Law in Contemporary Society


-- By ZeHailu - 14 May 2012

During the course of the semester, I’ve reflected a lot on the insight Thurgood Marshall provided Eben regarding what it takes for an ordinary person to change the world. Namely, that you must know exactly what you want, and exactly how to get it. As Eben points out in his personal intro, learning how to answer those questions is what becoming a great lawyer means.


As I begin to process my first year of law school, I realize that for most of my academic life I’ve been focusing on the second part of the equation. As it was with other stages of my education, my first year of law school revolved around learning how to get what I want. We are advised to do well in class and get good grades, because the top firms will only hire people with the best grades. We were told that we must be accepted to a journal, because employers value students who have that experience. We are made to attend mandatory information sessions to prepare us for the Early Interview Program, which is the best way to obtain a good second year summer internship with a good firm – and that this summer internship is crucial to finding a job after graduation.

Even for those of us who are eschewing the firm route and pursuing Public Interest or Public Service-focused careers, the path forward may not be as clearly delineated as it is for the private sector, but we are nevertheless given significant resources and counseling to help us secure the right public interest jobs and summer internships. We will eventually apply for a post-graduation fellowship or secure a job with a local public interest organization, government entity or international institution. In both cases, most of our time is focused on getting what or where we want to get, while relatively little is invested in truly thinking about what it is we want to do. The first year of law school can feel at times like riding a large, powerful wave, taking you towards a predetermined destination that you feel you should get to.


I came to law school to become a public interest lawyer. I am interested in international human rights law, as well as many domestic issues, and was intent on positioning myself to be able to work for an international organization, government department or domestic public interest organization after law school. I remember meeting with Eben early on in the semester to ask him for advice and guidance regarding which summer internships to seek, or organizations to apply to. He listened to me list off several options, then asked a very simple question – “what do you want.” It dawned on me then how much of my time was spent on knowing how to get where I wanted, as opposed to what exactly I wanted.

I hadn’t spent enough time truly assessing what I wanted to do, or distinguishing the pre-packaged notions of public service and social responsibility that I was raised with from my own, specific career ambitions. Although certain I didn’t want to enter the private sector, I viewed law school more as the means to a meaningful and rewarding job – rather than as a means to obtaining a license. We are bombarded with influences and made to consider so many factors when deciding which careers to pursue, that it can sometimes lead to a “splitting” between what we tell ourselves and acknowledge that we want, and what we may truly desire, but may not genuinely consider because it is usually the more risky and intimidating alternative. It takes a modicum of courage to be honest with oneself, but I realize that this honesty is crucial to being a good lawyer and having a fulfilling career. I don’t think this analysis will change the trajectory of my career, but I think it’s crucial that I give myself the time and reflection it requires. Once I am certain of exactly what I want, I believe I will know how to get it.


John Brown knew exactly what he wanted – to free slaves. Although some people disagree with the particular methods he used to achieve his goals, no one can question the courage with which he pursued his ambitions, or the impact of his actions on the nation’s conscience at the time. We can only aspire to harness the type of courage that John Brown demonstrated in the hope of affecting positive change in the world, but before even trying to do so we must take the time to know exactly what it is we genuinely want to achieve.

This is a very good start. It seems to me that you've described here the process that brings you to the point at which you have the next contribution to make to the dialogue. But I'm not sure you've made all the contribution that you're ready to make.

Knowing what you want and knowing how to get it may very well be the important guideposts for you, but so far you've considered them halfway, in relation to yourself. You present your trajectory as "eschewing" commercial practice in favor of "public interest" or "public service" work, but that's not really the distinction. My practice provides counsel to businesses that pay for the help they receive out of profits they earn, and gives pro bono counsel and other forms of effort to clients that I believe are helping to change society in positive, important ways. Your practice will be like that too, probably. So is the practice of Sullivan & Cromwell. The question of importance isn't the legal form in which the practice is organized. It's about who makes the decisions, and who sees to it that the book covers the nut.

Keeping this in mind helps you take "what you want and how to get it" in two directions: what you want for yourself, and what you want to help others accomplish in society using your words.

So here's a conjunction in understanding your practice. It's about both means and ends, in two senses: for what it allows you to become, and for what it helps society become.

Perhaps you should return to our first conversation. I asked you, what do you want? Surely that's two questions. Their interplay is what you are now fully ready to think about.


Webs Webs

r3 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:22 - 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