J. D. Vance: What I didn’t know how the world of the American elite works

Editor's note: The following is excerpted from the new book, "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" by J.D. Vance (Harper, June 28, 2016).

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 of the American elite works.

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 girlfriend: “What do I do with all these damned forks? I don’t want to make a fool of myself.” Armed with her 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 my sister’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. Yale’s 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 unpleasant person?—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 our educational 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.

Two years earlier, as a state university graduate, 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.  I was most certainly no longer in Kansas.