Law in Contemporary Society

I Won't Feel Helpless

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ll feel helpless when it’s all over anyways. Three years and 130K. I’d pay more if they charged it.

Law school is my alternative to feeling helpless. I came to law school hoping to find power, to morph words and logic into positive social change, to protect liberties and human rights with discourse instead of death. How many lives can I impact as a lawyer? It could be thousands, hundreds, or just one person. Maybe I won’t help anyone at all. Maybe I’m just buying an overpriced opportunity to fail. My willingness to pay still stands.

-- ChristopherBuerger - 18 Jan 2008

I think you hit the nail on the head, Chris. I feel exactly the same way.

-- JuliaS - 20 Jan 2008

Chris and Julia: In regards to helping people (in the way that you seem to be describing it), just remember: the context (whether in a firm or elsewhere) in which you work does not mean as much as you may think it does. Others may have different opinions about this, but my (admittedly Midwestern) experience has shown that many firms encourage associates to donate a certain number (50 comes to mind) of pro bono hours annually to the project and client of their choice. Based on the information I’ve received, associates who go beyond the 50 hours are applauded. In addition, I know several attorneys who donate time outside of the work environment to various social programs, including child-focused organizations that are involved in juvenile diversion and child advocacy. Attorneys who have ongoing work experience at firms and who donate time to these types of programs add another voice and oftentimes much-appreciated perspective to the work of those who are working from within the programs themselves. Just make sure that wherever you work, you’re left with the time and energy to do this (minimum billable hours requirements can catch up with you, depending on just how many hours we’re talking about). I’d love to hear from you this coming fall what you did this summer and how you felt about it. Best wishes.

-- BarbPitman - 21 Jan 2008

I have always worried about these "pro bono" hours and really how much "help" they actually provide. If you spend 3,000 hours during year 1 defending GE in toxic tort suits and then donate 50 hours to a non-profit doing breast cancer awareness, I imagine your efforts would have caused more cancer than they prevented. I know this is a pretty crude calculation, but if you have, say 3,000 hours in a given year to work, I just can't see how 50 (or even 150) of them dedicated to "helping people" could counteract the thousands spent defending the status quo.

They may "help" you, but making you feel good/human/etc., but I am just not sure they actually "help others" when all is said and done.

-- AdamCarlis - 21 Jan 2008

Adam, Thanks for your point. Keep in mind that I referred to a combination of both pro bono work within the firm structure and outside work in addition to firm commitments. If you are just looking at official firm sponsored pro bono hours, then I can understand your perspective. But if you approach these efforts from more than just that one angle, you can effect a more balanced approach to practicing law. Secondly, several of the attorneys I know do not do the type of work to which you refer -- plenty of corporate and municipal clients need real estate contracts, bond financings, bankruptcy assistance, etc. In my opinion, it's best not to look at options solely in black-and-white terms -- as I just mentioned, there are plenty of non-litigious ways to be involved in the private practice legal community that don't present the type of ethical dilemma to which you refer. The choice of exactly what you do and how you do it is more yours than I think you are consciously admitting or realizing. (Again, my perspective is Midwest big firm, but I still think that my point of view is applicable, perhaps in a modified form, to other geographic areas and firm structures.) Thanks for your input -- keep it coming if you still think there's something I've missed (I appreciate the learning experience!), and I'd love to hear from others on this as well.

-- BarbPitman - 21 Jan 2008

Adam, wouldn't it make sense to ask why someone who considers it socially harmful to defend toxic torts actions on behalf of GE--as you and I both happen to do--would be caught doing it for even one hour? Why should any lawyer, under all but the most exigent possible circumstances (the "last lawyer in town" situations), ever be doing work she thinks is unethical or socially harmful? No matter what anyone else thinks, if you have a license to practice you are permitted to take clients according to your own view of what constitutes justice. There isn't the slightest reason why--no matter your inclination to pawn--any of you should anticipate a future in which in order to secure your livelihood you will be required to do work you believe is harmful. That should be a predicate of your existence, a definition of integrity: not one of you has so few resources of intellect or character as to be required to sell out what you believe to be right in order to make a living. Instead, our question should be how to ensure that our practices have positive social meaning from our point of view, and are not merely a matter of pawning the instrument for what the market will give.

-- EbenMoglen - 21 Jan 2008

Barb: It is hard for me to move from "black and white" as you put it. When I try to, I end up right back where I started. For example, you state that "corporate and municipal clients need real estate contracts, bond financings, bankruptcy assistance" and, from my reading, you are implying that such work is - at worst - morally neutral. I just can't agree with that. You and I and everyone else have a limit to how much time we have in any given day. If we are spending that time helping a company through bankruptcy, that means (assuming we find deep satisfaction in bankruptcy law), we are not using that time to help a working-class family escape from crushing debt through bankruptcy. To me, one is "helping" and one is reinforcing the status quo. I am not (here, at least) making the argument that reinforcing the status quo makes you a bad person or means that you are wasting your degree. I am simply saying that the status quo is a pretty messed-up place and so even seemingly innocuous actions that support it (helping a big box store with a real estate transaction, for example) (1) take away precious time from making real change and (2) further entrench the messed-up status quo, making it that much harder for those working to change it.

