: The clerkship process is infinitely more complex. First you have to decide what kind of court you want to work for: a court that does a lot of trials or a court that hears appeals from lower courts. Then you have to decide which regions of the country to apply to. If you want to clerk for the Supreme Court, certain “feeder” judges give you a greater chance of doing so. Predictably, those judges hire more competitively, so holding out for a feeder judge carries certain risks—if you win the game, you’re halfway to the chambers of the nation’s highest court; if you lose, you’re stuck without a clerkship. Sprinkled on top of these factors is the reality that you work closely with these judges. And no one wants to waste a year getting berated by an asshole in black robes.

There’s no database that spits out this information, no central source that tells you which judges are nice, which judges send people to the Supreme Court, and which type of work—trial or appellate—you want to do. In fact, it’s considered almost unseemly to talk about these things. How do you ask a professor if the judge he’s recommending you to is a nice lady? It’s trickier than it might seem.

So to get this information, you have to tap into your social network—student groups, friends who have clerked, and the few professors who are willing to give brutally honest advice. By this point in my law school experience, I had learned that the only way to take advantage of networking was to ask. So I did. Amy Chua told me that I shouldn’t worry about clerking for a prestigious feeder judge because the credential wouldn’t prove very useful, given my ambitions. But I pushed until she relented and agreed to recommend me to a high-powered federal judge with deep connections to multiple Supreme Court justices.

I submitted all the materials—a résumé, a polished writing sample, and a desperate letter of interest. I didn’t know why I was doing it. Maybe, with my Southern drawl and lack of a family pedigree, I felt like I needed proof that I belonged at Yale Law. Or maybe I was just following the herd. Regardless of the reason, I needed to have this credential.

A few days after I submitted my materials, Amy called me into her office to let me know that I had made the short list. My heart fluttered. I knew that all I needed was an interview and I’d get the job. And I knew that if she pushed my application hard enough, I’d get the interview.

That was when I learned the value of real social capital. I don’t mean to suggest that my professor picked up the phone and told the judge he had to give me an interview. Before she did that, my professor told me that she wanted to talk to me very seriously. She turned downright somber: “I don’t think you’re doing this for the right reasons. I think you’re doing this for the credential, which is fine, but the credential doesn’t actually serve your career goals. If you don’t want to be a high-powered Supreme Court litigator, you shouldn’t care that much about this job.”

She then told me how hard a clerkship with this judge would be. He was demanding to the extreme. His clerks didn’t take a single day off for an entire year. Then she got personal. She knew I had a new girlfriend and that I was crazy about her. “This clerkship is the type of thing that destroys relationships. If you want my advice, I think you should prioritize Usha and figure out a career move that actually suits you.”

It was the best advice anyone has ever given me, and I took it. I told her to withdraw my application. It’s impossible to say whether I would have gotten the job. I was probably being overconfident: My grades and résumé were fine but not fantastic. However, Amy’s advice stopped me from making a life-altering decision. It prevented me from moving a thousand miles away from the person I eventually married. Most important, it allowed me to accept my place at this unfamiliar institution—it was okay to chart my own path and okay to put a girl above some shortsighted ambition. My professor gave me permission to be me.

It’s hard to put a dollar value on that advice. It’s the kind of thing that continues to pay dividends. But make no mistake: The advice had tangible economic value. Social capital isn’t manifest only in someone connecting you to a friend or passing a résumé on to an old boss. It is also, or perhaps primarily, a measure of how much we learn through our friends, colleagues, and mentors. I didn’t know how to prioritize my options, and I didn’t know that there were other, better paths for me. I learned those things through my network—specifically, a very generous professor.

My education in social capital continues. For a time, I contributed to the website of David Frum, the journalist and opinion leader who now writes for The Atlantic. When I was ready to commit to one D.C. law firm, he suggested another firm where two of his friends from the Bush administration had recently taken senior partnerships. One of those friends interviewed me and, when I joined his firm, became an important mentor. I later ran into this man at a Yale conference, where he introduced me to his old buddy from the Bush White House (and my political hero), Indiana governor Mitch Daniels. Without David’s advice, I never would have found myself at that firm, nor would I have spoken (albeit briefly) to the public figure I most admired.

I did decide that I wanted to clerk. But instead of walking into the process blindly, I came to know what I wanted out of the experience—to work for someone I respected, to learn as much as I could, and to be close to Usha. So Usha and I decided to go through the clerkship process together. We landed in northern Kentucky, not far from where I grew up. It was the best possible situation. We liked our judicial bosses so much that we asked them to officiate our wedding.

This is just one version of how the world of successful people actually works. But social capital is all around us. Those who tap into it and use it prosper. Those who don’t are running life’s race with a major handicap. This is a serious problem for kids like me. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things I didn’t know when I got to Yale Law School:

That you needed to wear a suit to a job interview.

That wearing a suit large enough to fit a silverback gorilla was inappropriate.

That a butter knife wasn’t just decorative (after all, anything that requires a butter knife can be done better with a spoon or an index finger).

That pleather and leather were different substances.

That your shoes and belt should match.

That certain cities and states had better job prospects.

That going to a nicer college brought benefits outside of bragging rights.

That finance was an industry that people worked in.

Mamaw always resented the hillbilly stereotype—the idea that our people were a bunch of slobbering morons. But the fact is that I was remarkably ignorant of how to get ahead. Not knowing things that many others do often has serious economic consequences. It cost me a job in college (apparently Marine Corps combat boots and khaki pants aren’t proper interview attire) and could have cost me a lot more in law school if I hadn’t had a few people helping me every step of the way.