Law in Contemporary Society

The Paradox of Life in the Law

-- By RubiRodriguez - 27 Apr 2022

What does justice mean to you?

“On the first day of class, I told you all to write down what justice means to you. Go back and look at what you wrote. Law school will try to challenge that meaning every day. Hold on to it.”

Those were the resonant words of Professor Bernard Harcourt at the conclusion of my Legal Methods class, my introduction to law school. For about two weeks, I listened to him discuss things too esoteric for my comprehension as a budding law student. Occasionally, my attention would veer off to a lingering thought that bothered me: I hope law school does not strip me of my values that led me to choosing this profession. Here I sat listening to a professor teach us about different legal schools of thought, empathetically and without scorn, even those seemingly in contradiction to his philosophy. Still, he did not hide his abolitionist views on our carceral state. How could someone be so strangely passionate about the law and still have an unwavering moral compass?

Rude Awakening

A lot of the negativity I have towards law school and American law in general traces back to my experience in Constitutional Law. My professor, Phillip Hamburger, taught the course in a very non-traditional manner, stressing to his students why the administrative state is the biggest threat to our Constitution. Despite opposing his originalist and libertarian views, at times I found myself agreeing with his opinions but for reasons different from those he offered. He helped me identify the shortcomings of a bureaucratic executive power, but I saw it from the viewpoint of low-income racial and ethnic groups that often get the shorter end of the stick in our administrative judicial and legal systems.

My past work experience and my ties to immigration originally developed my frustration with the bureaucracy, which was a major impetus for my going to law school. Taking Professor Hamburger’s course helped me better understand my critiques, but I could not find the courage to articulate those critiques in class because he and I disagreed on the treatment of non-citizens in this country, something I took personally. Fearing I would create an antagonistic disruption in a class in which students either agreed with the professor or kept their opinions to themselves, I too stayed silent. I guess this is what it means to be a law student, I thought. Fall in line.

I worried this unpleasant feeling would become commonplace in law school and throughout my legal career because I viewed law school as a microcosm of the legal profession. If this feeling is here to stay, combined with the Supreme Court’s seemingly arbitrary nature of settling constitutional matters of personal importance to us, perhaps it makes sense why so many jaded students end up taking the six-figure big law salaries—to make it feel worthwhile. I harkened back to Professor Harcourt’s words and wondered if this was what he warned about.

Balanced Contrast

Lawyers often have to reconcile what they believe is right (the inner self) with what their job requires of them (the outer self). Finding a fulfilling job, whatever that means to an individual, may seem like a solution to this tension. But in our capitalist system, where employers control most of our lives and limit our autonomy, such solution also seems perpetually unattainable. A younger version of myself believed that my dream job was to be a lawyer at a nonprofit organization helping low-income families. After working in the legal nonprofit sector for several years, I learned that the tension between the inner and outer self does not cease. I frequently saw this in attorneys with whom I worked. Additionally, for many legal nonprofits to operate, it is sometimes necessary to accept thousands or millions of dollars in corporate donations from companies contributing to the same problems such nonprofits aim to eradicate. Similarly, big law firms’ much touted pro bono work has helped the country’s most elite but majorly short-staffed nonprofits, like the ACLU and NAACP, win major lawsuits. For these reasons, law school does a disservice to students who feel they must pick between public interest and corporate interest work. The two often work in tandem.

Letting Go

Law school exposes you to the truth: there can be no good without any bad. This is demonstrated by my classmates and I learning about the injustices associated with eminent domain at an institution that has benefitted from eminent domain. To be among students discussing aspects of the law that have upended the lives of individuals inside and outside the classroom creates both a sense of pride and guilt. And I am learning to embrace the paradox in which I find myself constantly—it has been law school’s greatest gift and what has served me best. As students, what we take away from the law and what we learn about this profession and ourselves surpasses the superficial metrics constructed by institutions that depend on them.

Moving Forward

The dread I felt during my consitutional law class was a psychological reaction to the new period I was entering, an environment of rebirth and growth. It therefore felt essential for me to maintain aspects of my old self while nurturing the new outlook growing within me. But in taking Professor Harcourt’s advice, I was trying too hard to resist change. Holding on to my definition of justice did not mean resisting this new version of myself, rather simply cherishing the entire reason I chose to undergo this transformation.

Despite all my criticisms of law school, I do not regret putting myself through this journey. It has made me more empathetic towards views different from my own yet has radicalized me in my politics. By understanding the traits and decisions of others, I learn to think without judgement. And through rejecting much of the status quo—that which is upheld by society and that which I have internalized—I learn to think for myself, unafraid of change and risk. I believe and hope that this is indicative of the type of lawyer I am shaping out to be.

Hi Rubí, thank you for sharing this piece, as much of it resonated with me (despite not sharing the same disappointing Con Law professor). “There can be no good without any bad” is such a succinct summary of my thoughts after 1L and a few years of work in the legal field. My work experience is almost the flip side of yours: I worked at a big law firm where I did a significant amount of pro bono work. While my firm certainly helped nonprofits like the ACLU and Legal Aid Society, I also wanted to add that sometimes when our firm handled a case on its own, I felt like we really weren’t providing the best legal services to our clients. Another paralegal once told me that we had a bad reputation among immigration lawyers who felt that we often made mistakes in our immigration filings. Thus, just another example of how there is no good without some bad, but in the end, it’s better than nothing. Thank you again for sharing this and for making me feel less alone in this strange, paradoxical space. - Tasha

Hi Rubí. I can definitely relate to your experience. Law school will definitely expose you to many difference beliefs, systems, and ideologies. Law school also inevitably tried to label everyone and place them in a box (Big Law v PI, etc). Just because you are exposed to them does not mean you need to succumb to them. If anything, learning about those other beliefs can be great because you learn more and consider new ideas BUT they can also solidify your beliefs as you stated that you became more radicalized. Sometimes that exposure can cause a tweak in your beliefs or cause someone to completely change their mind. For me (as I am sure for others), half of the journey of law school is blocking out the chatter and white noise of other people's opinions and focusing on what I came here to do. Some of that chatter can be useful, so it's also filtering out what is helpful and what isn't. It's great that you have stayed true to your beliefs!- Morgan

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r6 - 08 Jun 2022 - 04:38:35 - RubiRodriguez
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