After over thirty-five years in the practice of law and the pursuit of justice, I have found myself reflecting of late upon what it means for a young person to become a lawyer. Perhaps my having been invited to serve as “hooder”* at the December 2013 Commencement for Seattle University School of Law has pulled my thoughts in this direction.
The recognition given to the newest law graduates is well-deserved. The December graduates consist of many students who, working during the day and supporting families, have completed their legal education in three or four years of evening classes. In addition to class attendance, students have read and puzzled over thousands of legal opinions, written countless briefs and memoranda, competed in oral argument, matched wits with colleagues and professors, all the while struggling to balance the demands of law school and the demands of career, family, relationships, and meeting the life challenges that face us all.
This perseverance, commitment, and focus is laudable in and of itself. In the end, however, where do they find themselves?
The short answer? In a wonderful career which at its heart is the most optimistic of professions.
To be sure, too many times, students have held on to their commitment through fatigue and financial impediments, arriving at the finish line of their formal legal education, exhausted, impoverished, and dispirited. During economic downturns when finding employment is difficult, it is easy to forget what is was that drove the decision to enter law school in the first place. For some, graduation is a product of dogged determination, no longer partaking of the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of high achievement that may have been manifest at the outset. Traditional legal education can often compound the doubt that students feel.
Imagine, if you will, a plumbing school where you learned about pipes, valves, traps, fittings, solders, basins, faucets, fixtures, and drain covers, but you never learned about water! (Plumbing does, after all, come from the Latin word for “lead,” Plumbum – hence the chemical symbol for lead in the Periodic Table is Pb. The Romans used lead pipes because the metal was malleable and “plumbers” were “lead workers.”.) In the end, learning about plumbing without focusing on water seems silly because plumbing systems are designed as water delivery systems.
In the same way, law schools for too long focused on laws, statutes, ordinances, regulations, rules, procedures, legislation, and court decisions, without talking about justice. In the end, learning about law without focusing on justice seems silly because legal systems are designed as justice delivery systems.
What should renew and refresh the hopes, dreams and optimism of new graduates is the knowledge that they are now members of that one half of one percent of the American population whose prime commitment is to making justice happen. In America, among all nations, law has a special place. The west pediment above the main entrance of the U.S. Supreme Court (the side facing the U.S. Capitol) bears this inscription: Equal Justice Under Law. This is altogether fitting because America, is the country that law built. Or, perhaps more boldly put, it is the country that lawyers built.
Lawyers constitute approximately one-half of one percent of the population, yet over half the presidents, nearly sixty percent of United States Senators and nearly forty percent of Representatives, have legal training – to say nothing of the third branch of government created under Article III to the Constitution (the Highest Law in the Land), the Supreme Court. Of the fifty-five Founding Fathers in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, some thirty-five benefited from legal training, although not all made their living as lawyers (and some were judges). During the Civil War, which defined our nation, leaders of both Union and Confederacy were lawyers: Secretary of War for the Union Edwin Stanton and Secretary of War for the Confederacy Judah Benajmin – to say nothing of Abraham Lincoln, himself. Given our demographic diversity, our numerous languages and cultures, equal justice for all under a system of laws is a unifying aspiration that binds us together as a people. Our Bill of Rights, rightly viewed, is supported by legal technicalities. Consider this: the Fourth Amendment protection against wiretapping by the government is premised on the legal fiction of an illegal “search and seizure” of electronic signals! Note please that our Founding Fathers said nothing prohibiting the government from eavesdropping. Yet, it is such legal technicalities upon which our fundamental rights rest.
The practice of law is inherently optimistic. At its base, it is premised upon the notion that, in a chaotic universe, on a rocky world comprised of heavy elements born in the hearts of supernovae, warmed by solar nuclear reactions eight light minutes away generating energy at the rate of roughly one hundred billion H-Bombs a second, complex organic beings interact in complex ways and – get this (!) – ordering principles can be identified and put to use. Law is the instrument of ethics and morality imposing, through criminal and tort law, expectations for human behavior in society. Religious traditions of charity, karma, penitence, forgiveness, and redemption resonate with legal constructs for compensation, restitution, justice, equity, and rehabilitation. Both law and religion wrestle with issues of reward and punishment. The fact that the human condition is not susceptible of simple answers should not dissuade us from approving of a system of justice taking on such questions as they present themselves in the real world. Nor can we rightly blame lawyers for the uncontrollable complexity of the modern world.
Service to others, at the heart of both civil and religious traditions, is the essence of the legal profession and is an inexhaustible font of inspiration and satisfaction. The lawyer has the rare opportunity to assist clients in their private travails and their public trials. The vast pageantry of human virtues and follies parade before the eyes of the lawyer providing an unparalleled opportunity for constructive engagement, education, and personal growth. The variety of experiences available is, to my mind, unparalleled in any other profession. What is more, discovery and change are but one case away: the transaction costs of re-tooling one’s practice remain remarkably low. The work of the lawyer is steeped in the quirks and character of humankind, allowing the lawyer to be both human and humane, passionate and dispassionate, learned and blessed with the common touch. It is an optimistic profession founded on the principle that things can be improved and that, in the worst of situations, there is a glimmer of hope for betterment.
Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach concludes:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
For this lawyer, decades into the practice, amid the thoughtless denigration of the profession, it is important for young lawyers to know this: whatever the truth of Arnold’s world, the practice of law in the pursuit of justice can be a beacon, seeking certitude, peace, and help for pain, various, beautiful and new, heralding the promise of dawn.
* - A hooder is the person designated at the graduation ceremony to slip the portion of the academic regalia known as the “hood” over the graduate’s head, representing the mark of having attained the J.D (Juris Doctor or Doctor of Laws) degree. The wearing of a colorful hood is reserved for those individuals who have attained advanced academic degrees beyond that of the bachelor’s degree. The hoods are often lined with the official colors of the university or college conferring the degree, edged with velvet of the color appropriate for the degree which, in the case of law, is purple. These ceremonial garments date back to the time of medieval scholars in the first universities.