The past few weeks have demonstrated the efficacy and beauty of practicing law. When Trump’s Executive Order banning travel from seven countries took effect, lawyers met with green card and visa holders detained at airports across the country. Lawyers achieved a temporary stay of deportation of those who traveled before the EO took effect, and a stay of the travel ban to visa holders affected (and, in Boston, a stay of the entire order). Lawyers even helped get back to this country some who lived here but were prevented from traveling, so they could reunite with their loved ones. The finer points of immigration law and civil procedure became the focal point of the day, and now, as lawyers challenge the constitutionality of the travel ban (Ninth Circuit arguments to air today), equal protection and due process issues move to the fore. All of this legal activity is rightly portraying lawyers as important guardians of justice and the rule of law.
To those energized by the ability of lawyers to concretely challenge the injustices plaguing our country, and to those now paying more attention to the courts as the arbiters of justice, I have a note about the role of law school and lawyers. One reason the law can legitimately be used as a force for good is because it is generally logical, rational, and restrained. Change through the courts is often incremental, and the positions of both sides usually have some merit. Because everyone has his or her own sense of what is “just,” the law requires methodologies that are independent, nonpartisan, and coherent. Creating legal doctrine that can be reconciled with all other areas of the law, on many levels of abstraction, is what gives the law its legitimacy. If you want to go to law school, prepare yourself for an intellectual journey, where both your mind and your heart may change.
My first year of law school marked perhaps the greatest transformation in the way that my brain functions. Instead of debating my friends in vague, imprecise, often muddled terms, I learned to think and write clearly and precisely. I learned to read two cases, find them contradictory, and realize they can be reconciled, allowing me to refine the principles that I had derived from those cases. The process of reconciling competing principles from two similar cases, so that your understanding of each case deepens, is a glorious intellectual exercise. You learn that your original understanding of almost everything you read is too shallow. You learn that deeper appreciation is gained through the clash of ideas. You learn that civil, sometimes sterile, discourse through the courts is often the best and fairest way to mete out competing claims of justice. You learn to understand why prosecutors and public defenders can be friends, or why Justices Scalia and Ginsburg could be best friends, despite their entire missions being at odds. You learn that every time there is a winner, there is also a loser – some person or idea or policy is also sacrificed for the resolution of each case in a particular way.
When I was teaching legal writing at Harvard Law School, one of my students told me that she feared she was losing herself. Her parents had raised her to be a good liberal and care about progressive causes. One of her classes, I think it may have been contracts, was leading her in a more libertarian direction – perhaps due to learning the theory and virtues of freedom of contract. I told this student that she was doing her job. Truly engaging in law school requires accepting the clash of ideas in one’s mind, just the law requires the clash of adversaries to yield the right solution.
For the law to work well, it cannot simply conform to one’s sense of justice. The law must be clear, coherent, and predictable. The critical thinking skills of lawyers and judges are vital to this enterprise. So, if you are planning on practicing law, I urge you not to keep your own sense of justice firm. I urge you to embody the value of civility as you dialog with your political and legal enemies. A commitment to justice is important, but enshrined in the law is the view that no one person knows what justice truly is. Retain your passion, retain your sense of self, but open yourself up to new ideas and modes of thinking.
I urge you to focus on the technicalities of your studies – a hard intellectual exercise — just as much as the great number of important causes arising each day. The law works better when it is smarter. Learn to engage intellectually, to place ideas in frameworks, even as these ideas seem so much more important than abstract notions. You must balance staying true to yourself and evolving as a person. The fate of our legal system depends upon it.