THE BLOG
10/15/2014 09:59 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

When Excellent Sheep Grow Up

Chris Ryan via Getty Images

In the recent and much-debated book, Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz takes aim at America's most prestigious universities. The former Yale professor assails an educational system that instills only a need for "compulsive overachievement" in its students, leaving them with a "sense that they need to keep running as fast as they can."

Many have identified the weaknesses in Deresiewicz's jeremiad. In his forthcoming novel, Supreme Ambitions, David Lat, founder of the legal blog Above the Law, takes a different approach. What happens, he asks, to all those excellent sheep after graduation? Once the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" fade, whither the ewes?

Lat's answer won't surprise many: The sheep get herded to law school.

Meet the heroine of Supreme Ambitions: Audrey Coyne, the consummate over-achiever. A graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, Audrey single-mindedly pursues a clerkship on the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit with the fictional judge Christina Wong Stinson. Her goal -- as she tells us -- is to "impress Judge Stinson, secure her recommendation for a Supreme Court clerkship, obtain a Supreme Court clerkship, and live happily ever after."

If Audrey is a hoop-jumping nightmare, her boss, Judge Stinson, is Darth Vader, more ambition than human. Stinson's life philosophy, that "there is always somewhere else to go," echoes those excellent sheep who feel, in Deresiewicz's words, "that there are still other places to arrive at, and other places after that, and so on and so forth in an infinite recession, like the vistas in a double mirror." Thus Lat's novel is really about the "supreme ambitions" of two individuals: a judge and her clerk.

Here I should fully disclose: I am a creature of both Deresiewicz and Lat. Deresiewicz singles out my college (Yale), my major (economics), my former job (State Department lawyer) and even my high school (Hopkins) in his book. And like the fictional Audrey, I attended Yale Law School where I was (like her) an Articles Editor of the Yale Law Journal. I clerked for a Court of Appeals Judge and then for the Supreme Court.

And so, although I am perhaps a bit biased, I side with Lat. While Deresiewicz treats his subjects (that is, his former students) with unconcealed contempt, characterizing them as "out-of touch, entitled little shit[s]," Supreme Ambitions thankfully possesses an attribute that has figured prominently in recent Supreme Court confirmations: empathy. Audrey is a sympathetic and human character (though by no means a blameless one). Lat clearly likes her, perhaps even loves her. And that's good, because reading a 280-page novel about an "entitled little shit" would be tough.

Lat's novel is ultimately upbeat -- and a fun read to boot. True, there are moments when the author's day-job as managing editor of a legal blog shines through; the product placement can feel a bit like a James Bond movie circa 1995. Do we really need to know that Audrey "searched through my favorite usual law-nerd blogs -- SCOTUSBlog, the Volokh Conspiracy, Balkinization, PrawfsBlawg, Concurring Opinions"? Or that "Journalists covering the Supreme Court -- Robert Barnes, Emily Bazelon, Joan Biskupic, Jess Bravin, Jan Crawford, Tom Goldstein, Linda Greenhouse, Dahlia Lithwick, Adam Litpak, Tony Mauro, Jeffrey Toobin, Nina Totenberg -- floated their own shortlists" for potential Supreme Court nominees? And the dialogue is at times a bit stilted, perhaps because Supreme Ambitions is too faithful to what lawyers actually sound like (i.e., awkward). But in the end, Lat has created a character that the reader feels attached to.

One might speculate that Lat likes Audrey because he shares so much in common with her. Both are first-generation members of Filipino-American families, attended Harvard College and Yale Law School, and clerked for the Ninth Circuit. But the same is true of Deresiewicz who, by his own account "used to be one of those kids." Yet Deresiewicz can't muster even an ounce of empathy for his subjects. One almost can't help but play armchair psychologist: Deresiewicz looked inside himself and found an "entitled little shit." Lat looked and found Audrey.

Ultimately, Lat's fictional Audrey better represents the elite modern American education system and its products than Deresiewicz's "entitled little shits." Audrey is by no means a saint, but she grows throughout the book. She is a creature of ambition, to be sure -- as are many -- but that doesn't prevent her from thinking about the kind of person she is, and who she wants to be (the same is not true of her boss, who is ambition to the rotten core). And when Audrey confronts an ethical dilemma where she must choose between her ambition and her principles, she's no excellent sheep.

Supreme Ambitions captures a truth Dereseiewicz missed: We organization kids are not unidimensional. Sure, we do things for instrumental reasons -- because they are prestigious, pay well, or impress others. So does everyone. Sure, we have some genuinely pathological people in our midst like Judge Stinson. So does any group of people. But at the end of the day, those "entitled little shits" are still actual people with families, dreams, aspirations, and concerns.

And ambition is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. "That he's ambitious, I'll readily grant you, but his ambition is an admirable one -- the kind which prompts a man to excel at everything he attempts." These words were spoken by George Washington about America's first -- and greatest -- organization kid, Alexander Hamilton.

One positive aspect of today's elite schools is that ambitious people often can't help but be trained in critical thinking, be it about legal cases, science experiments, or great novels. The skills they learn might just come in handy when assessing their own lives. Of course, this isn't to say that our educational system is flawless, or that graduates of elite schools are necessarily any better than others at making big life choices. Like Audrey, American education and its products are works in progress. But that does not mean our elite institutions and their products are the root of all evil. Ambition, like any other attribute, is useful if put to work in the right way. We shouldn't worry about stamping out ambition, but about better directing it.

There are those, no doubt, who will pick up Lat's book hoping for a primer on how to succeed at an appellate court clerkship. But that's a bit like reading Liar's Poker to learn how to navigate Wall Street; it's an excellent sheep move. But for those eager to see what happens when the organization kids grow up, when the excellent sheep must leave the farm, Supreme Ambitions is for you.

Supreme Ambitions
By David Lat
304 pp. American Bar Association. $17.21