Law in Contemporary Society

Rebirth of an Ideal

Law school - the reality

I came to law school to be become a knowledgeable and efficient instrument of change. Not necessarily grand social change, but certainly at least individual, client-based change. I idealized the power of the law, namely, what the law could achieve for people. I believed the law could grant the concrete recognition of fundamental human rights, and the ability for every person to live with dignity and hope. But when I started law school, I quickly realized that “law school”, the institution, as well as “law”, the practice, are hyper-formal, almost scientific ways of dealing with society’s greater problems, and are not entirely focused on helping the individuals who make up society.

Disconnection from the “relational”

The goal of the first year of law school seems to be to gain a concrete understanding of legal opinions, the ability to identify the form of logic chosen in each decision, as well as to become familiar with “legal talk,” the terms and concepts that make up the bulwark of legal reasoning and concepts of justiciability. The classes and the institutional framework of the school are geared at reducing everything to generally applicable rules that seem to mimic mathematical equations and scientific truths. The result is a system based on formal reasoning, in which the importance lies in “the process”, not necessarily in the substantive and practical effects of such legal decisions.

While these fundamentals are necessary and important elements of a first year curriculum, something was lost in not encouraging any thinking or dialog about the relational or human effects of these opinions. Specifically, there was little exploration of how particular decisions affect the individuals involved in litigation, nor any analysis of how real life (outside the formal process) factors impact certain legal decisions. This lack of perspective regarding the relational factors of legal opinions manifested itself in two different and equally debilitating ways during my first year.

First, I became insecure of my ability to succeed as a law student and as a lawyer. The formal system, with its specific goal of identifying the rules of legal opinions, made me fear that I would not be able to follow the logic and gain a deep enough understanding of the opinions I was assigned to read. This insecurity became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I did not trust my instincts as a law student who could solve the “equation” and fully understand the reasoning or “legal talk” used by judges, and as a result, I did not ultimately achieve the academic success I was seeking.

Moreover, as I became obsessed with conquering the formal aspects of the law, I began to view all of the law and law school in these formal terms, and consequently lost a clear understanding of my original goal. I could no longer see how the law could make change for people because I was caught up in formal analytical exercises that reduced the legal process to identifying universal rules. I began to feel that the law was not a mechanism for helping people, but an organized way of minimizing societal troubles. This conclusion was not only enforced by the work done in the classroom but by the institutional focus of law school in general. The focus has not been on creating “lawyers as advocates,” but more so lawyers as “academics,” “profit-maximizers” or “people in power.” The path for achieving my original goal began to fade; it seemed far-fetched and misguided.

Goal back into focus

Detached from my original reason for going to law school, I geared up for the completion of an institutional requirement – summer internship. Though mentally exhausted, I started my summer internship soon after the end of finals. I went to work for Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Services. Because the organization is a non-profit, I was given instant responsibility; entire asylum cases were put into my hands, as well as all client interaction. It was finally the relational experience I had been seeking. It provided a tangible application of how the law can actually help people, and it revived and refocused my goal. I was able to use the formal legal principles and processes, so stressed in 1L, to achieve a real-life result: protecting someone from horrific persecution and possible torture.

Meditating on this revival, I feel that this internship saved the law for me and put the experience of law school into perspective. I now see the role of formal study and how the law can be practically used to achieve human, relational goals. The relief this provided me was immense, for it allowed me to get my head above water and regain the most important element to success in any career path: my confidence.

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r7 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:34 - IanSullivan
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