Eben: I think that is right. There seem to be many of us, however, who are contemplating doing just what you are cautioning against. For those with a different worldview, there may be nothing wrong with protecting the status quo or further entrenching our unique form of capitalism. I fear that the same argument I make above - which for me means sitting on one side of the courtroom means, for them, sitting on the other side. I guess I am under the assumption that people take jobs that represent who they are and you seem to be implying that quite often people take jobs that are not truly representative of who they are and that is what makes them unhappy. I wonder if it is actually the realization that they are not who they thought/wished they were that causes such unhappiness. If I am right, then more energy should be spent (if you think defending GE is “bad”) convincing folks of your worldview then on convincing them to follow their heart. If you are right, quite the opposite is true. In the end, are you advocating that folks follow their heart, so to speak or that folks change the status quo (i.e. is happiness enough)? I am only advocating the former if it leads to the latter.

-- AdamCarlis - 21 Jan 2008

Adam, The black-and-white perspective you espouse doesn't take into account the fact that anything that you do as a lawyer (or in life, for that matter) that affects the "big box" stores to which you refer also affects many other people and companies in many different ways, including the "little guy." Since you focused on bankruptcy, I would respond that helping a large company (like a bus company or discount department store) avoid bankruptcy or implement a financial reorganization plan allows people (no matter their economic status) who depend on those companies' services or buy their goods to continue to do so. Additionally, many lawyers I know don't just limit their work to either helping only lower-income families with bankruptcies or only big business with bankruptcies. The need for bankruptcy services comes from a variety of people, places, and situations. To stereotype the nature and scope of bankruptcy services as falling into only two distinct camps (those of the "big box" or of a working class family) is not to see the other situations and people out there who need legal help and also not to see that helping a certain segment of society affects us all, with varying degrees of directness.

-- BarbPitman - 21 Jan 2008

But, if one thinks that "big box" stores are inherently destructive to our communities (and to communities around the globe), then you wouldn't be troubled by their bankruptcy, but would see it - perhaps - as a good thing. That isn't to say that you should see it that way, but only that if one does see it that way then it matters a great deal who you help with your new found legal skills. My point about the vast grey area between John Smith the laid off millworker and K-Mart is not that it doesn't exist, but rather one's time is finite and the time you spend working in the vast grey area is time you are not spending working where you are needed the most. It is also not that I fail to recognize the externalities involved when a big company goes under, it is just that (1) I don’t think it is worth my time to do anything about it and (2) I wonder if it isn’t – often – better in the long run for it to happen. So far, my professors have stressed the objective nature of "the law" as if it was some thing that is applied to various situations based one prescribed norms. But, there is human agency in it - our agency. We are the ones who are going to have the privilege to shape it, say where it goes, and lead it there. The big trap, in my mind, is to think you are safe in the grey as if doing no harm is enough. To me, at least, the grey is just as dangerous as selling your soul to the highest bidder (unless of course you agree with their worldview) since in neither case are you using your degree where it is needed most or where you most want to use it.

-- AdamCarlis - 21 Jan 2008

I do not think that "big box" stores are (on the whole) inherently destructive to our communities -- the only reason I referred to big boxes is because you referred to them, in a way that suggests that you think they are inherently destructive. If you really think they are destructive (on the whole), then you shouldn't patronize them. (Maybe you don't patronize them -- I'm making an assumption here.) And where your degree is needed "most" is purely a matter of opinion. If everyone felt the way you do, then when people who represent neither big business nor the little guy (which may include your own family) need legal help, where would they turn? Just a thought.

-- BarbPitman - 22 Jan 2008

Barb, to be clear, I certainly wasn't trying to infer that you (Barb) thought big box store were inherently destructive. The sentance should be read "But, if one ..."

Sorry for the confusion (will edit)

-- AdamCarlis - 22 Jan 2008

Adam, Thanks for clarifying; regardless, my main points stand -- I'd hate to see the "little guy" lose his job, health insurance, store discount, and affordable resource for necessities because the "big box" he worked at (or another family member worked at) went under.

