Law in Contemporary Society

Humility and Humanity: The Legal Leverage of the Unimportant

-- MeaganBurrows - 03 May 2012

We Are Unimportant - Therein Lies Our Power

To satisfy the requirements of Columbia’s Human Rights Internship Program (HRIP), I was required to attend a number of training sessions. The Legal Supportive Organizing Work session, facilitated by Cathy Albisa from the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESI), was surprisingly refreshing.

The take home point was that we as lawyers are not meant to be the all-important center of attention. I was a little taken aback not to be met with Columbia’s usual ego-boosting spiel. My knee-jerk reaction only spoke to the importance of the humbling reminder.

Inundated with constant reassurances regarding my future employment prospects, I lost sight of my limited place in a complex web of social interactions. But my relative ‘unimportance’ does not render me powerless. A position outside of the spotlight often presents the best place from which to exercise legal strength. By acknowledging our unique roles as facilitators, vessels, and mediators - with knowledge of human fallibility and the cracks it creates in our socialized legal and political institutions - we can begin to think about how to use our licenses to the greatest effect.

Harnessing our power requires remaining humble and cognizant of our rather small place in the grand scheme of history and society. From an enlightened perspective, we can draw on the principles of social psychology to discern the easiest spaces for intervention, and proceed to apply the right amount of pressure.

Beauty and Strength in Humility: Applying Force to the Legal Lever

As lawyers, we are not always meant to be the center of attention. We can often have the greatest impact from the shadows – biding our time on the sidelines and playing our cards at the right moment.

Eben once discussed the influence he exerted as a disembodied voice over the phone. Our power lies in our ability to play upon the capacity of the man’s imagination, tipping it ever so slightly off the diving board into the depths of its own fluid subconscious.

The human psyche’s compulsion to ruminate over the unseen, the unspoken, and the unknown may only require a minor catalyst to generate a self-sustained reaction. Just as Robinson “let everyone know, in [his] own discreet way, that [he] knows it” and Mr. Collins asked Baron Huddleston for “shorthand notes of the trial”, we do not need to be backed by brute force to wield a quiet and incommensurable strength.

All we must do is recognize the human capacity to see and to feel the potential power behind the mere voice at the other end of the line, and to use this to the advantage of our client and our cause.

Standing at the Fulcrum and Looking Forward: A Plan for the Next Two Years

So what purpose does our prestigious Columbia education serve, if not to prepare us to go out into the world to become “important people”?

While the casebook method may not be very conducive to my professional development, Columbia provides resources through which I may obtain the legal and social knowledge and slight of hand required to become ‘powerfully unimportant.'

First, I can learn the language of the law, an important social prerequisite for human interaction in the legal community. This will enable me to communicate with the individuals and organizations that hold power in the hierarchical judicial system, understand the discourse through which their standard operating procedures unfold, and serve as an effective advocate and translator for my clients.

Second, I can learn the character of the legal profession, studying the component human natures within an anthropomorphic system of law. By drawing on social psychology in conjunction with the types of legal personalities I may encounter – ranging from Robinson, Judge Day, and Wylie, to the ‘multiple personalities’ of my classmates and professors – I can better understand how to read people, decipher their strengths and weaknesses, and predict their behavior. This will not only help me to interact with and influence others, but also to engage in an introspective analysis regarding the type of character I wish to cultivate for myself as a lawyer.

Finally, I can learn the mechanics of the system. In examining how structural inequalities are created, maintained and reproduced, and locating the points of interface, I hope to discover interstitial cracks within apparent cohesion; the places where the least amount of force can be applied most effectively to institute the greatest change.

Keepin Em' Honest

I have found Eben’s class, like my HRIP session, useful for keeping me grounded, humble and honest with myself. The class enabled me to look at the law in context – reflecting on both its innate flaws and iridescent beauty; as complex and enigmatic as its human creators.

Because I will no longer have a designated hour and 20 minute slot twice a week during which to gain such perspective, I have asked my friends and family to remind me to take that step back when I find myself momentarily caught in a meatball can on the packing plant assembly line. I have also committed to serving as a reality check for friends who have asked me to do so.

Perhaps, if we work in tandem to remind each other of the importance of retaining humility while achieving our individual goals, the power latent in our mutual ‘unimportance’ will combine to tip the legal lever in our favor, upsetting the balance of the forces that seek to maintain systemic structures of injustice.

Word Count: 907

Eben, I wish to continue editing and revising my work. Thanks.


Webs Webs

r9 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:05 - IanSullivan
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