Law in Contemporary Society
-- By LizzieGomez - 20 Apr 2012

Passion + I: The beginning

In December, I received a baby blue knitted hat from Yesenia. I know this because a Sanctuary for Families staffer e-mailed me saying that the woman who I helped apply for a U-VISA dropped it off. I was a 0L when I volunteered to work with 2 other lawyers on her case this past summer. I’d consider her my first legal client. Anyway, 3 days later I picked up my hat along with a note: un regalito para ud. gracias por su dedicacion y pasion. Translation: a little gift for you. thanks for your dedication and passion.

Passion redefined

Like success and maybe Santa Claus, passion is a concept we’ve learned to desire for all the wrong reasons and based on idiosyncratic American values. Before life experience teaches us any better, we believe passion is the one thing we were meant/born to do. Conventional wisdom bullshit also establishes that passion is the person I am destined to be, the career I was built to succeed at, the business card my mother would be proud to share among her friends. I, like most, was taught to reach for the stars and to never settle for second best. Sticking to that standard, I figured I had better give a damn perfect answer whenever a stranger asked me what my passion is. But I never had one. After twentysomething years, my passion was proving harder to pinpoint than the next guy I swore was my soul mate.

One of my takeaways from this class has been a lesson on passion. The lesson: that the preceding end-all, be-all notion oversimplifies my capacity as a lawyer. The search is not for a self-absorbed idea of what we’re good at, but for a problem – a repulsive view of our society, where the law reveals its beauty and weakness. When passion-seeker instead becomes a problem-seeker, there’s a shift from purely introspective questions to those that connect with the experiences of other people (e.g., Trayvon Martin/Sandra Fluke discussions). It’s a balance of self-awareness with situational awareness.

The bounds of passion

If passion is on a spectrum, then we’ve seen both ends.

We know what passion is: John Brown

We know what passion is not: The lawyer in Bartleby

The gold standard is Captain Brown. He is the rare example of someone who had defined the problem he saw in society as both his purpose and passion in life. He saw a problem, society at its ugliest, that most didn’t at the time: the slavery of blacks. Though no sacrificial lamb, Brown’s commitment to eradicating this problem went to the extent of his conviction for justice: “[I]f it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice… [for the] millions in this slave country…I submit; so let it be done!” While Brown was considered a “dangerous” man for this, the lawyer in Bartleby was a regarded as “an eminently safe” man. (1) Unlike Brown, the lawyer in Bartleby would rather hide than confront a problem: “I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best.” It’s no surprise then that he specialized in transactional law; it doesn’t require solving any legal dilemma. On the contrary, he was paid handsomely to make rich men richer by not reinventing the wheel. Now knowing that I can understand passion as the disposition to find problems, where do I stand?

Passion + I: The end

Yesenia is an illegal immigrant woman from Ecuador. She left her own family to reunite her children with her then-husband. Her ex turned out to be a jealous misogynist, beating and raping her for receiving a smile from neighbor across the street. Fear, confusion, and an eviction ensued before she contacted Sanctuary for Families for help getting a U-Visa, a nonimmigrant visa for crime victims.

My official task was to be her translator, help draft her declaration for the application, and wait with her whenever the attorneys were behind schedule. In truth, my task was to connect with her and find her story. She was my age, born only a few months before me, but that didn’t mean a thing. Of all the relationships I had to build, this was the hardest. Rightfully so, since Yesenia had recently forgone her efforts to track down the “lawyer” she paid $800 to review her case. Eventually, I connected with her, not as a woman or an immigrant, but through her drive for a better life and her unconditional love for her family. I knew she felt the same way after one morning we spent killing time in the lobby, waiting for the attorneys. She asked what my favorite color was, and I said baby blue because it’s the color of my grandmother's house back in Peru. And she smiled back as if saying "I know what you mean".

I saw the beauty of the law in working for Yesenia, and it was in its weakest form of social control. We came together through the law's role as being "just to the poor." But when Yesenia was left in vulnerable state and justice thus served, the law created a wedge for me to be more than a translator and for the other attorneys to be more than document filers. I was afforded the chance to get to know her from her perspective. By shifting the focus from me to her, the problem became clearer to me. I saw the thang the way she did, after her first beating. Her resolve to rebuild a life that was almost taken away from her was soon my own. Right there I had found passion. How do I know? Because I discovered recently that I get real fidgety when I become self-conscious and absorbed in my own senseless thoughts. But in retrospect I never got fidgety when I was with her. Not once. (990 words)

One of the reasons, I think, that Jonathan Brice's reuse of my comment was unconvincing is that the contexts are precisely incongruent. In his case, the essay was about an idea, so an anecdote of relationship inhibited the reader's engagement. Here, the subject is the relationship, from which an idea is developed; at the heart of the most analytic paragraph in the essay, which I also agree with you is correctly balanced, is the question "where do I stand?" The relationship with Yesenia both unearths and answers that question.

Your approach to "passion" is idiosyncratic: passion does not always express itself as a disposition to find problems. But yours does, and it will. You have found where you stand: as an advocate helping people to push themselves forward towards the destinies their stories define for them. You are going to be a lawyer who makes things happen using words for people whose words are buried inside them. The things you will make happen for them are what their words inside them so very fiercely, honestly, dignifiedly, humanly instruct you they require in order to have the lives they envision for themselves.

Now you have to learn how to build a practice that makes this what your passion will be used for, cultivated by, stimulated to warm your life in every other way with. Such a practice has to also pay for itself, make its living, support you and yours as you need. So you are designing something, I hope with the help and resources of the law school behind you, that will allow your passion to flourish and to make people, many many people, better off in their lives.

I don't think the essay needs revision. I think it achieves its intended purpose with clarity. It could be polished; there are rough spots. But I don't think it should be polished. It belongs in precisely the register you found for it.


Webs Webs

r11 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:03 - IanSullivan
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