Law in Contemporary Society

In Loving Memory

I walked into Print Services in the basement of Columbia’s Journalism School to see my dad, as I usually do after classes and before going home. Instead of the usual cheerful dispositions, I was met with a melancholy so overwhelming that, without reason, my eyes watered. I asked what had happened. My dad replied: “He said he was stressed but no one listened. John died this morning.”

John was the most cheerful member of the Print Services crew. He was actually not a Columbia employee. He was the resident technician from Ikon. John fixed all of the machines that make all of the pretty banners, billboards and books we complain about purchasing. He had a stroke during the weekend and was pronounced dead Monday morning.

Today, I walked in again for my daily ritual and I saw his picture with the words “In Loving Memory: John March 26, 2012.”

I was awestruck when people met Eben’s discussion of fear about job security with confusion and unfamiliarity. Since I can remember, that fear has always been part of our family. The knowledge that you can be fired at any moment for any reason limits your ability to progress and stresses the confines of your sanity. There is no room for creativity or exploration if one move outside of the “norm” rocks the already fragile swaying boat that is your employment status. You cannot take risks or learn to be efficient if your job is to stay employed. This fear breaks people and I have seen it.

My dad used to tell me to not stress too much. His reasoning was always (jokingly) this: “I’m poor and if you die, I only get three days and then I have to go back to work.”

Well John died and the Print Services crew is not allowed to take an hour off to go to his funeral.

In our discussion in class, we seemed to differentiate union workers and non-union workers. But, I would argue that the same fear accompanies union workers, however this fear is just dressed differently. My dad is now part of a union—as most, if not all, Columbia (non-faculty/staff) employees are (and all of Print Services). And everyday I come down to Print Services, I see him carry the weight of the uncertainty of tomorrow. With $5 in his bank account, he has committed to protesting against Columbia next week. Columbia has refused to give raises. It has cut their medical benefits and now wants to get rid of their eligibility for tuition exemption. In response, the Union workers are planning a protest for next week. No one knows how long it will last and my dad will not be paid for the days he protests. But he was convinced that it would be unfair to let others fight for the things he, himself, should be fighting for.

These fears are the same. It is not just about benefits or raises. It is about having a say and having weight in the way you interact with others in an employment context. This “at will” contract and even representation by unions (from what I have seen here) leave most helpless. People forget that your working conditions affect your living conditions. But most people do not care. For example, because my dad has been employed by Columbia for over a decade, he has tuition benefits that do carry over to me. Ideally, this would mean that some of law school should be paid for by Columbia. However, even after our many attempts to get all of the requisite information regarding tuition exemption, we were never told that the tuition given to me is automatically added to his paycheck. My dad was then taxed as if he made that much larger amount. The result: two paychecks that read $0.00 in the same month.

When I complained about this to Student Services, Financial Aid, and Payroll no one was bothered that my dad went a full month without getting paid. No one was concerned that he could not pay rent or utilities or that possibly no food could be purchased for that month. The Union representatives did nothing. I asked Columbia representatives if I would get better service if I were paying more of my tuition out of pocket. Their answer was yes.

I guess after writing this it is less shocking that people are ignorant of this fear. If it has never knocked on your door with an eviction letter or dressed your half-empty plate at dinner, the fear has probably never crossed your mind. I cannot say that I am less at fault. I have sat back and done nothing even when the injustice was apparent. [I did however, get all of my dad’s money back and had them increase my grant for the pain suffering of the month]. I have been content with asking if I would do something instead of stressing myself in thinking about what I would do (as Eben so nicely pointed out).

Right now, I am unfamiliar with the way unions work. I do not even know the name of the one of which my dad is a part. I also know that I probably cannot come up with THE WAY to solve this problem. But, I am going to start by reading my dad’s contract with the Union and Columbia. I want to learn more about the Union and its relationship with Columbia. Their office is not far from here. So after I am done reading, and of course after protesting with my dad, I am going to stop by the office. Let’s see if I can get a little closer to this thing.

R.I.P. John

-- LissetteDuran - 27 Mar 2012


My heart goes out to John and his family. Columbia undergraduates are constantly protesting the way that workers are treated at this school. I believe a protest was to occur this week and will try to find out more information for you.

I wasn't that surprised about how the class discussion last week turned out. In my opinion, "the fear" that permeates our society and which Tharaud discusses in Lawyerland, is that unless an individual is self-employed they are constantly in a position in which they fear losing their job. I believe that once in our nations history unions had a greater role to play, but I too question the difference between what unionized and non-unionized workers are able to accomplish.

Last week in class, I attempted to raise a point about what it would take for students to be able to not only empathize with those that are vulnerable in their employment positions, but also to realize that no one is ever really far from "the fear". In summary, my point was that until an individual has worked in the workforce they can not feel the fear. It remains a vague notion that is only experienced by "the unfortunate few". I attempted to analogize "the fear" to the current health care debate in America by not analyzing whether Obama Care is the solution, but more so looking at the views of those on polar opposites (those that support universal health care versus those that oppose). Similar to the fear of unemployment, until an individual has experienced having to watch their every move because they do not have health care coverage, it is difficult for an individual to fully appreciate the importance of providing basic coverage for all.

