Law in Contemporary Society

Finding a Sense of Purpose

-- By TanyaSehgal - 20 April 2009 (the original paper follows this revised version)

The Ideal

At this year’s Rebellious Lawyering conference, Van Jones told his life story in the keynote address. He enrolled at the Yale Law School because he had a budding desire to “do something” and thought law school would teach him how to best pursue justice. Jones was a student during the 1992 Rodney King riots and began to see police brutality as the site for all that was wrong with the world. After graduating, he followed his girlfriend out to the Bay Area and found a job that would allow him to work on his issue of choice. He soon found himself feeling sapped and hopeless. He still found the issue of police abuse compelling, and he was making progress, but he became disenchanted with the Bay Area activist scene because it tore down everything in sight without a vision of what to resurrect in its place. On an existential level, he felt that his efforts would be fruitless. For a time, he was paralyzed by his despair and could not get out of bed in the morning. Eventually, he decided to take that moment as an opportunity to reorganize his life on the premise that “change starts from within.” He began meditating, eating food grown locally, and practicing small acts of kindness on a regular basis. Instead of feeling like he was tapping an empty well, he was more energetic than ever. During this time, Van Jones came up with the idea that would eventually make him famous – Green for All, a “national organization dedicated to building an inclusive economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.” As Jones tells it, his pursuit of a “green collar” economy often tires him, but he no longer has feelings of hopelessness. Jones’ key message was that the idea of “rebellious” lawyering was too small, that it is time for us to stop focusing on what we are fighting against and think about what we want to be fighting for if we truly want to make a difference in the world.

I listened to Van Jones speak and I was stirred. He was a charismatic speaker to be sure, and his ideas were undeniably compelling, but what struck me was the depth of his sense of purpose. I want to know what I want for the world as clearly as he does. Is this something we can begin to learn in law school, or is this something that necessarily must come through years of life experience? Perhaps it is both. Maybe identifying who we are and what we want can begin in law school thought it is probably a process that will continue our entire lives.

Where I'm at

When I first wrote this essay, I did exactly what Van Jones warned against – I flippantly wrote off certain hallmarks of legal education without appreciating their value or offering viable alternatives. I did this, in part, because I don’t know what the purposes of some of these things are. For example, I am not sure if the Socratic method is succeeding in training my memory (as Eben points out, sometimes it is not useful to measure a proposition’s worth as it is taking place, or even immediately after). And, since I have never practiced law, I am not sure how important having a well trained memory is to being successful attorney. I also did this because I am not sure what the alternative looks like. I only know that in my law school experience thus far, I often feel like I am treading water – gasping for air and thrashing my legs around with no energy left to figure out which direction I am headed.

I do not feel this way because of a lack of information. In fact, we are bombarded with information in the form of emails and lunchtime panels which tell us about how to get involved with different clinics and journals and student organizations. But, these opportunities feel less like an occasion to find out what we are interested in than ways to build our resume. We are told that we should do a journal if we want to do a clerkship, only we don’t know what a clerkship is, why we would want to do one, or what being on a journal entails. We are encouraged to get involved in student organizations, but the only ways to do so are extreme. We can be dues paying members, consumers of an experience that essentially involves going to happy hours, or we can be in positions of leadership, positions that feel a bit odd if our purpose is to find out if we are interested in the issue in the first place. I have some sense of what areas of law covered by the first year curriculum I find most interesting, but then again, I am not entirely sure that isn’t just exactly correlated with how much I like the professor’s teaching style. I do not know how to wade through this mass of information and experience and opportunity to find what matters to me, and I am not sure to what extent it is the role of the law school to help me do that.

A "Resolution"

I have been obsessing over this question constantly for the past few weeks. As I am perusing the wiki one evening, it dawns on me: this class is the chance for us to figure out what we want, to connect with ourselves, to find a sense of purpose that will enable us to exist in law school without simply following the herd. Only, I am still confused, and I resent the recruitment process that makes me feel like I needed to know my life’s calling six months ago. But maybe Van Jones’ and Eben’s message is that if law school won’t loosen its grip, we can loosen ours. We can see our journey to finding our purpose as a process that extends well beyond these three years. We can use the clubs and the clinics and this class as an opportunity to reflect on what matters, but also give ourselves the space to decide seven years past EIP, if need be, what it is that we truly want to be doing.

"Slaves ourselves, it would be a mere pretension to think of freeing others." -Gandhi

-- By TanyaSehgal - 27 Feb 2009

The Socratic Method

I will begin by beating what some may think is a dead horse. An examination of the law school process reveals that there are numerous mechanisms create a culture antithetical to the pursuit of Truth, Justice, or Goodness.

  • But where you wound up was also rather proximate to the same dead horse, which seems to be even more of a problem.

For example, the Socratic method is perverted into a process where students’ memories and/or briefing abilities are tested (many questioners like to begin with the benign yet maddening, “What are the facts of this case?”) and the experience of being questioned becomes more performative than reflective with the student often being more concerned with whether he looked foolish as opposed to whether he learned something about himself.

  • The first statement assumes that the only reason to ask a question would be to elicit the expression of implicit knowledge. Other motivations for asking a question, including training memory, also exist. The second statement is an objection to the narcissism of the student, not the technique of the teacher.