-- BarbPitman - 22 Jan 2008

While we are getting off topic a bit, it is the case that big box stores actually decrease employment in the community, drive down wages, and rarely offer insurance to their workers. See

-- AdamCarlis - 22 Jan 2008

Adam, I do not believe my last point was off-topic. I believe you are missing my point that most social (and legal) subsets affect other social and legal subsets (however you want to define the subsets), such that it is inaccurate to say (as you say) that time spent "helping a company through bankruptcy, . . . means (assuming we find deep satisfaction in bankruptcy law), we are not using that time to help a working-class family escape from crushing debt through bankruptcy." Anything you do in law will affect more than just the person/organization you are representing, and your actions will affect other interests both negatively and positively, and in some ways over which you will have little to no control. For example, above, you contrast "John Smith the laid off millworker and K-Mart," but the fact is that today, John Smith is the laid off K-Mart worker once K-Mart goes belly-up. Contrary to what you say, there is oftentimes no vast gray area between John Smith and K-Mart -- and in this case, John and K-Mart's interests overlap, and cumulatively end up, in my opinion, somewhere in that area where there are many shades of gray.

You also refer to the Wal-Mart article. I have no doubt that Wal-Mart wages have lowered individual salaries. The tradeoff is that it provides jobs to people who might otherwise go salaryless, and it presumably passes on at least some of the savings to those same workers in the form of lower prices for their necessities. I'm not saying that Wal-Mart does not create problems, but it also solves or at least mitigates other problems. Consequently, I dont' think it's fair or accurate to pass judgment on Wal-Mart as being the bad "big box" by just focusing on the comparative negatives of Wal-Mart's wages and benefits relative to other companies without also looking at and weighing other factors. Despite what you say above, representing that big box in reorganization proceedings may in all likelihood help that working-class family escape from the crushing debt and bankruptcy to which you refer, because keeping the big box in business allows the breadwinner(s) of that family to keep their jobs and avoid bankruptcy (assuming they work at the big box or a subsidiary, or a supplier of the big box or subsidiary, or an agent of the big box or subsidiary -- I could go on in the interrelated extensions here). In other words, more aspects of life (and the law) interrelate than I think you are acknowledging. I hope my point here is clear.

-- BarbPitman - 22 Jan 2008

I said we were getting a bit off topic because I had jumped into debating the merit of big-box stores instead of the broader idea of how and why we should use our degrees. I think the former is pretty interesting, but probably not central to the latter.

Again, I understand that there are externalities in pretty much every action one takes. I think where we disagree is that I may have a different worldview – a different perspective on how society could (and should) look – than, say, Raytheon. My aims are different (in many cases very different) than theirs. Therefore, I couldn’t see myself both holding onto my worldview and taking Raytheon as a client. If they are willing to pay for a certain outcome in the courtroom, I can be pretty sure that such an outcome goes against what I hope to create in the world and so helping them achieve that outcome works against the change I hope to create. I understand that is bad for Raytheon and perhaps (but we don’t really know) bad for some of their employees and their families and a local economy, etc: I see those externalities. All I am saying is that it doesn’t make sense for me to waste any of my time working as a hired gun for an entity I don’t support when I could be working as a hired gun for one that I do.

As for Wal Mart, I strongly disagree that the interests of the company and the interests of the workers overlap. Perhaps the interests of the managers, vice presidents, and board members overlap with those of the shareholders, but to say that the company has the interest of the cashier who they pay next to nothing, offer little to no befits, etc. seems wrong. Sure, if the store closes that person would be out of a crappy job. However, a return to a small-business oriented marketplace would increase jobs (The study conducted, cited at, indicates that overall employment actually falls when mega-retailers enter a community.) and so the loss would be short term at most – especially since big box store drive down wages, disproportionately increase local pollution, and generally aren’t good neighbors.

Your final argument (why bankruptcy for Wal Mart is bad) reads, to me, as a call for continuing business as usual for fear that a shake-up might have short-term problems for families immediately affected. I guess I am willing to make that sacrifice if it means getting to a place where one can make a comfortable living if they work hard. That place does not exist at Wal Mart. You might disagree and, if so, it would be in accordance with your worldview to work as a hired gun for Wal Mart.

-- AdamCarlis - 22 Jan 2008

Yes, Adam, I agree -- we have two different world views -- but not necessarily on how society could or should look -- instead, our differences rest with how to go about contributing to change for the better, and what, exactly, is "better" change. And I appreciate that you are willing to share your views with me -- you keep me thinking and questioning my belief system -- so thank you! I'll give you this: if everyone thinks the way I do, then most change would come from the middle, not the margins, where I gather you want to focus. I'm curious, though: I'd like to check back with you in, say, ten years or so to see if you still feel the same way, and if your approach to implementing change has, itself, changed in any ways, and if so, why. Best wishes.

-- BarbPitman - 22 Jan 2008



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r17 - 22 Jan 2009 - 01:17:45 - IanSullivan
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