Lawyers have been much maligned historically and globally but everyone is quick to run to one when in need. The latest to launch an attack on lawyers though is one of its ilk. Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig’s address to the graduating class at Atlanta’s John Marshall School of Law is a marvelous example of objectivity lost when emotion gets involved and reason takes flight.
Oratory has the power to enchant, to inspire and to seduce. Lessig’s speech does none. He explains his job at Harvard as studying corruption “as in improper influence.” And speaks of his being present to address the audience as “corrupt” having been motivated to be there because of the love he felt for his nephew, a member of the graduating class.
He says, “We lawyers are responsible for this corruption,” when speaking about how big money buys influence in politics and how it is “the law for the rich people that works and the law for the rest of America that doesn’t.” Hearkening back to the days of yore when “the greatest lawyers worked first on the law aimed toward that (ordinary citizens and ordinary problems) pedestrian crowd,” he speaks in the same breath of the extraordinary progress we have made in all fields like technology and science since.
Laying the blame for all that ails the common man’s pursuit of justice squarely on the shoulders of lawyers is ludicrous. Objectivity and emotional detachment are the hallmarks of any lawyer worth his salt. These critical traits along with advocacy skills get honed over time with practice. The foundation though is laid in law school. The right teacher at the right time has set many great individuals on blazing paths in every field to make life better for us all in every way.
And so there are some who go to law school to get into “Inc. Law.” However, the realization that one will be doomed to a life of paper pushing almost completely removed from the halls of justice that resonate daily with the heavy footfall of the huddled masses, a hankering for good old fashioned lawyering in the style of a Perry Mason/Rumpole mashup and an awesome trial advocacy professor is what leads them to practice “People Law.”
Law students go on to become the fabric of the legal framework that establishes order in society. It is in law school that all the issues Professor Lessig raises must be addressed. Three years is a long time to mould fresh bright minds. The right internships and right mentors matter. A push to develop real life skills while in school is necessary. Programs that involve students in the community need to be part of the curriculum from day one. Weekly trips to all the courts to observe professionals in action and the grinding of the system from within are essential. Publishing scholarly papers is expected from professors however, getting ones hands dirty from time to time to stay grounded in reality must be mandated for the benefit of students.
In practicing “People Law”, the thrill of upholding the constitution and zealously defending a client against the State and winning is as sweet as it gets. “Not guilty,” are many people’s favorite words in the English language. However, time reveals the rot that has crept into the system and disenchantment ensues. The stately architecture even fails to lend stature to the system. Public defenders are overloaded and still getting cut as budgets dwindle. Judges are more worried about golf schedules and often cannot relate to the lives and pressures of indigent defendants. Clerks managing the system are harried and overworked. Jails and prisons are overflowing. Racism exists. Cops do lie sometimes. So do clients. Prosecutors can be blinded by their thirst for vengeance.
The problems are many and so are the reasons and factors that have made it difficult for the common man to easily attain justice. One thing is clear though. The blame cannot be allotted to lawyers. Especially not on graduation day to an audience who is embarking on a promising career and life.
The last lecture is the finishing line for law students before the first plunge into real life that begins with preparing for the bar exam. Graduation day speeches need to be a heady mixture of promise, glory and rewards of hard work not to mention the pursuit of happiness. Not the sanctimonious lament lurched out a few days ago by Professor Lessig.