Law in Contemporary Society
(This is a very loose adaptation of Joseph Avery's first paper. I wanted to see if I could bring out some of his underlying concerns in a manner that prompts more engagement in response. I don't claim to present a complete or irrefutable perspective, just one that naturally and reasonably appeals to many law students. The dialectic of our class may be strengthened by open and reflective dialogue with more conservative viewpoints.)

A Leap Too Far

-- By GregOrr - 17 Apr 2009

I’ll argue that working for a firm early in one’s career is responsible, less dependent on faith, and good preparation for later choices.

Threshold Requirements vs. Aesthetics

Characterization of historical stages clarifies driving factors in individual decision-making and tensions between them.

Threshold Requirements

From the time the first person woke up on Earth, the most immediate goal has been to alleviate pain – hunger, exposure to the elements, and mortality. We must overcome difficult circumstances outside of our control just to live! This condition has seemed so suboptimal and unfair that we hypothesized our ancestors must have committed an original sin to deserve it.

Something More: Aesthetics

Robinson Crusoe is a proficient man of nature, able to stabilize his existence without using up all his time and resources. This is the first point at which we have an existential capacity to develop and invest in aesthetic notions that give us something more to live for. We can balance work and other pursuits to ensure existence while approaching essence.

This stage of development also gives rise to the notion of risk management. As the ant and the grasshopper show, we can’t count on the future to provide for us as before. Seasons change, disasters happen, we get sick: investments in aesthetics can seem sadly short-sighted when preventable threats to existence arrive.

Other People and the Social Contract

The presence of other people raises the stakes in questions of both existence and aesthetics. They can threaten or assist one’s existence; they can disrupt one’s aesthetic or introduce possibilities and broaden horizons. Because we see the likelihood of us vs. them in general conditions of scarcity and especially aggravated ones, we only trust others to help themselves, which can rapidly devolve into a state of war.

The social contract, through the creation of an overpowering state, allows for a greater level of trust and cooperation. The system maintains a community that divides labor and tolerates opposing views. The problem of existence becomes less consuming, and people can devote more time to aesthetic interests.

'Helping Those Who Suffer' as a Guiding Principle

This class suggests ‘helping those who suffer’ as a mode of life that will provide for our existence, yield value to others, and achieve aesthetic meaning. I will argue that this guiding principle is a difficult and possibly irresponsible leap for someone who is 25 and $180k in debt.

Responsibility to Meet Threshold Requirements

Though the state stabilizes existence significantly, we each still have responsibility for making our own living. The law student makes initial career choices from a starting point of extreme debt, and going off the beaten track for high-minded purposes is like gambling with other people’s money: the risk is borne by creditors, family, and society. Further, most of us plan to have families and agree that we must work toward their well-being through breadwinning and prudent anticipation of future costs and risks.

Given these concerns, it’s hard to ignore vast differences in available salaries. They can range from $35k to $160k per year with a gap that continues to widen with seniority. Unfortunately, salaries cluster at the high and low ends, so it’s difficult to ideally balance financial responsibility with meaningful work.

Responsibility to Help Those Who Suffer

The question of meaningful work does loom large. Many are without healthcare, without proper education, and without a cent of savings – vulnerable and largely helpless. At the same time, a small but significant minority has more money than it could possibly need. Because each dollar has a very high marginal value to the poor and a very low marginal value to the rich, it appears that a simple way to vastly increase general welfare would be to facilitate rebalancing. Yet most new lawyers work on the other side.

Do corporate lawyers contribute to an ongoing swindle, perpetuating societal imbalance? Here, it seems important to note that the system has not regressed from some ideal past – we have come a long way from the original state of nature to an evolving social contract that, at its core, benefits most. In the long run, it promises to help everyone, to overcome basic problems of scarcity and mistrust, though inequality naturally persists in the interim.

If the overarching focus of the system is understood as benign, dissent focuses less on revolution than reform. How can rules do more to help those who suffer? Can we better balance process values in civil procedure rules given observed tendencies? What might have happened if we had allowed our banks to fail? These questions invite narrower consideration and may be better answered by people who have worked within the system.

At our inexperienced stage, it's difficult to commit to particular normative conclusions and assess goal attainability.

Aesthetic Comparisons

‘Helping those who suffer’ is hard to argue with as an approach to meaning, but it is not and should not be the only one. We all have other unique aesthetic interests, approaches to love, friendship, humor, music, beauty, learning, novelty, and justice. This variety is valuable as we develop meaning in life beyond simply living.


By nature’s demanding design, we balance meeting threshold requirements for our family and ourselves with aesthetic pursuits that provide further meaning. A firm provides a big paycheck, rigorous training, useful contacts, and experience with the system’s deficiencies. It helps one meet the threshold barrier to freedom, beyond which one can more securely move into areas of personal or altruistic interest.

Eschewing that job requires a leap of faith. It asks us, in deep debt, to take a job that pays substantially less, against our family's practical preferences. We claim the system is morally bankrupt, and they say, “the system does the best it can.” We say firm associates are overworked and dissatisfied, and they say, “life’s not easy.” We say we want to change the world, and they say, “try having children.”


Webs Webs

r5 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:39:48 - IanSullivan
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