Law in Contemporary Society

A Lawyer's Epitaph

-- By MilesGreene [997 words]

The etching of an epitaph can be considered the final narrative-shaping act of one’s life. It represents an attempt to set in stone an unchangeable epilogue. It is a tangible punctuation mark at the end of the last sentence of life’s story. Roy Cohn’s tombstone, nestled in a private mausoleum in Queens, is engraved with the words “Lawyer and Patriot.” There lies proof that Cohn quite literally went to his grave as an expert propagandist. Yet despite that text, he will be remembered as the chief counsel who carried out the Red Scare, for his role in outing and firing gay men from the government, and for vigorously representing the Trump family after they were accused of employing discriminatory housing practices against black Americans. A more proper inscription might be Martha Tharaud’s quip, "Boy, he hurt a lot of people."

As a foil, Martha offers the memory of her mentor, Lewis. His legacy could be summarized as having improved "the living standards of hundreds of thousands of people." The thought of these final phrases was brought to mind when Professor Moglen shared that upon the Justice's retirement, Thurgood Marshall was asked how he wanted to be remembered. His response was a modest yet moving line that could compose the perfect epitaph: as a person "who did what he could with what he had."

Marshall’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery, however, says even less. It bears nothing more than Marshall’s name, the years of his life, and the seal of the U.S. Supreme Court. The truth is that his name speaks for itself. Just as Roy Cohn’s does. Just as mine and yours will, too. This demonstrates that we will not be commemorated or remembered for the epitaph etched into the cold marble above our final resting place, but by the impact we had on the people and society that surrounded us. That conclusion is heartening, especially if you’re like me and you’d rather be cremated, ending up in a nice vase and taking up a bit less space on someone's mantle.

What Do I Have?

Guided by Marshall’s powerful phrase, I am still trying to figure out what exactly it is that I have and what I can do. Stating the obvious, I know that I want to use my career to help people like Marshall and Lewis did, and not to hurt people like Cohn. Two moments that mark the opening and closing days of my first year at CLS have begun to show me how I can use my career to make this a reality. Thanks to my background as an immigration paralegal, I was able to work with Professor Harcourt on an administrative appeal in support of a SIPA student from Libya who had been unable to re-enter the U.S. due to Trump’s travel ban. Although my role was minimal, it was a valuable chance to be an eye witness to the power that lawyers can wield as advocates for their clients. Next, since May, I have spent countless hours conducting research for another attorney who is serving as pro bono counsel to a pro se plaintiff. She was the victim of pregnancy-based employment discrimination and has brought a claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Scouring Westlaw for favorable Second Circuit case law would have sounded like a mind-numbingly unwelcome summer activity a year ago, but in the context of fighting for someone’s Title VII discrimination claim, it has been a highlight of my legal experience. I don’t know if that research will result in a loftier settlement or a higher probability of winning verdict, but I know that this work has made me feel alive and has brought me closer to finding the path that I need to be on.

What Can I Do in the Fall?

In the fall, the most important way that I can guide my learning to become the lawyer I want to be is to expose myself to a career path that inspires me. The two experiences mentioned above have provided some clues, but I need to take steps to continue interacting with real legal ecosystems in critical and meaningful ways. I need to continue working with attorneys and professors who have created practices that are both sustainable and pro-social. I need to decide if I want to clerk and for which type of judge. Although participating in an experiential class like the Low-Wage Workers Externship with Legal Aid may not provide an immediate eureka moment, it will, at the very least, give me the chance to continue working closely with attorneys who represent real clients in need. Comparatively, during my 1L year, I was a mere passenger on the metaphorical dinghy of the classroom, blindly accepting its navigation and passively awaiting morsels of legal nourishment (turnips, seawater, and turtle soup, again?). Next year my task will be to abandon ship for rescue, jumping into the legal ocean and swimming toward a place where I will be not just an eye witness to the advocacy of lawyers, but a direct participant and asset in that advocacy.

I'll conclude by observing that this course was likely the only academic space where we were encouraged to discuss and examine the state of the nation’s legal system and its concomitant inequality. No other class acknowledged race-based police violence, the visualization of “heaps of dead children” in our streets and schools, the mutated Orangeness of our White House, or asked us to confront modern misogyny, addiction, and mental illness. But just as importantly, this class challenged us to look inward. We were compelled to contemplate where we came from and where we are going. We were able to ask ourselves what we want out of law school and whether we love justice or hate injustice. The way those questions are answered in the years to come, and the good we do with what we have on the paths those answers lead us to, will be precisely how we are remembered.


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r7 - 10 Jun 2018 - 21:18:18 - MilesGreene
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