Law in Contemporary Society

Beyond Happiness

-- Edited by PatrickCronin? . Originally By GregOrr? - 27 Feb 2009

[Note: I'm in the process of revising this paper as well as my third.]

“On this frontier between what goes on inside us and what goes on outside, some kind of communication is missing, and they adapt to each other only with tremendous losses. One might almost say that the life we lead in reality is the dark side of our good desires, and our evil desires are the dark side of the life we lead in reality.” Robert Musil

What can we learn from the lawyers we’ve seen so far that can guide us in establishing a healthy relationship between our inner life and the changing institutions we will soon confront professionally?

Back to and Forward to

With the world now wobbly and the future uncertain, we have a real opportunity to remake institutions to reflect who we are and what we want. In The Man Without Qualities, a group assembled from Austrian society is charged with choosing an idea that represented their culture and could serve as a worldwide aspiration. They discuss ideas endlessly without nearing consensus. The title character, Ulrich, keeps two folders, one marked “Forward To” and the other “Back To”. As a group, they are unable even to decide whether they prefer tradition or progress.

Ulrich, somewhat facetiously, suggests that Austria appoint a permanent Secretary of Precision and Soul to guide them. I think, to some degree, that’s what we’re hoping for in Barack Obama. But he and his team have so far focused on “Back To.” What “Forward To” could look like remains the burning question for those of us who are preparing to enter an uncertain legal profession.

Actual Lawyers

The lawyers we have seen from Lawyerland face the same difficult task of harmonizing their inner desires with an uncertain legal world.

C. Oliver Robinson

Robinson has found a niche that suits him. His life is not pleasant, but he wouldn’t want a pleasant life. He needs to live and work at the precise location where the power of the state deploys itself. He shields individuals from the full blast of this power.

He has a simple and powerful ethical sense. That there are things that he simply will not do – RICO cases. He takes a dark view of the future of the legal profession – as evidenced by his metamorphosis fantasy – but even if his fears are justified and society self-destructs he’ll make it out O.K. because he makes sure that he remains self-sufficient.


Wylie is a partner in a large law bankruptcy firm. He feeds off chaos:

“Complexity so intricate no one can fathom it. Large things within small things, small things within large things—things encompassing things which would seem to be beyond them. Chaos.”

As far as he is concerned, all real lawyering is done within the field of chaos. He drinks espresso at strategic times so that he can hyper-focus on the innumerable details that make up his practice. He survives, but its not clear how much longer he can hold out:

“how many times I’ve gone through this kind of pressure – I mean of the four, five, six weeks, ten-, twelve-hour days, make-a-mistake-and-the-show-is-over variety… Don’t think it doesn’t make me stop and wonder what it’s done to my brain, either.”

His inner life has been turned inside out by his contact with the unfathomable complexity of an anonomous outside world. There is no buffer between who he is and what he does. So when the world within which he works seems to be spinning out of control – offices in India, associates that speak Hindi – he can’t resist flying off with it.

Tharaud and Cerriere

Tharaud notices the same fragmenting of the world that Wylie feels from her Employment Law perspective. But whereas Wylie’s internal splitting accelerates with his environment, Theraud puts things in perspective. She takes a long view of history. Thinking architecturally, her practice deals with the foundation of our society – labor law.

Cerriere knows that new, enormous, and incredibly fast things are happening. He is convinced that Tharaud’s attachment to thinking will make her obsolete in the digital age. He doesn’t know what the upshot of the digital revolution is going to be. But he has a vague sense that it has released powerful new forces. And because he trusts that the employers he works for know how to harness these new forces he puts his money on them.

Standing Our Ground

The lawyers that succeed in shaping institutions are those that have simple ethical unyielding standards and rules – help people, don’t get put on retainer – and an awareness of the impact their practice has on actual people’s lives.

This extra-legal awareness gives them a fixed place from which they can resist the general flow of things. This resistance takes different forms for different styles of lawyers. Tharaud builds and shapes institutions while Robinson stands in their way. These lawyers don’t adopt the perspective of the thinking man, deciding what form society as a whole should take once and for all, like we expect President Obama to do, but they are the day to day buffers that keep coercive institutions from reaching their anonymous conclusions.


Webs Webs

r3 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:27:50 - IanSullivan
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