The real Socrates traveled in a small group (as opposed to in a class of 80 or 90)

  • How do you know? Are you talking about "the real Socrates," or a character in the dramas written by Plato?

and used his method of questioning to facilitate to the pupil’s examination of his own beliefs about the Good and the Just. Socrates believed that the cultivation of virtue was the foundation of true knowledge and devoted himself to that cause. The law school, with its strict curve, imitation of Socrates’ method, and attachment to material wealth, has left no room to build character and virtue.

  • The third sentence in this graf does not follow from the preceding sentences, and contains many interior fallacies.

Why should we care about Socrates and his ideas?

Surely the perversion of the Socratic method as a pedagogical tool does not bind us to Socratic philosophy. While that is true, it is also true that many of us came to law school to learn about Justice, or, more broadly, came to law school to learn about how best to structure our society in order to make it Good.

  • Assuming the truth of the statement in the second sentence, what has that to do with the first?

If the facts of the case are <span style="background-color: #cc6688; color: yellow; padding-left: 3px; padding-right: 3px">derived the a process that is tragically human, and if the human sensibility is such that it comes to a result first and then uses its learned logic (in the form of “the law”) to justify that result, it follows that we need to be learning something more than how to discover the facts and how to apply the law in order to come to a just result.

  • "Follows"? In what logical sense? But, assuming the truth of the statement that "follows" from whatever the first two premises mean when they have been edited to be coherent at all, how would you have come to conclusions about what should be taught, given that you don't know what you don't know?

The pedagogy of the law school is premised on the assumption that it is our inchoate intellect that requires us to undergo the rigors of law school before we are fit to be judges or advocates. But, logic and rational thought always cuts both ways, and so it seems that in order to what’s right we must do something more.

  • No, the pedagogy of law school is based on three
    (1) that you don't yet know the language or substance of the law; (2) that you don't have any significant experience living within the culture of the law; and (3) that you have not yet developed the skills necessary to practice successfully and without serious errors harmful to the interests of your putative clients.

What Socrates and the Buddhists have in common

Many progressive philosophy of education scholars, emphasize the need for primary and secondary schools to be holistic in their approach to education. While in India, I had the opportunity to visit one of India’s premier secondary schools, renowned both for its innovation and the professional success of its graduates. The Rishi Valley School is unique in its mission to encourage the child to explore his inner being, his relationship to others, as well as his intellectual capacity.

  • What is the significance of your visit to this school? Are you claiming that it represents how Indian children are educated? How Indian children ought to be educated? How children in general ought to be educated? Why is India, a country without any native Buddhism, relevant?

Though some might argue that this approach to education may make sense for a primary or secondary school as that schooling takes place during the child’s formative years, I think it is even more important for a law school to adopt a holistic approach to education for two reasons. First, changing social norms have extended the period of adolescence well past puberty. This prolonged adolescence has given rise to the phenomenon of the quarter life crisis where men and women in the early twenties are still grappling with the questions (i.e., “Who am I?” “What do I want out of life?” and “Who do I want to be?”) that used to characterize the adolescent period. The law school, in not explicitly addressing these questions, provides an answer anyway through its subtle messaging (note, for example, the screens around the law school announcing the fact that Columbia has, yet again, ranked number one in placing graduates in law firms). Second, a legal education imparts a set of tools that have tremendous power in shaping lives and social norms. To give power without simultaneously instructing on how to wield that power with integrity is dangerous for obvious reasons.

  • But what has any of that to do with supposed "holism" or "reductionism" in education.

What we can learn from the Buddhists’ success.

What the Buddhists understand, is that in order to see the kind of success that really matters, we need to leave fearlessly, and to ensure that we act not because we want to gratify our egos, but because we believe what we are doing is right. Ironically (or, perhaps, not at all ironically) insecurity and egomania are as endemic in the public interest scene as the corporate scene. In both worlds, we impose shackles on ourselves based on what we think we need, and what will satisfy our desire to feel Important, and proceed mindlessly. We are taught the fear in and outside of the classroom, but the Buddhists, I would imagine, are able to strip away the artifices and experience law school in a less frenzied way.

  • Is this real Buddhism or imaginary Buddhism?

My proposal, then, is to have to the law school become more Buddhist in its approach to teaching the law. We should move beyond the “Socratic” and enter a place where we facilitate experiential learning, reflection, and relationship building, a place where we give the normative greater weight than the discursive. A legal education should challenge the intellect, but a responsible legal education must penetrate the realm that ultimately controls most of what we do and how we do it. If we do not address the fear that guides so much of how we live our lives, we will never be able to reach that sublime place where we can be sure our thoughts and actions are aimed at creating a good society instead of simply serving ourselves.

  • Your proposal is abstract. It's likely that everyone agreeing with you would mean something different, and that everybody disagreeing with you would think you were just talking vague general nonsense. What we need to do is to get the essay away from Socrates and the Buddha, where whatever is being said is being said through lawyers of indirection so multiple and complex that the refraction of your own idea is unforeseeable, and bring things down to a simpler and less remote level where people can understand what you mean. If you are really committed to the proposition that you know how to fix law school after spending only 23 weeks there, which is quite an achievement, it would make sense to devote a little attention to the real work of teaching and learning law, rather than to the elucidation of distantly-related complex religious and philosophical movements extending over centuries.


Webs Webs

r4 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:11:41 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM