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Friday, August 6, 2010

First, we kill all the lawyers

By this time next week, I may or may not have cut the price tag off the first suit I’ll have had on in 10 years. I’ll have submitted for scrutiny my first attempt at a case brief, loaded my new rolling backpack with the most expensive books I ever expect to own, vowed to uphold an established code of conduct and, at about this time of day, expect to be picking up trash along the riverfront to demonstrate my commitment to public service.

After that, so I’m told, things get busy.

I will be what’s know in law-school parlance as a 1L, my feet soundly planted on the first rung of a ladder that, barring unforeseen complications, each of us is hoping will lead to our being licensed to practice law.

When I consider the arduous nature of it all, I think of an encounter I had over the summer. I mentioned to a friend I was going to law school and he looked at me as if I were holding a knife to a puppy’s throat.

“You would do that?” he whined.

To be fair, my friend was fresh off the heels of an especially contentious divorce. But it set me to wondering why the legal profession is so often vilified in the public psyche and, given that it is, why any of us would want to be part of it. As someone who spent a couple of decades as a newspaper reporter, another job that often elicits a what’s-that-smell face from people who ask what you do for a living, I can draw a couple of parallels.

In both cases, people generally encounter you during the most stressful times in their lives. Secondly, for people who parse language with such fine distinction, practitioners of both professions have been known to muddy the waters a good bit. But that’s because asking hard questions and refusing to settle for surface, black-and-white answers is bound to stir up a little mud. Or, to employ another water-related metaphor, a boat that’s never rocked is bound to rot. It’s true that attorneys and journalists are among those in a position to effect positive change. It’s also true that to do so is to risk a certain degree of backlash.

The well-known line from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI”—“First, we kill all the lawyers.” – has evolved into an aphorism for what may or may not be a general frustration over the complexity of the law and the people who practice it. Viewed in context, though, the phrase can be interpreted as a paean to the legal profession. The character who utters the phrase, the villainous Dick the Butcher, recognizes that those who would guard the public trust are those most likely to derail his scheme.

I’m not naïve enough to think my high-minded ideas about the good things I can do with a law degree won’t be obscured time and again over the next few years by the arcane and tedious nature of actually studying law. But I like to think I’ll bear in mind the reason I wanted to do this in the first place, which is that, every now and again, you might get the chance to right a wrong. Occasionally, you might even get to do something bold, like, say, work to overturn an archaic definition of marriage.

So, if my friend still wants to know whether I would actually do that, here’s my answer: You bet I would.

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