Law in Contemporary Society

Paper Title

A better title could be found, perhaps....

-- By AilsaChau -


I am currently a law student. I am going to become a lawyer.

But what do I plan to do as a lawyer? I’m not sure what I can add beyond that second sentence, because I don’t know yet. Before coming to law school and even throughout the law school application process (when one is presumably ponders such a subject), simply just being a lawyer was the projected end-point of both my studies and career.

By now I’ve come to realize otherwise, that deciding to become a lawyer is merely one point along the road that opens up many other roads. Based on our class discussions, I think I’m slightly further along the road to knowing what kind of lawyer I want to be. While reading the first chapter of Lawyerland, the part that resonated with me the most was Robinson’s explanation of why he didn’t stay with the S.E.C: “I don’t like being beholden to anyone.” All my life I’ve been beholden to someone or something—parents, for example—and one of the reasons why I chose to attend Columbia in the first place was because I assumed that becoming a lawyer at a firm would allow me to experience financial and thus general independence.

As I’ve come to realize through our class discussions, however, taking the Wall Street path would most likely amount to exchanging one set of chains for another. Moreover, the legal profession is not immune to the vast changes—globalization, Internet, economic recession, etc.—that have fundamentally transformed the societal playing field, by now it is neither a secret nor a surprise to anyone that there is strong downward pressure on legal fees and hiring patterns. Yet many in the legal field seem to have taken the heads-in-the-sand approach to such changes, not least among them law schools. The current law school business model is premised on charging extremely high tuition in exchange for lucrative jobs for their graduates, an exchange that seems increasingly less viable or even desirable. As I am currently paying for an extremely expensive legal education, what can I do to make my law school experience help me achieve my goals and be truly worth the price I’m paying for?

For it?

Limitations of law school

After approximately seven months of law school, it’s become increasingly clear that what we law students learn in law school does not fully prepare us for law practice.

An insight of limited utility. It would be difficult, even in seven times seven months, to prepare young people, incompletely, for an activity it requires experience as well as sagacity to perform well. As someone who practices law, every day, with young lawyers, I feel certain that I cannot, as teacher, given any amount of time, prevent young people from making mistakes. Probably this has something to do with the fact that in a quarter century practicing law as well as teaching it I have not been able to prevent myself from making mistakes. I make them, as my young lawyers make them, all the time. But we practice together, having complementary strengths and weaknesses, and we do a very good job.

The question isn't whether law school fully prepares you for law practice. It cannot, so it evidently doesn't. The question is whether law school prepares you to have a practice, and to benefit yourself and your community—intellectually, economically, professionally, socially—as much as possible by your experience in it.

The law we encounter in the classroom—mostly in the form of appellate judicial decisions—is largely formal, normative and often presented as the inexorable conclusions of the judges’ rational weighing of things like precedent and interpretative canons. However, as one professor once reminded me, the cases we read in our casebooks are essentially “freaks”—that is, a tiny, unrepresentative percentage of legal problems that manage to batter their way up to appellate court. Moreover, justice does not always come from the courts or even a lawyer’s knowledge of the law. Robinson, for instance, is able to secure a shorter sentence for his Serbian-Fujianese client because he knew how to manipulate others and use extralegal methods to achieve his objectives. Reading about how Robinson dealt with his client starkly drove home the point that the actual practice of law shapes and is shaped by the attendant peculiarities of human behavior, whether they be clients, third parties, judges, or lawyers. Unfortunately this is a fact that I find myself overlooking when dealing with doctrine and abstract legal theories in class.

Well, you don't have to overlook it just because you are also giving a higher priority, for the moment, to the formal materials and linguistic habits of legal behavior. Realism, a commitment to the primary importance of what things do rather than what they are called, is perfectly compatible, as Homes and Felix Cohen both showed, with very precise understanding of technical material. In fact, being a lawyer means mastering both the materials of legal "science," and the realities of social action.

Practical experience

Given that there are more things in law than those dreamt of in the casebook, a truly effective legal education cannot simply be contained within the classroom. One way to gain practical experience outside of the classroom while still attending law school is through participating in clinics and externships after first year. The practice-oriented nature of clinics and externships provides the opportunity to gain practical lawyering skills such as dealing with clients, solving actual legal problems and learning how to effectively work with other lawyers in a team context.

Sure. That's the easy part. But if it's just an hour of experience before the Bar exam instead of after, it doesn't mean much. Turning that experience into more than an hour's work of learning depends on the teaching that surrounds it. This is the overwhelming importance of the clinic, which is a form of law practice designed for teaching, so that an hour of experience and hours of preparation and an hour of reflection can produce knowledge and maturity of judgment worth years. The best externship, the best clerkship, or similar apprenticeship relations, are also founded on the master's skill in teaching. But the teaching is inherently more diffuse, because only the clinic is built as a practice to put its highest priority on the utility of its processes for teaching.


Another reason why I think that participating in a clinic or externship would be beneficial for my legal education is that participating in a clinic or externship would provide me with the valuable opportunity to meet and interact with clients with real legal problems. I feel this is important because (as someone who has specifically moved to America for law school) the staggering majority of Americans I currently meet and know are law students, law professors, or lawyers. This is not only an extremely limited sample of people, but I’ve noticed that for the most part many people involved in the legal profession (whether they be lawyers or law students) are a relatively homogenous group when compared to the population at large. Common characteristics include attending a private college as an undergraduate (mostly east coast or the slightly more exotic locale of California), upper middle class, liberal arts background, etc. However, there is a world outside of the legal profession, and a sizeable amount of clients will be from that external world with very different experiences, needs and expectations than the average law student. We have discussed in class how the true medium in which lawyers work in is power, the ability to influence and shape and behavior of people. Consequently, if I want to become an effective lawyer, I will need to better understand the needs and desires of people beyond the narrow strata of people I currently interact with.

But it's not clear that law clinics or externships are a particularly effective way of studying the breadth of humanity. Assuming for the moment, arguendo (as they say in law school), that your previous stock of human knowledge gained in Vancouver is totally inapplicable in the different universe of the United States, surely one could devise better means of broadening your social circles.

However, as a lawyer, I will not only have to work with clients, but also others like fellow lawyers and judges, all of whom are former law students. My current classmates especially are important in this regard, because they will be my future colleagues. We have discussed the importance of building a good network in law school, and this is something I need to focus on more rather than devoting the majority of my time to schoolwork and fretting over grades.

The advantage of the first first draft was its effort to employ imagination. The replacement of that draft by this one deprives us pretty much of your imaginative effort, which is too bad. This essay has a less lighthearted, perhaps even slightly sinister, feeling. You swear by the value of externships. You will spend more time cultivating your network. You will do less fretting over grades. You are going to be a good, socially-minded, young person, and become a thoughtful kind of lawyer. It's all very earnest, but it's not got your irony.

Now let's do what neither draft has clearly done so far: state the idea you want to convey to the reader. Both drafts are coy in different ways, which is inefficient even in the cases where it is charming. If we take the central proposition of the present draft, it is that you are too sheltered, by background and current environment, to understand the society in which your lawyering occurs. Much might be said about this proposition, not all on one side, and with more imaginative energy, it could be more fun for the reader, and for you, to think through.

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r4 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:15:33 - IanSullivan
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