Law in Contemporary Society

It Keeps on Turning

-- By KarsynArchambeau - 11 Mar 2022

In recent days, I find myself wondering what the people in London, or Paris, or Berlin felt in the months preceding World War II. Did the relative freshness of the first World War make any act of aggression seem like a precursor to what would eventually happen? Was that feeling heightened by the fact that they were neighbors? Or did it feel more contained than that, like diplomacy could bring the world back from the edge? I cannot say I ever wondered, past the occasional war movie or documentary, in too much depth what that must have felt like. I find myself wondering about it now. Perhaps that reflects a flair for the dramatic that I have been wont to lean into before, but to not consider it seems more than naive and willfully ignorant.

In Life

I also cannot say I ever wondered where I would be when the next world war broke out. Though I suppose, more than where I would be, I really never considered what I would be doing. It definitely wasn’t clinking cocktail glasses with my friends at dinner, or planning a spring break trip with my old roommate from college. What has been a time of reunion for me has been a time of abject terror and separation for people just like me in another part of the world. But that geographical distance is exactly what allows us the privilege to put some mental distance between ourselves and the reality of life in Ukraine. I don’t think that is inherently a bad thing; I am sure many of us have done what we can to help, leaving us with a choice of giving into the helpless feeling that arises once our task is fulfilled or pretending like nothing is wrong. But it is assuredly strange to know that, while we continue living our lives, becoming lawyers, war rages. Perhaps this distance is also in part created by the fact that war, in some form, has raged for most of our lives (despite news stations’ attempts to convince us, in an unsurprisingly racist and aggravating manner, that this war is different due to its location). Or maybe it’s that thinking about it for too long is scary. No matter what, I cannot help but feel selfish in my luxury of creating distance.

In Law School

The method of learning in law school encourages the same kind of distance. The opportunities to discuss the social or political implications of law, to truly engage with the content in our classes, come in the form of student organizations or guest speakers, not lectures. The result is that, ironically, the times I have felt most “like a lawyer” have only ever occurred outside the classroom. Because as much as I would rather spend class time discussing normative values represented or disregarded by a court’s holding, when those discussions do arise I find my mind wandering to the exam, contemplating how this discussion could possibly be tested. And that is where law school discourages true engagement and why those opportunities are found outside of class: they are not testable. My professors will not be asking me about such things when it comes time to judge my understanding of their class, so I push aside those conversations and go back to creating my outlines and taking my notes. I discuss atrocities and injustices with an analytical mind. And after class, I go to happy hour with my friends or join a networking call with a firm I might like to work for. And war rages on in Ukraine–and all around the world–and people’s lives are changed forever. And the world just keeps on turning.

This dissonance between how we approach learning in and out of class is something all law students should sit with. On almost the daily, we read about horrible aspects of the human experience: a woman suing a property owner for creating an environment in which she was raped; a man, abused and degraded by our so-called justice system in the aftermath of 9/11, refused his day in court. What’s more, we discuss it. We judge it. We use it to understand the workings of the law. But there is a detachment at work that allows us to remove ourselves from the realities of the experience and treat it as just a collection of facts. It’s easier, when we compartmentalize the objective sadness of the cases we study, to learn. In times such as these, that detachment feels more obvious than before.

With how pervasive this detachment is, the conclusion that law school intends this result is inescapable. It certainly makes it easier, if I am trained to detach myself from the consequences of my actions, to skip happily into work at a firm. It’s not without its utility–we get to the so-called black letter law much faster without the burden of the woes experienced by the respective parties discussed. But what kind of advocates are produced from such an emotionally detached experience? Ones that are uninterested in true advocacy, because that requires an emotional dedication to a cause, or a client, or an outcome. Where distance is a luxury created in other areas of our lives, it should not be one indulged in when it comes to our careers. It is harder, sure, to resist detachment when it protects us from confronting the seedy underbelly of Big Law. But our aversion to that confrontation and the justifications we rely on to make firm life more palatable, are not bad things. They are assurances that we are not detached, that we do care about the consequences of our actions. They represent our own little resistance to the Big Law machine, so that we do not skip happily into work, but walk in with our eyes open.

A much-improved draft. Further tightening was still possible and desirable. Every word that isn't doing its proportion of work should go. Paragraphs need to show their role in the sequence of ideas clearly, at their front. Sentences which do not advance the work of the paragraph should go too.

The proper work of the class in discussing a case is neither to eschew the realities in favor of doctrine nor to ignore legal context in deference to the primacy of politics and social struggle. The first question asked about any case in, say, my Property course always was and should be "What is really going on here?" That's what Legal Realism asks of us, and when a teacher won't show up for the real, the students should make it happen. But this is law school, and what we want to understand is how the powers embedded in and behind the law deal with the realities, and make the law do it on the terms they set.

Dissociation, as I said last time, is a profound, sophisticated human mental response to internal conflicts, including those engendered by law school and, perhaps more importantly, by the practice of law. This draft can be improved in many ways each growing out of a closer consideration of what we read and enacted in this course.

Hi Karsyn, thanks for a truly insightful essay. I definitely resonated with your account of disassociation in law school. As an English and History major, I was so accustomed to placing myself within the texts I read, whether by empathizing with the characters or considering monumental socio-historical movements. Law school was definitely a jarring experience, and in addition to being disassociating, it was also disillusioning. Despite my prior ideals, I noticed myself losing faith with the idea of resisting the corporate path. But your account and our class discussions have restored my faith to an extent, and I will continue to grapple with confrontation and hard questions. - Justine Hong


Webs Webs

r5 - 06 Jun 2022 - 12:56:49 - JustineHong
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