Law in Contemporary Society

Oral Advocacy, Success & Self-Gratification


This past weekend I participated in the 2007-2008 Northeastern Black Law Students Association Fredrick Douglass Moot Court Competition in Newark, New Jersey. "Fred Doug" is substantially more time-consuming than the traditional Foundation Moot Court program due to its intense oral advocacy component. I reasoned that it would be time well-spent given my aspirations of becoming a litigator. Since last November and even more so since I received my first semester grades, my sense of intellectual self-worth has been channeled into preparing for this competition.

I experienced an adrenaline rush as my co-counsel and I sat across the table from our opponents before the quarter-final round. It was uncannily similar to the feeling I used to get before kick-off in my former life as collegiate and international rugby player. Right before the coin toss to determine if I was going to regurgitate my petitioner or respondent argument, I told myself that "this" (my simultaneous feeling of anxiety and prowess) is what "it" (competition) is all about. I naively believed that the overall experience and the skills I have acquired were my only objectives for participating in Fred Doug. As I fought back tears at the awards banquet the following evening, it became alarmingly clear that I had hoped to gain more than those intangibles from the competition. In the athletic setting, I have endured torn ligaments, broken bones and the agony of defeat, yet I can recall only one occasion when I cried. Thus, my little moment at the awards banquet forced me to take stock in how and why I allowed myself to get carried away.

Defining "Success"

Like virtually all of my fellow classmates at CLS, I am used to success. There are boxes of dusty trophies, medals and plaques in my mother's garage to prove it. The formula for a good portion of my professional, academic and athletic experiences has been: hard work + self-doubt = success.

The first two definitions of "success" according to are: (1) "the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors," and (2) "the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like." My conception of success includes both definitions: tangible results, the intrinsic feeling of having accomplished something I am proud of and the gratification attained when others (formally) take notice. I am embarrassed to acknowledge the last component, but it exists and it was the only thing missing from the culmination of my Fred Doug experience.

Success without Recognition?

I have never questioned whether the intrinsic value of competition could ever be enough for me. My respective activities have all been successful at least at some point in time, meaning that I received recognition from others. And this has been enough to justify the entire process, including my antecedent defeats and failures. Would I have devoted as much time to schoolwork and sports if I knew I only stood to achieve concrete results and/or intrinsic benefits without any recognition whatsoever from anyone? Would a well-written essay or first place finish have meant as much to me if all prior schoolwork had been pass/fail and my prior athletic pursuits did not include any audiences or press coverage? As repulsed as I was to learn from Eben that former CLS students rejected the "no grades" proposal, perhaps the only difference between me and those students is my lack of assuredness in my capabilities as a legal scholar.

I am starting to think that my One-L angst (which was much more pronounced last semester) has much less to do with my intellectual development and more to do with an unfamiliar dearth of recognition from others relative to the recognition I have received in previous academic and other competitive experiences. This may have been obvious for some of my peers from day one, but it has taken Fred Doug to bring this reality to the forefront for me. I worked hard to prepare a coherent brief and develop oral arguments for both sides of the certified question. The same is true for all twenty-nine of my Columbia Fred Doug teammates. Their intellect and efforts should not and do not diminish what I have acquired and accomplished in the process.

Recognition as a Proxy for Big Money

The keynote address at the Fred Doug awards banquet could not have been timelier. Former New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey (CLS class of '82) warned us not to allow our legal career to be driven by our egos. Mr. Harvey did not say anything particularly novel relative to what has been discussed in this class or on the wiki. However, his comments juxtaposed with my silliness about the whole awards business have allowed me to look at my career aspirations in a new way.

I have convinced myself, at least for the time being, that it will not be too difficult to foreswear a big law firm salary. However, I have not previously considered the extent to which I run the risk of seeking prestige as a proxy for big money. My Fred Doug experience has taught me that I have a hard and unhappy road ahead of me if I place more value in being recognized than in doing the job that needs to get done and/or learning whatever I am supposed to learn. I do not want to become another crab clawing my way through the do-gooder barrel in search of a fellowship that, first and foremost, conveys to the world, "I am not at a big firm earning a big salary, but I could be if I wanted to." I suppose this exercise has been one small step toward removing some barriers to determining what "creative lawyering" is going to be all about for me.

-- FeliciaGilbert - 19 Feb 2008

  • This is a valuable and important paper on the importance of recognition (and prestige as a form of boiled-down recognition concentrate, the bullion-cube equivalent in "reputational capitalism"). What you say is both emotionally touching and intellectually important. But I need to begin by talking about moot courts.

  • There's no good reason whatever for using simulated appellate arguments as a form of competition for beginning law students: it's a little like making Rugby Union for five-year-olds. The bones aren't set yet, but you apply breaking force to the skeletons? Appellate briefing is difficult. It's a skill that requires, for successful practice, absolute mastery of a complex form along with deftness and suppleness in writing. Argument is still more difficult. But because the confined factual setting, small cast size and short time periods involved in appellate litigation make it easy to simulate, law students begin interacting in appellate simulations long before they are capable of turning out effectively. It's easy to break your back with work and have little to show for it, particularly if your most consistent assistance is a second-year student who knows little more than you do.

  • That said, the question you are beginning to ask yourself about the motive of earned praise is extraordinarily important. Law school's indefinite postponement of reinforcement causes students (not you alone) to encounter their need for status recognition, which is on reason why the employers (who are often the only source of status recognition for beginning law students) appreciate and act to preserve the existing system, which ensures their power over recruits' minds. In the grossest sense, it rarely is as bad for lawyers as it is for law students: most have some way of ascertaining their place in the status pyramid, if nothing else. As you have probably observed, law students are not only disappointed to find they're not on top, they're even more acutely distressed because the top is so hard to locate, at least in the beginning. Litigating lawyers gain their sense of recognition in the crucible of competition, as you supposed yourself willing to do in the run-up to your first simulated argument. But that form of ego-food feeds better the fragile egos of men, who have been trying to survive on the basis of war results for eons. The actual product, as any Buddhist can tell you, is a deeper attachment to illusion that turns the wheel of suffering. And for women, all but the most competitive (whom you may be, of course) tend to find the news that someone else has been carried out of the battle on his shield less than fully satisfactory as a testament to their own value.

  • Meaning in work and colleagues you respect are in the end the finest buttresses of a worthy sense of self. This is hard to see in law school, where most work is meaningless and respect for others depends on work that mostly we are not allowed to share. Law school as presently designed reduces self-esteem artificially, as part of the process of making vendible meat out of young bodies. That's one of the reasons I conclude law school is flagrantly broken. But too much artificial inflation of self-esteem happens elsewhere in the American educational system to the children of privilege who are the majority of law students. So finding an authentic way to the construction of a professional and personal self with which we can be humanly satisfied, without narcissism and without depression, is quite difficult. A commitment to justice helps. We, on the other hand, admit students solely on the basis of LSAT scores.



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r7 - 21 Jan 2009 - 22:52:44 - IanSullivan
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