Based off of the opinions vocalized in class, it seemed that although many would agree that losing one's job is unfortunate, many people also felt that they were immune to the fear. Perhaps it is a sign of the times we are living in, but I have yet to work in any field where this fear did not exist. Often working is not about who produces the best work product, it's about your connections. Who an individual connects with, who an individual knows, or (in a firm) who the partner and senior associates would want to have a drink with are often the ones that advance or are able to keep their position.

It is not always the case that those who are employed are employed because they are smarter or perform better. Too often it is just luck. Promotions, bonuses, and simply being able to keep your job can work against this rationale. Until society realizes that we are all susceptible to the fear, we will continue to have an employment sector where workers can be devalued, overworked, and silenced. -- AbiolaFasehun - 27 Mar 2012


Thank you. I really appreciate it.

I definitely understand your analogy now. I think you make a really interesting distinction--there is a difference acknowledgement and feeling. I agree with you that people should realize that they are never really far from "the fear." However this realization does not necessarily have to come from their integration into the workforce. My acknowledgement of this fear came way before I had my first job. Yet, I agree that to feel this fear people do have to experience it for themselves. This is a problem in itself because we go back to this underlying theme in most (if not all) of our readings of getting involved even if it is of no consequence (or ill consequence) to our pockets. This would mean that for any real change or acknowledgement "the right" or the "right number" of people need to feel it. Since the majority of the wealth is held by a small number, which means that the power in this capitalistic society is held by a small number, I doubt that "the right" people will be feeling it soon.

The way you analyze fear is also very intriguing. I think if you highlight fear in this way--the "not about what you do but who you know" factor--the discussion becomes more relevant to law school students. I think that people were lying when they said they were immune to the fear. I saw the beginnings of that fear at the few law firm events I attended. I watched as students frantically and awkwardly tried to engage people they thought were the most important in the room--looking for that who they could drop during OCI. Now if we could only acknowledge that this fear is only a raindrop in an ocean of real fears, we would be getting somewhere.

-- LissetteDuran - 27 Mar 2012

Lissette, thanks for telling that story. Lissette and Abiola, I don't really know much about how unions work, but it's disheartening to hear that even unionized employees in (what I would expect would be) a relatively progressive workplace are having their benefits cut and are weighed down by the uncertainty of their employment. Based both on what Tharaud had to say in the reading and the media discussion of Scott Walker's anti-union campaign in WI, I thought that unionization would be a more effective way to empower workers than it is in this context.

I agree that even if, as law students, we don't acknowledge feeling the fear of uncertainty regarding your future employment prospects in our own lives, it has an impact on the choices we make. I noticed the same same kind of fear and desperation at the law firm receptions I attended. I also think it manifests itself in some of the discussions we have in class with Eben, in the sense that it makes us reluctant to believe we can strike out on a path beyond the narrow path that starts with OCI. This is a bit more of a guess, but I think it might also be apparent in people's anxiety about the relative prestige about the firm jobs they will be able to get. In this line of reasoning, the more prestigious the first job, the more stable the firm, and the less likely you will be laid off. If you are laid off or choose to leave, a more prestigious firm will give you more numerous and more prestigious exit options, and the cycle will begin again. Rather than seeking a job that is the best fit or the most fulfilling, everyone has to think one or two steps ahead to make sure that they are not disadvantaging themselves for the next job they'll (inevitably) need to get. It seems like this kind of fear is a pretty powerful method of social control.

Lissette, I want to return to your point that to feel this fear people have to experience it for themselves. I think by suggesting this, you are letting people off the hook a little bit. Even if someone believes that they are personally free from this kind of fear, it's not asking too much of that individual to empathize with other people who are not. Bill Clinton spoke at my college graduation, and the main point of his speech was that he is always shocked at how fixated human beings are on our differences, when we share the vast majority of our DNA and want mostly the same things for ourselves and our families. If we approach it from that perspective, empathizing with other people should not be too hard, but we don't do it, and we don't expect other people to be able to do it either.

I wonder if this failure of empathy is mostly a failure of imagination and if it can be linked to the decline of reading interest and ability that we have discussed in class. I think one of the best and most important things about reading is that it can help people to get inside the consciousness of other people, understand them, and possibly even sympathize with them. A good novel (and good nonfiction) can immerse a reader in the consciousness of another, in my opinion, more effectively than movies or TV shows can, because in many books the perception of someone else's consciousness is the main event. When we stop reading books, or read them less carefully, we lose this kind of insight. We stop being interested in trying to understand what is going on in other people's brains, and get too wrapped up in our own.

-- By KatherineMackey - 27 Mar 2012

Lissette, Abiola, and Katherine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and being so transparent. I share your feelings of indignation, but I find it difficult to pinpoint exactly why I felt indignant. Here are a couple reasons.

