Thursday, July 23, 2009

WHAT I REALLY THINK ABOUT THE LAW (AND LAWYERS)

AN ESSAY

For almost a year now, I have written essays and satires criticizing “the law.” Some mock the legal profession. Others mock the inane factual intricacies of the common law. Still others criticize the unfair power relationships underlying so much contemporary legal doctrine. Still, when I criticize “the law,” I am not advocating anarchy. I am actually criticizing something much more subtle, including people who use law for bad purposes. When it comes to human law, there are men who win and men who lose. It is “game-like.” Some men sit as judges between other men who desperately want to win. It is not neutral because men are not neutral by nature. Men use the law to advance their own causes, whether to protect or acquire property or to condemn men’s bodies to pain. It is instrumental, not academic. Yet human law is supposed to be detached, at least in theory. It is supposed to represent larger principles, not petty interests. But in using law, men pervert principles for their own gain. They could care less whether they do “abstract justice.” This tension represents the focal point of my criticism.

Interestingly, I had to study law for years before I could safely formulate these views. I came from a family that ridiculed lawyers. I was told from an early age that lawyers were “sleazebuckets,” “liars,” “thieves” and “gladhanders” who said anything necessary to make a few dollars. My parents labeled them “rude,” “impolite,” “unscrupulous” and “mean-spirited.” My father had one encounter with the civil justice system in his life. He often recounted it to me. During a deposition about some air conditioning sale gone wrong, the opposing lawyer cast spiteful doubt on every single thing he said. He said it made him feel horrible. He said the lawyer gave him the impression that he thought my father was lying about everything, when in fact he was telling the truth. He also said the lawyer asked convoluted questions in such perplexing language that he could not even really figure out what he wanted to know. Then, after the deposition ended, the opposing lawyer and my father’s lawyer joked around and talked about playing golf on the weekend, as if the foregoing inquisition had been “just another day at the office.”

These pejoratives burrowed deeply into my consciousness. I did not harbor good impressions about lawyers. In my early experience, I did not know many lawyers firsthand. They seemed rather boring and aloof. More often, I saw them mocked in television shows, movies, jokes and literature. These lampoons commonly tracked my parents’ criticisms: lawyers were unethical, mean, ridiculous, fast-talking, text-parsing word-benders determined to make money no matter what. Even Shakespeare’s generation pronounced the dominant judgment on lawyers: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” King Henry VI, Part 2, Act IV, sc. ii. Apparently, for centuries people have just not liked the way lawyers make them feel. In a word, my upbringing taught me that lawyers were “bad” because they condescended to any artifice to win arguments, all the while manipulating inscrutable language. In essence, lawyers were “bad” and “mean” because they did not speak plainly. And because they “did it all for money.”

But somehow I wound up in law school. Perhaps I was fighting against my own nature when I decided I would study law. At the time, I just wanted an income in life. I studied literature in college. To my chagrin, I found no “literature firms” that paid living wages. In my early twenties, I had knowledge—some would say “useless knowledge” because it did not readily translate into “corporate employability”—but no trade. Yet I needed a trade to pay rent and buy food. I struggled with this for a while. I bounced around doing translations and freelance German-language jobs. I jostled my brain to figure out how to bandy my existing knowledge into a paycheck. Ultimately, I settled on the law because it involved language, rhetoric, writing and—in some sense—government and principle. Despite all my childhood distaste for lawyers, I nonetheless came to understand that there was something redeeming about the law, something intangible and good. I always loved studying history, philosophy and government. I knew that law played a role in these disciplines. It may not have been obvious, but I knew it was there. There was a “hidden allure” in the law beyond mere squabbles for property. It could bring about positive social change and cut through injustice. I did not know how it did these things, so I decided I would learn how it did. At the same time, I said to myself: “I’ll find out what the law is really all about and I’ll get a paycheck in the end, too.” This is how I landed in law school.

Six years later, I can confidently say that you will never meet a lawyer who detests the law as much as I do. Yet there is more to that statement than meets the eye. I learned that the law does indeed prompt the criticisms my parents taught me as a child. But I also confirmed that there is a “hidden allure” in the law that undermines those criticisms. I came to despise the law because—on the whole—the law’s negative characteristics outweigh its positive characteristics. Practice wins over theory in the law, even though much legal theory is thematically pleasing. In short, there is profound tension in all legal discourse. There is tension between practice and principle. Principles transcend; practice does not. Principles exist no matter what result follows in a particular case; practice aims solely to achieve particular results. Principles work only when their adherents follow them; practice demands “flexibility,” even if that means abandoning principle to win. In my “legal career,” I fell in love with principle because principle represents something larger than winning. That made me a terrible practitioner. Law firms do not want discerning legal scholars who insist on adherence to principle. They want discerning legal scholars who are willing to ignore, manipulate and distinguish principle in order to win a case and make money for the firm. This is what repulses me about the law: Principles are all well and good; but principles don’t pay.

Still, not all legal principles are good. I do not restrict my criticism to shameless legal practice. The law indulges in pure intellectual foolishness, too. For example, many lawyers proudly say that we live under the “rule of law.” The “rule of law” requires that government reference written laws and follow authorized procedures before taking adverse action against men’s bodies or property. Government must act according to verifiable law or not at all. There are great advantages to this theory. It prevents “tyranny” because it stops government from arbitrarily imprisoning people or seizing property. It bars government from harming people based solely on individual caprice or ill-will. In that sense, the rule of law cuts down on arbitrariness and “unreasonable conduct” in government. Additionally, by imposing rigorous procedures on government power, everyone theoretically has a chance to defend themselves prior to adverse action. In theory, everyone can know the laws under which government acts.

