Law in Contemporary Society

Logic, Storytelling, and Ice Floes

-- By JasonL - 24 Feb 2020

The Binary

Early in the semester, taking Eben’s class in conjunction with the rest of the 1L spring curriculum felt like having my feet on two different ice floes drifting in opposite directions. On one floe, Eben exposed the self-perpetuating quality of consilience, the mythology of logic, and the nonsense of “supernatural” legal doctrines and terms. On the other floe, my classes in property, contracts and criminal law continued espousing these supposedly pointless doctrines.

Doctrine v. The Art of Storytelling

There is a classic contracts case about an uncle who promises his nephew $5,000 if the nephew refrains from malignant temptations like gambling and smoking while away at college. Reading this case on Columbia’s floe means learning what constitutes a “promise” for contract law purposes. It is ostensibly a straightforward case and the ruling appears correct, if not reasonable and uncontroversial. However, I was also assigned twenty-five pages of additional facts on the uncle/nephew case that had not been included in the court’s original reporting. This material exposed numerous complications in the relationship between the two parties, which consequently cast the holding into doubt. Yet, regardless of these neglected circumstances, the doctrine of promises is based on largely on the court’s ruling from this case. I realized that of the thousands of cases I read on Columbia’s floe, each one likely has a similar host of unidentified or unknown factual material that could have led to entirely different outcomes. If legal doctrines and rules depend on the stories told by the lawyers, then why study doctrine at all? Instead, why not study the art of telling stories? I could not help thinking that had I read this case on Eben’s floe, the supplemental reading would have undoubtedly been the focus of study.

Making Sense

I often asked myself why Eben taught this class. Is he a 21st century apparition of Holmes, Cohen and Robinson sent to subvert the modern legal education? If so, the result is a jarring dissonance in the already fragile mind of a first-year law student trying to learn how a lawyer should think. Twice a week, I felt like I was shifting my weight from Columbia’s floe to Eben’s, and then back to Columbia’s. I thought Eben wanted me to commit one way or the other, but I could not choose and it exhausted me.

Thinking Like a Lawyer

Now, I realize my error. I dichotomized Columbia’s approach to “thinking like a lawyer” to Eben’s, but this was a self-imposed fallacy. Cohen might tell me this binary only existed because I created it. Holmes would tell me it existed because I could make sense of any conclusion by giving it a logical form. I do not think Eben wants me to throw up my hands in defeat and eschew doctrine as a basis for studying the law. Whether you study doctrine or story-telling is secondary, perhaps even incidental, to developing a lawyer’s theory of social action. Yet, for some reason I conceptualized “thinking like a lawyer” in terms of method A versus method B without considering the most foundational aspects of any career: defining success and happiness. A lawyer-in-training cannot develop a theory of social action without first understanding the conclusion he seeks. Defining those terms is not simple, but Eben’s class is attempt to facilitate that process. So, where has this left me?

Success and Happiness

A study by psychologist Andrew Benjamin suggests that first year law students enter law school with a firm grasp on their values and are emotionally healthier than the general population. Throughout law school, however, Benjamin finds that those students begin to betray this strong sense of the ethical self and become focused on external motivators like competition and comparative worth. This cannot possibly be what “being a lawyer” means to Columbia. And yet, is this not exactly what large law firms want: someone who has been stripped of their central values, devoid of personality, and gullible enough to do interminable work that the firm charges many multiples of the cost it took one to produce it? Is it too cynical to say that Columbia wants to break down my value system, calcified over years of overachieving, and reduce me to malleable cannon fodder for law firms? I think it is, for Columbia is not at fault for me developing a flawed theory of lawyering.


But I am not so blameworthy myself. There are human forces stronger than reason. As a young student, I was conditioned to think that the point of working hard in high school was to get into a good college. And the point of working hard in college was to get into a good law school. The ultimate end, however, was opaque: I was told “you’ll have the freedom to do what you want”. But growing up manacled by capitalism has tainted my ability to think clearly about what I actually want. I am massively materialistic and I have been led to believe that $200,000 and an office is the transcendental conclusion—the capitalist’s nirvana—to two decades of tireless work. Holmes himself recognized that the object of ambition generally presents itself in the form of money, since money is the most immediate form of desire.

Moving Forward

As I continue to define what it means to me to think and act like a lawyer, I will try to be aware of both the conditioning I have been subjected to as well as my susceptibility to faulty reasoning. Hopefully, by the end, I will have uncovered something I can call success.


Webs Webs

r2 - 24 Feb 2020 - 19:37:31 - JasonL
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