When I first read the title to this thread, my first thought was to the photography exhibit I visited this weekend about the Loving family, of Loving v. Virginia. This Supreme Court case found Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. The photographs feature a happy, stable, integrated family. Their only fear was their state's statutes, criminalizing their unity. Reflecting on the family photographs, I was struck by my ability to forget. I needed this exhibit to remind me of past injustices, current injustices, and what the heck I am supposed to be doing with my legal career. The exhibit was also a slap in the face--a re-consciousness that I am not male, white, or able to marry my significant other in many states outside of New York. It was a reminder that many Loving moments in our legal history are still to be had.

If Eben is correct, that even the greatest capitalist is afraid of capitalism, then regardless of the accidents of our origins, we all carry our own "fears." How pressing or important some fears are in the face of others, of course, is another question. Yet, what angers me is how in response to those fears, most people (myself included) insulate ourselves. By actively feigning fearlessness, are we actively forgetting? And is this process of forgetting what enables a lack of empathy and compassion?

At the intersection of our faltering memory is the type of professional legal prestige we are sold. Hooked to their "smart phones" law students and thousands of Big Lawyers, is today's lawyer enabled by the profession to forget what matters beyond a billable hour?

To be more practical, Lissette, I would only suggest that you take advantage of the resources at CLS. I think this challenge is your moment to force one these erudite professors to teach you the skills to be an advocate. They might even learn something about what it means to be an actual lawyer too.

-- ArleneOrtizLeytte - 28 Mar 2012

Lissette - I would be happy to help you read your father's union contract.

Arlene - I think that you are definitely on to something when you said that forgetting our fears enables us to develop a lack of empathy and compassion. I think this process is exemplified by the narrator's articulation of his response to the discovery Bartleby has been living in his office (in Bartleby, The Scrivener) - "My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in prportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion. So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not."

A feeling of pity can quickly trigger a feeling of fear (perhaps a fear that we too, could be in the same situation as the person we are pitying). The feeling of fear is uncomfortable. As animals we either fight or take flight in response. For me, taking flight often appears as the easier path, because the prospect of fighting and failing at the end is terrifying. Tharaud was an interesting character for me to read because Tharaud chose to fight against an injustice she perceived in the world of employment, yet is nearing the end of her career and did not fully accomplish her goal. By reading Tharaud I was able to delve into the consciousness of one of my greatest fears - fighting and failing. Tharaud seemed more at peace with herself than Cerriere. She appeared to appreciate the subtle beauty of her surroundings more than Cerriere (or at least more than the narrator let us see) - Tharaud noticed the irony of the poster on the wall in Ying's listing workers rights, juxtaposed with the Ying's waitress who probably did not know her worker's rights, Tharaud takes is aware of her surroundings and the history of the changing landscape of lower Manhattan. She might not have accomplished her goal but her eyes are still wide open.

Because the process of fighting and failing is what scares me, and I think is partially what inhibits me from fighting, I know I need to familiarize myself with this feeling, become comfortable with it so that I don't flee from it. I think in order to stop the process of encountering fear and pretending it's not there/forgetting about it, we need to recognize what particularly about that fear is making us feel uncomfortable. Once we recognize what it is that makes us uncomfortable we will be closer to trying to fix it, and thus closer to re-establishing our sense of empathy.

-- SkylarPolansky - 28 Mar 2012

All - thanks for these illuminating posts and Lissette, for your poignancy and honesty.

As a general reflection, I'm struck with the idea that has emerged in the discourse that fear is both universal and individual. The universal aspects of fear are what we discuss in class regularly. In the employment context it is the idea that in our market economy, any individual worker who does not work for himself, no matter how much he believes himself to be essential to his organization, has absolutely no guarantee and often little recourse should the powers-that-be decide to cut him loose. People may rationalize that fear away in a variety of ways reflective of the level of power that the person perceives himself as having in his organization or in broader society, but the tension is there nonetheless. Perhaps another example of a universal fear, though not one that we've particularly stressed in class, is the fear of what we can't know or fathom - for example, fear of death or what it means not to be alive (even though, continuing with the Harry Potter theme, Dumbledore would remind us that death is just "the next great adventure.")

I think universal fears are interesting because the extent to which we recognize them as influential in our own lives probably speaks to our willingness to address individual fears, which are not necessarily systemic or a function of our biology but rather come from our upbringings and what makes us unique. Skyler, I thought you made a powerful point when you acknowledged that what scares you individually is the process of fighting and failing. To credibly understand what you fear, and then to commit to not rationalizing that fear away, requires knowledge of yourself and conviction that you can address that fear, or at least learn from it. For my part, I've been working for so long for goals that have been set up for me (good grades, good test scores, good school, good starter job, good law school, good law job, good house, ad nauseum) that the only fear I actively recognize is not accomplishing that next thing. I am in a position where I have been achieving for the sake of it for so long that I can't coherently tell you what I fear, besides falling off the path and having to clear my own way through the forest.

-- JessicaWirth - 28 Mar 2012


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r11 - 22 Jan 2013 - 18:14:11 - IanSullivan
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