Law in Contemporary Society
"The Reconciliation of Justice and Self: Being a Lawyer and Not Being Hated by Your Former Self"

Practicing lawyers often have to reconcile their place within the profession with the notions of justice that led them to law school. Although there’s no perfect balance, through portraits of lawyers who harmonize (or fail to harmonize) their place within the law with their notions of societal justice, Lawyerland suggests the key to personal synchronization is to avoid intellectual pigeonholing. The lawyers who are least successful in self-harmonizing fail to look outside the law for “legal” solutions, whereas the most successful examples we have look to work toward justice regardless of the means.

“Engaging” in active disengagement, Wylie, Jansen, Urquart and Voohries are the least successful at reconciling their practice and their ideals. Although the characters are aware that they sometimes work for injustice (for instance, Wylie acknowledges that many of the deals he works on result in people getting hurt), they refuse to engage big picture issues. For instance, Wylie has two opportunities to correct the “solution” to crime the Yale lawyer offers (both at the dinner party and when relaying the story to the narrator), yet he doesn’t, instead “sitting still” and looking uncomfortable to the point at which the narrator is forced to change the topic. In a similar vein, Jansen, Urquart and Voohries confess that they have divorced themselves from following the big legal issues in the law, and instead take solace in that they are only “attaching themselves to a large sum of money” rather than settling cases for less than they are worth like the personal injury “zoids” they disdain. It’s telling that, in discussing Bartleby, the lawyers gloss past the underlying systemic problems that might have brought about the scribe’s poverty, instead focusing on the fact that Melville’s father-in-law, a wealthy lawyer and famous judge, was forced to return a slave to the south on jurisdictional grounds despite being an abolitionist. Throughout the profile, the lawyers are hopelessly contradictory (e.g. Wylie drinks wine to relax him and espresso to focus him at the same time; the former associates say “fuck” partnership, yet know the amount of money the partners are making, whether or not they were named at the top of their profession by legal magazines, and still follow who made partner), and fail to offer any “solutions” to the problems they have identified. This gives us a portrait of attorneys who are ineffectual and money hungry, who are probably despised by their former selves.

Fredrick Singleton and Thomas Rao rationalize the justice in medical malpractice litigation by conceptualizing themselves as part of a larger working framework, so that they are not obligated to work toward fairness in their day to day work. At first blush, both men advocate the justice in their work, opining about how they represent “good people” who need legal help and expressing a disdain for attorneys who don’t take the job seriously. Furthermore, in Singleton’s contempt for lawyers who write complaints against the state after prison riots, we see that the practitioners still care about systemic justice. However, when pressed on greater issues of fairness (be it through the individual fault of doctors or the justice of awarding large tort damages) both men defend what they’re doing not by defending the justice of each individual case, but rather by pointing to the fact that their practice is a small part of a large system of healthcare that serves the needs of the medical industry and its consumers, further expressing the opinion that right and wrong has nothing to do with the “transactional costs” with which they work. Although it’s true that someone in the legal profession has to protect both plaintiffs and defendants, Rao and Singleton’s failure to engage the larger issues of right and wrong (indeed, even dismissing them) leaves the reader with attorneys who are willing to work for “justice,” yet willing to sacrifice that ideal when it comes time to get paid. Although they point to the pressures of the industry and the possibility of legislation, the men take the system “as is” without expressing an opinion, beyond the fact that they will always find a way within it to do their work.

Unlike the lawyers above, Judge Celia Day isn’t satisfied to merely look for change within the law, rather recognizing that the real power of change (the power to change people’s minds) comes from the political process. Her position as a federal judge gives her unique perspective on systemic injustice (she laments that those trying to change society don’t have the slightest idea of what’s really happening in people’s lives), but her judgeship also constrains what she can do to change the system. Unlike “idealists” outside the law, she possesses an astute understanding of the way that laws have to be structured to work, and she is also conscious of the shortcomings of those whom might share that understanding (lamenting at the ignorance of young professionals and the way in which good lawyers lie). However, due in part to her position, and in part to a disdain for politics (she is not a member of any political party), Day is in a position where she’s ultimately unable to work toward justice from outside of the law, leaving her only option to be the minimal exercise of her discretion from the bench.

In terms of seeing actual “just” results, the most successful lawyer we meet in Lawyerland is Robinson. In day to day practice, he confronts the injustice that flows from incongruous application of the law, satisfying his law school self’s concern over the “reconciliation of freedom and state.” Although he perceives systemic problems (he laments at the deplorable conditions of federal prisons which have doubtful rehabilitative utility), he doesn’t concern himself with the details of system wide solutions (his wish that lawyers and criminals switch places for a day is inherently flawed). Rather, Robinson works to solve the “legal problems” of his client in every way possible, including by using extra legal means to expose injustice. Indeed, his willingness to look “outside” the law for legal conclusions is further demonstrated by his reliance on Kafka, as well as other literary illusions he makes throughout his biography (note the books he carried throughout law school). The end result places in him in stark contrast with the other attorneys profiled in the work. Unlike Wylie, Robinson still cares deeply about societal problems, and unlike the Singleton and Rao he actively engages those problems through both legal and extra legal means. Finally, although he lacks the political astuteness of Judge Day, Robinson’s freedom to work both inside and outside of the legal system makes him more effective at utilizing his practice to work towards results, leaving him free to work toward his conceived notion of justice.

Throughout Lawyerland, Joseph gives us portraits of a number of practitioners struggling to reconcile their place in the profession with their notions of justice that led them to law school to begin with. In making Robinson the most successful attorney profiled throughout the work, Joseph suggests that the key to successfully harmonizing practice and justice is to not limit the approach to law in merely a “legal” sense, but rather to be willing to work look to and work outside the law to achieve just “legal” results.

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r3 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:46:43 - IanSullivan
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