My torts professor often reminded us that lawyers are some of the last generalists. As a greater number of professions turn toward specialization, attorneys must retain their ability to move from client to client, constantly learning, always becoming well-versed in new subject areas.
This aligns with the small amount of real-world experience I have. Indigent defense carries with it no small number of clients, each fighting a battle which extends beyond any single criminal charge. Mental health, addiction, familial troubles, employment issues, educational difficulties, and systemic failures at every level are just a smattering of the struggles public interest attorneys must grapple with on a near-daily basis.
Seeing the work of public defenders up close, and knowing I planned to become one myself, I began to see a gaping hole in my legal education. If the role of a public-interest-minded law student is to become a fierce and able advocate, the traditional legal curriculum wasn’t getting me there. No matter how comfortable I became with legal writing, negotiations, client counseling, and trial practice, in three years’ time I knew I wouldn’t be ready to meet my clients where they are at.
Anthony Ray Hinton spent thirty years on death row for a crime he did not commit.
Commanding a spellbound crowd on the Boston College Chestnut Hill Campus (where undergraduate classes are), Mr. Hinton took students, faculty, and members of the public through three decades of despair, faith, fury, friendship, and humor. He was often emotional, always passionate, and amazingly graceful. For nearly an hour and a half, it was impossible to think of anything but spending thirty years in a five by seven cell.
Four hours north of Phoenix, situated almost exactly on the Arizona/New Mexico border, Window Rock is the capital of the Navajo Nation. On March 2, I made the journey west with seven of my classmates to spend a week with the Navajo, learning about their government, law and culture, and doing our best at placements with the Presidents Office, the Department of Justice, and the Supreme Court.
I was fortunate to spend a week at the Supreme Court. The Court itself handles about a dozen cases each year, as well as countless orders and motions relating to those cases. The two of us assigned to the Court spent most of our time researching and writing orders, putting our Law Practice skills to the test. While I personally have a long way to go before I’m comfortable tackling research and writing problems on my own, honing my skills under the direction of the Supreme Court staff was immensely helpful.
After four years of undergrad, two new cities, and a semester of law school, all I know for sure is how to handle every question my extended family will throw at me over winter break. There’s a strict science to it, a standard formula: Keep it positive, stay away from controversy, and pivot to the weather as soon as possible.
Turns out, even revered Christmas traditions are vulnerable to the all-consuming legal education. After a mere four months and one round of exams, all I could muster when faced with the entirely-expected “how’s law school?!” was:
Today I’m very pleased to be able to host a guest blog from the Hon. James V. Menno ‘86, who recently retired after more than two decades of service as an associate justice of the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court.
Despite the number of people sitting on the hard benches in this sunlit courtroom, there is a respectful silence. An ordinary person is sitting in the witness box. She has taken an oath to tell the truth. Her descriptive answers to her attorney’s questions begin to weave together a story. It is a deeply personal story that provides unique insight into her and the children of her fractured family. She tells this story to another ordinary person, me, who also happens to be the judge. We are separated by a bench, a black robe and the roles we play. But we are joined together as co-participants in the daily unfolding of the actual Rule of Law.
Her role is to honestly tell the difficult story that has led to this moment. Tomorrow, her husband will sit in the same chair and do the same. My role is to listen to them as unique individuals, determine which facts are true, and (utilizing the applicable law) make a decision that will allow them and their children to transition from one family to two single-parent families. Whew! What a daunting task this is for both of us, the storyteller and the listener.
On a whim, I opened my personal statement for the first time since hitting ‘submit’ nearly a year ago. Preparing to face my tendency to over-write, a habit which lends itself to often-cringeworthy grand pronouncements, I queued up the Aspiring Public Interest Lawyers Greatest Hits: “Is It Still Worth It? (After Signing that Promissory Note),” “Oh, Really? You’re Going to Save the World?” and the classic, “Naiveté.”
Instead, I came face-to-face with the prospect that the young, impressionable, wannabe lawyer nursing the cheapest drink on the coffee shop menu in exchange for five hours of Wi-Fi knew everything he needed to know.
See? Grand pronouncements.
Sure, one year ago, I would have failed every single first year course. I couldn’t brief, or outline, or read, or write, or even speak effectively. My Lexis points stood at zero and I had nary a dollar of Westlaw Starbucks gift cards. Every one of my classmates would have prayed to the almighty curve I was in their section. One year ago, I was a terrible law student.
I left the Jesuit Volunteer Corps with an Orleans Public Defenders shirt, heavy emotional scarring, and a strong idea of justice. I was prepared to ride into law school on a wave of virtue and morality, certain I knew what needed to be done and how I was going to do it. That wave crashed me right into Civil Procedure and Pennoyer and Rule 12(b)(3) and Contracts and estoppel and intent, and it wasn’t long before I realized it was going to be a while before I was certain of anything again.
Pretty dramatic, but the spirit is true. Law school is a change. There is a transition from being a normal person to a person who thinks legal jokes are funny. Still, overall, most of my preconceived notions have been proved wrong. Cold calls are not that bad, my classmates are also not that bad (fine, they’re pretty great), and six weeks in I have yet to muster any dazzling legal wisdom for family or friends.