Law in Contemporary Society

A Seat at the Table

-- By PaulRiley - 28 Feb 2020


There is a proverb that states: “If you do not have a seat at the table, you are probably on the menu.” This thinking is, in part, what compelled me to attend law school. Having majored in Politics and minored in African American Studies, I remember learning how the Federal Housing Administration endorsed the practice of “redlining” in cities like my hometown of Philadelphia, PA. This was done to disincentivize financial institutions from providing mortgages to or investing in Black neighborhoods, the impacts of which are still being felt today.

Outraged by this and similar practices, the goal now seemed clear and simple: fight to get a seat at the tables where legal and political decisions are made to ensure that this never happens again. Law school, therefore, became a creative tool and logical next step to accomplish these goals. However, this course has turned this grandiose thinking on its head and provided a cautionary tale of the traps that I will likely encounter along the way.

Getting to the Table

The first lesson I had to learn is that, despite my motivation for attending law school, my presence in 1L doctrinal courses is a daily practice of indoctrination with respect to how I should think, act, and behave. It is baffling to see how groupthink has already begun to take hold of my classmates and me and started to inform how we ought to conduct ourselves as future attorneys.

A few examples from my courses…

Criminal Law: Upon hearing the facts of a given hypothetical, my peers have already coalesced around the notion that if they are the prosecutor, they must automatically go for the most stringent charge. They must go for the most stringent charge in order to coerce the defendant into a plea bargain, especially when you are not as confident in how a jury will decide your case or when you want to exploit the vagueness of the Model Penal Code.

Property: In a recent class, my professor noted how we should stop asking “why?” when trying to figure out what led Trusts & Estates to be structured in such a convoluted manner. The response was that this is just the way that it is and that we have to live with it. My intent is not to impugn the character of my professor, but to illustrate how this pedagogical approach is becoming more and more of the norm. There seems to be less of an incentive to question how these rules came to be and more of an incentive on ensuring that we internalize these rules in order to regurgitate and CREAC them into Examplify in mid-May. It takes me back to Holmes who so eloquently noted on page 12 of The Path of Law, “It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV.”

Taking a Seat at the Table

Even if you happen to combat this indoctrination on the path to becoming more creative and are given a seat at the table, you are still limited and confined by the rules of etiquette. After all, you are not walking up to an empty table with your notepad, pen, and ideas. Instead, you must follow very clear rules: (1) when eating, always pace with the host; (2) pass the dishes counter-clockwise; (3) bread is on the left, water is on the right; (4) when using utensils, start on the outside and work your way in.

The point is that you do all of this work and jump through all of these different hurdles and hoops to get to the table. Once seated at said table, you are still restricted by established rules that seek to ensure that there are no radical departures from the norm. My fear is that I will lose myself in this process of striving to gain a seat at the table. That I will, without realizing it, become a “token” for the diversity brochures. Or, worse, that my presence at these political or legal tables will be used to espouse notions of “progress” in a “post-racial society,” which will only work to neutralize and quash any efforts aimed at actual and radical racial justice and transformation in our society.

To make myself feel better, I often try to rationalize the Big Law path as a way to build up my resources, expertise, and “book” to account for the “nut” required to create my own self-sustaining and viable practice. But, to Professor Moglen’s point, I now have to question whether this chosen path (or, dare I say, compromise) is a symptom and product of the risk-averse control freak present in law students, who are trying to have their cake and eat it too; who are trying to have the courage to chart their own path while still operating within the confines of a system that seeks to churn out budding attorneys as inputs on the assembly line or within the well-oiled machine.


In retrospect, I may have been misguided in tethering myself to the aforementioned proverb. After all, even if I get a seat at the table, the causes that I am fighting for (e.g., dismantling racist and discriminatory policies) will always be on the menu.


Because it is the Chef’s Special and as hard as the restaurant (the U.S.) strives, on the one hand, to rid itself of those dishes, it realizes, on the other hand, just how integral these best-selling dishes are to maintaining its prosperity and “greatness.”

Instead of trying to sit at that table and acquiesce to that menu, the onus may be on me to have the courage to start expanding my palate and acquiring my own taste. In doing this, I can hopefully start making decisions and selecting dishes based on my own preferences, not the ones I have been conditioned to find appealing and to continue ordering time and time again.


Bon Appetit.

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r1 - 28 Feb 2020 - 20:59:09 - PaulRiley
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