Law in Contemporary Society


-- By HelenMayer - 20 May 2009

The end of a school year is always a time for reflection. It is a time to decompress from the mad dash of finals, to make sense of what we have learned and to write the year’s concluding chapter – the only one that ever gets “re-read” when we think back to that particular period of our lives. It was amusing, though perhaps not surprising that the trigger for the process this year, a simple conversation with my best friend, led me to question whether I had come away from my first year with any tangible legal knowledge, or whether I had merely checked off a box – one year more in the inexorable march toward the completion of my education. But mulling over the experience these past few weeks has led me to the conclusion that the substantive legal knowledge we gain in law school will be relatively unimportant in our legal careers when compared to the values we have already developed over our young lives.

The trigger happened while I was sitting at lunch with my best friend, Sandy, one recent afternoon after finals ended. She has been my closest friend since freshman year of high school, and last year we were overjoyed to discover that we would both be coming New York – she to attend culinary school while working as a line cook and I to attend Columbia.

“I have a legal question for you.” She broke out suddenly and followed with a customary dramatic pause for effect. After momentarily considering interjecting by reminding her that Law & Order was just a moderately sensationalized television show and not necessarily a true reflection of the law, a genuine sense of excitement came over me. So this is what it will be like, I thought. I will be the woman with the answers, the trusted confidante, the counselor in the best sense of the word. People will come to me with seemingly intractable problems and I will devise creative strategies based on the specialized and closely held knowledge I have acquired in law school. I was about to start with Sandy. Or so I thought. But the story she told and my inability to be of much help demonstrated quite clearly that either I have a long way to go, or I have been looking in the wrong places for this knowledge.

Each week Sandy would be scheduled to work 32 hours at a certain three star restaurant in Manhattan. She would clock into an automated system, work at least her full shift if not a little more, and clock out. Each week she would rip open her paycheck expectantly and see a precise 31.00 hours logged. Every week she would rationalize a reason why this was so – miscalculation on her part, perhaps, or by the restaurant in recording the totals. But each week the same – 32 plus hours worked, 31 hours flat paid. It seems Sandy was not the only one either. After discreetly bringing the topic up with other employees in the kitchen, it became clear that her case was mild by comparison. One employee on the day shift consistently worked two extra hours without pay (let alone the mandated time-and-a-half for overtime) because he could not do all that was required during his shift, but the restaurant flatly refused to hire more help. Sandy asked him pointedly: was he not infuriated by this abuse? No, he said. It was standard practice in the industry. And no one would put their job at risk by speaking out.

Needless to say, I was shocked. First that this abuse was happening on a systematic basis and second that I knew very little about how to help my friend deal with it. Should I look up New York labor statutes? I had the idea that the law would be on her side, but to what effect? Presumably the reason other employees submit to this “standard practice” is because they think they will lose their jobs if they complain. Feeling powerless, I fell back on my two-option strategy for dealing with questions I do not know the answer to: make a topical joke to change the subject or turn the conversation political. I chose the latter.

“I’m surprised New York chefs aren’t unionized.” I said after a pause.

“No,” she said, “their too afraid and move jobs too much.” Talk about Tharaud being able to tell the entire political and economic picture from one employment relationship, I thought to myself.

The conversation moved on, but the incident was a jarring discovery. Was it really possible that I could not help my best friend get paid for the correct number of hours she worked? Was it really true that I had no more to contribute than a statement I could have made in college, or even high school? Something like a slow panic, coupled with a determination to take and master labor law over the next two years set in.

But as I began to reflect on the year I had just completed, I was able to put my conversation with Sandy in context. Perhaps I do not yet know the attorney you call at two o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday to help a cook being cheated out of $10 every week. But I do carry with me the values I have developed over my adult life that help me spot an injustice where one exists. And I have a feeling that those values are harder to retain in the practice of law than any labor statute.

* Update: Sandy is still getting her hours cut down but her restaurant recently plunged from three stars to one star in one ranking. It seems the labor troubles are beginning to show in the food. The capitalist system is likely to take its course one way or another: either in better treatment for better food or in bankruptcy.

My work at Legal Services this summer has only served to confirm my general opinion that law school is no place to learn to practice law. Practicing law is the way to do it. After one two-hour CLE on uncontested divorces and a dozen client intakes I have a feeling I know more about how to divorce two people than I’m ever going to learn in family law.

But one benefit to law school I did not account for in my analysis is the benefit of being part of a legal community – especially one in which people hold similar values. After publicizing my friend’s story, even among this small group, a member of our class came to me with information about how to file an anonymous complaint with the state’s Department of Labor, information I have passed along to her. It seems by sharing knowledge we can make change happen in people’s lives.

  • Concluding on how much law you can learn in law school from the end of the first year would be, to say the least, premature. And not every instinct to jump in and provide legal advice during law school would be wisely accded to, even if you have studied the relevant law.

  • But your basic theory is correct: in law school one learns not how to solve legal problems, which practice teaches. Rather, law school teaches how to be ready to learn from practice, and how to make the transition to having a practice. The latter, as you know, has been somewhat lazily taught for the last two generations, as organizations hired most of the graduates and never allowed them to practice in any serious way thereafter until they were too old to begin. In the interim, law schools besides Yale began concentrating (often after an influx of Yale-trained teachers) on teaching people how to think about the law. This is not a contemptible skill, by any means: training creative lawyers is very important, and the people who are admitted to highly selective law schools would be the people to train. They have to become lawyers, too, however, which is where you need to be vigilant as a student.

  • Meantime the lesson about sharing knowledge is the most important part. Using networks of people and knowledge to make things happen using words is the actual skill. Expertise in areas of law and bodies of relevant fact is part of the toolset for doing the job, but in the world we are living in, where clients are ever-more reluctant to pay by the hour and all the more insistent on paying for results, understanding how to use shared resources to achieve benefit for your client is the intellectual discipline you need to be attentive to gaining.


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r7 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:46:59 - IanSullivan
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