Law in Contemporary Society

When Ignorance Is Blameworthy

-- By AlexHu - 14 Apr 2009

This paper was revised as part of the second-paper assignment

Why is the layman ignorant of the law?

The layman is often ignorant of both the state of the law and how it functions in reality. Two major factors give rise to this ignorance: fear and apathy.

The layman’s fear of the law stems from his recognition of its enormous coercive power. The law can be abused to wreak havoc upon unfortunate have-nots (those who have lost the lottery), twisted to execute personal vendettas or prejudices, and cleverly manipulated by an elite few to destroy the life of practically any individual. Faced with these stark realities, the layman, like the primitive man who is terrified, trapped, or baffled, turns to magic as a way of coping. Thus, he chooses to believe that there is some “function” upon which the law utilizes to scientifically arrive at the “truth.” This belief serves as the tranquilizer that keeps the layman in an ignorant but relatively blissful state.

The layman’s apathy stems from the reality that governs his existence. Firstly, a detailed understanding of the law is impractical for the layman. The law is highly intricate and arcane, often difficult to understand even by the lawyer, much less the layman who has to perfect another craft to make his living. Secondly, as Professor Murphy noted in his paper, The Lawyer and the Layman: Two Perspectives on the Rule of Law, “most citizens have little conscious contact with the law.” This alienation makes the law somebody else’s problem in the eyes of the layman. Together, these factors create a formidable barrier between the layman and the law, resulting in the apathy that leads to ignorance.

The layman’s ignorance is dangerous, but not blameworthy

As it is ultimately the layman who enacts statutes and elects politicians through his vote, his ignorance of what the law actually does is dangerous, because his uninformed decisions may inadvertently inflict harm upon himself and his society in general. However, for the layman, ignorance of the law is hardly more blameworthy than not thinking about how all the food gets into New York City and all the garbage gets out of it. The layman is confronted with enormous barriers in simply understanding the system; it would be absurd to expect him to somehow gain the mastery necessary to contribute knowledgeably and helpfully to it.

However, even a lawyer may be ignorant of the law

A lawyer, too, may be ignorant of the law; similar to the layman, his ignorance also stems from fear and apathy.

A lawyer is not immune to a fear of the coercive power of the law. He too, would like to believe that the law utilizes some sort of scientific function to arrive at the truth. This belief is so powerfully comforting that even a lawyer, who should know the true nature of the law, is tempted by its wiles.

A lawyer is likewise not immune to the apathy stemming from the reality that governs his existence. A lawyer has to make a living and sustain the lifestyle that he desires; while he is in constant contact with the law, he only needs to contact that law upon which he can make a living. Like Urquart implies, he needs only to find a pool of money and attach himself to it.

Unfortunately, these factors often result in a lawyer who is so distant from the law that he is effectively as ignorant as the layman.

Unlike the layman, a lawyer’s ignorance is morally blameworthy

A lawyer’s ignorance of the law is unjustifiable.

Indeed, accepting the nature of the law is frightening; the law is a cruel mistress, often twisted, harsh, and unjust. But for a lawyer to deny this burden in favor of comfortable ignorance is reprehensible; in choosing to become a lawyer, he has voluntarily dedicated himself to be an effective practitioner of the law. However, a lawyer cannot be effective if he shields himself from the true nature of what he claims to practice. Simply put, if the lawyer refuses to acknowledge the harsh reality of the law, he will perpetually remain the novice lawyer in Robinson’s Metamorphosis and do his field a grave disservice.

Likewise, a lawyer’s apathy for the law is inexcusable. The ignorant layman has entrusted in the lawyer the ultimate responsibility of working with, crafting, and understanding the law, and the lawyer has voluntarily accepted this responsibility. The lawyer is the only person in society who has the requisite understanding, knowledge, and power to change the law. He cannot pretend that he has another craft to learn or that the law doesn’t directly affect him. He cannot say that the law is somebody else’s problem. Yet, as we see in Jansen, Urquart, Voorhees, and Wylie, he often pawns his license in exchange for a purportedly stable and luxurious lifestyle.

Thus, whether arising out of apathy, fear, or a combination of the two, a lawyer’s ignorance stems from selfish motives and abuses the honorable practice of law, making his ignorance blameworthy.

A lawyer has the duty to know

A lawyer, entrusted with the heavy burden as caretaker of the law, has the duty, not only to his career and to himself, but to society in general, to know the law by facing its challenges earnestly and courageously. The best way for a lawyer to fulfill this duty is to be actively involved in the promulgation of justice: fixing the law when it is unjust, broken, or harmful to society. Yet, lawyers are mere mortals, and it would be uncharitable to completely fault the many who put their selfish objectives before their obligations to society.

So, how can we help a lawyer fulfill this duty?

One possible method of helping a lawyer fulfill his responsibility to society is to make the bar license contingent on a mandatory number of pro bono hours. This system could require that a certain percent (e.g., 5%) of the attorney’s billable hours per year, up to a hard cap maximum (e.g., 100 hours), be dedicated to pro bono work. After all, it seems only fair that society’s permission to practice law is conditioned on a lawyer’s continued willingness to uphold the tenets of his field.

  • I don't think the "call to action" you added in response to my comments is actually much of an answer. Mandatory pro bono practice by no means ensures continued learning of the law, because the practitioner could gave away time in her specialty. You don't mention the continuing legal education requirement of the bar, which is actually directed at dealing with the problem you are purporting to analyze. I recognize the effort that went into revising this draft. But more effort directed at research and evaluation, which means more commitment to the subject, was necessary to make a fundamental improvement.


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r5 - 08 Jan 2010 - 21:34:47 - IanSullivan
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