But the “rule of law” can lead to absurdity, too. After all, if government can act solely according to law, what happens if laws are evil? The government can be evil? In short, the rule of law can insulate the government from internal challenge as much as it can help to ensure order and transparency. Lawyers tend to think that as long as something is “written in law,” it is “right,” even when common decency, intuition, conscience or natural feelings of justice might dictate a contrary conclusion. For example, the “rule of law” in 1954 dictated that government could lawfully segregate African-Americans and whites in public accommodations. Lawyers in the Brown v. Board of Education case could point to no written law requiring that blacks and whites enjoy equal access to public accommodations. In fact, written law explicitly authorized segregation. Yet the Supreme Court ignored the rule of law in that case. It said that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause did not tolerate “State-sponsored racial segregation” because such segregation stamps blacks with a “badge of inferiority.” I agree with the Court, even though no written law directly supported its conclusion. But under the “rule of law,” this was an abysmal decision. If the Court had been truly faithful to the rule of law, it would have followed precedent and applied the law as written. At the time the Court decided Brown, there was nothing in the law about “badges of inferiority” or “psychological trauma.” It made these things up. In short, the Court did not just look to the law to render its decision. It looked to principles beyond the law, or at least implied in the law.

To our ears, this sounds courageous. It even sounds noble. But as a technical matter, the Court disparaged the “rule of law” in Brown. In this sense, Brown provides a fine example for the proposition that the “rule of law” can enslave as much as it can protect. When it comes to the rule of law, the result depends on what the law says, not what conscience or justice says. When the law is bad, the result is bad. Viewed strictly, judges have nothing to say about it.

Yet Brown also shows that inspiring principles do sometimes penetrate the law. I love Brown because it testifies to the “intangible allure” hidden in the law. It shows that justice and “natural right” do sometimes prevail over unjust written laws. And more importantly, it shows that justice and “natural right” constantly pull against the law, even if they disrupt its “orderly administration.” Justice always looms in legal questions. Often legal rules are consistent with justice. Sometimes they are not. In theory, judges and lawyers are not allowed to consider anything beyond the law. That is another reason why I criticize the law: It makes it difficult for judges and lawyers to follow their conscience. Rather, it induces them into a “culture of compliance” in which wooden adherence to written requirements supplants principle. In Brown, the Court refused to “comply” with unjust written requirements. Unfortunately, that does not happen very often. More often, judges and lawyers simply follow the path written in the law; and most troublingly, it rarely bothers them.

My struggles with the law mirror the tension between written law and intuitive justice. I think the tension between law and justice fascinates many people, not just those who have studied law. Movies like The Dark Knight become popular because they tap into this fascination, challenging the idea that the law is supposed to deliver justice, or even cares about it at all. At the same time, people confuse the law with justice. They expect the law to deliver results that are consistent with their intuitive sense about what it is right. Often, they discover to their horror that written law dictates a far different result. Those unlucky to be caught up in civil litigation quickly lose all illusions about lofty principles as cases drag on for years, costing both sides millions while lawyers battle over schedules and copy costs. Moreover, when people “get to know” lawyers, they do not see men and women committed to finding justice. Rather, they see men and women committed to complying with technical requirements in precisely such a way as to avoid punishment and to maximize their chances of winning (and fees). Professional ethics rules provide the best example for the proposition that lawyers do not need a conscience to win: They just need to follow what the rulebook says, even if they have no respect at all for the spirit behind the rules. This is the spiritual and intellectual vacuum that flows from fanatical commitment to the “rule of law.” Justice has no place in such a technical maze. It is all about compliance. If compliance results in justice, fine. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too. In both cases, it’s “legal.”

These are the reasons why I despise the law. But it is a selective repugnance. I do not like the law for its fanatical devotion to form, compliance, technicality and procedure. I do not like the law for its tendency to lure people to believe that its “administrative rules” lead to justice. I do not like the law because it teaches practitioners to ignore conscience and principle when pondering questions that involve both. I do not like the law for the “culture of compliance” it creates in order to replace intuitive justice. In short, I do not like the law because there is nothing noble about complying with rules, especially if they are bad.

Yet I love the law for the brightness it offers. There are principles in the law that offer avenues to justice. There are principles in our Constitution that exalt individual rights, conscience, belief and self-definition against government power. Daring judges and lawyers see the brightness in these principles and apply them to break stultifying legal traditions. While I believe in the rule of law to the extent necessary to protect individuals from tyranny, I do not blindly comply with unjust rules because they are rules. Nor do I feel just for complying with rules simply because they are rules. Rather, I put my trust in principles that may not find expression in written law. And I truly care about those principles, even if they are not profitable.

This makes me a renegade among lawyers.

1 comment:

dmitry said...

This is a great piece. I did not know this about you. I agree with you. In theory, law is good, but practice corrupts it. I think this applies to all theories: communism, direct democracy etc. In communism, theory is beautiful: all men live together and work together in perfect harmony and all earn the same wage. The only problem is human nature: men innately competes against another so the struggle for power creates a dictatorship system that is ruthless. Also, direct democracy sounds great too. People voting on every issue that affects their lives?! That sounds perfect! Except when one realizes that the average man is stupid. Churchill once said that "the greatest argument against democracy is a conversation with the common man". Theory is beautiful and endearing, but in real life we have to deal with people. Great point to bring out. Keep writing!