What I Told the Law Students.

“Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering.”
– The Buddha

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
– Philo of Alexandria

“Love to love you, baby.”  
– Donna Summer

Damn! How can I digress before even getting to the text of a posting? Oh well! It’s a Sunday, noontime, and it’s my blog and I’ll wander if I want to : )

Anyway. Here is what I wanted to share, today. Let me get this out of the way, because it seems to melt peoples’ minds: I am a lawyer. A good one, in fact, and proudly so. I’ve heard the question countless times: “How can you be an artist… and a lawyer?” And I refrain from rolling my eyes and sighing in an exaggerated manner (suggestive of the most irredeemable ennui), and commencing to pronounce “Well, really, to me those things are quite consistent. Just two different mediums.” Blank stare. “To be a really good lawyer, in fact,” I add, “one must be creative. You’ve really got to be. The more creative, the better.”

I suppose my irritation is not at all with the question. It’s a completely fair one, because many people have never met an attorney that would acknowledge in public having any more than one (rather narrow and grey) dimension, if that. But the issue is larger by far than any one profession.

This is a quintessentially human issue, and I suppose that my real pain with the inquiry is the limitation implicit in the question. Maybe some of these sad compromises we might’ve made unaware, some of these self-imposed limitations we’ve come to see as self-evident, are neither necessary nor true. Maybe the path you have chosen might not have necessarily shut the door on your most tender dreams. Maybe you can be “both” of whatever you might want to be, if that truly be your desire. Maybe life can be viewed more as a buffet of choices than an “either/or” pair of doors. Maybe at least some of the brutal costs of living, real and inevitable though they may seem, are rooted in a lack of belief, or even attention.

Maybe we should never stop listening for our passion!


ALL of which brings me to the subject of my posting. A few years back I was asked by my friend and colleague Martha (“Marnie”) Mahoney, law professor at the University of Miami Law School and noted firebrand of an accomplished academician, to come and speak to a class she had brought into being, something like Social Justice and the Law. To everybody’s surprise, the elective seminar became phenomenally popular. It turns out that law students, among the most talented and even idealistic of people (and thus sometimes most cynical), carried this tremendous thirst for meaning, integrity, and real contribution to community. Not all, but many, law students had undertaken the studies motivated primarily by a desire to help people. (I know: Stop the presses!!) And nobody was talking about this or even addressing the issue, much less helping teach them how. And then, God bless her, came Marnie.

So I went and spoke, and as it turns out the transcript of my little chat with the students wound up opening a big fat real legal textbook (the kind of book I NEVER thought I’d see myself in!), published by West Publishing, the “big guys”:

That was unexpected enough to make me feel good. So, with no further ado, here is what I said to the law students that day. The text is seen exactly as printed in the textbook. I hope you enjoy it.

5. Consider these comments by attorney Paul Crockett, reflecting on his practice and the importance of learning “the vocabulary of power.”

How many of you are brave enough to admit that you have no idea what you are doing in Law School?While at the University of Florida, I wondered what I was doing in Law School. I would like to say that I knew what I was doing when I got there and where I was going, but I cannot. I did realize my purpose, as most law students do, in time. This is the story of integrating my personal and professional lives, and the realization of my sense of purpose. God help you if all you are is a lawyer.

A law school education is great. Even if you are not going to be a lawyer, the education makes you literate in the vocabulary of power. It opens up all your options. The hope is that you find something to be passionate about.

I’m with a four-lawyer firm. This is a “gay and lesbian” niche firm: we have three gays, a lesbian, and a transgendered person in this office. Lawyers are a dime a dozen. There are a million lawyers out there; so to the extent you are going to be successful, you’re going to have to find a niche, and work on it. Those that generate business are the ones that are really valued in a firm, because the ‘grunts’ are a dime a dozen. The people who can generate the business are always the highest paid. Ideally, your professional life and personal life are both part of you; you become engaged in what you are doing.

I started as a lawyer in 1988, and I was not yet out to my employers. I had a sense that litigation was wasteful and inherently loathsome, and I had a sense that I wanted to do something positive with my life–but I wasn’t sure what it was. [So I went to a small firm and began work in estate planning.] Subsequently, the lawyer who hired me has come out as gay. I think that’s part of the reason he hired me.He was teaching me to be an attorney and I was teaching him to be gay. (Actually, he didn’t need any lessons; he took to it quite naturally.) I had to come out to these people because there was a steady stream of gays and lesbians coming into my office, and an explanation seemed warranted. I am openly HIV positive, and I have been since September 20, 1990. It has been both a blessing and a curse. I started practicing at roughly the same time that AIDS was really taking off among the gay community in Miami. I began getting calls in my office from people who were anguished by the loss of their loved ones. A lot of people were dying, a lot of people were getting sick. My peers, and people a little older than me, were facing challenges that their grandparents had to face: burying all your friends, burying your life partner–the people you thought you would grow old with. I had to pick up the mess, and I realized that this was a part of life, my life. * * *

There’s more than educating people about the laws and respects for gay people. * * * It’s important to find something that works for you, whatever makes it more real than something you just do from nine-to-five; find something that allows you to put your heart into it. * * *

I have been involved with HIV issues since 1988. In a bizarre way, HIV has become a bridge between me, and people whom I would have not perceived to have anything in common with. We all have different color skin; we all have different backgrounds, but we’re one soul. What do I have in common, as a fairly privileged, white, gay man, with a struggling black mother or a Hispanic IV drug addict? I have HIV, a common challenge. My concept was to establish a framework for AIDS advocacy, since the issues do overlap, because HIV involves homelessness; it involves racial issues, gender issues. Why did it take so long before they studied the effects of inhibitors in women? Why did it take so long for them to realize that women had symptoms that were unique? The answer was [that the medical establishment and the pharmaceutical research companies] did not care. ***

A lot of people ask me, “Why do you need to talk about it?”? And I tell them, “Excuse me, I really need to talk about it. This is who I am.” Heterosexual men hold hands with their wives when they walk down the street. People have photographs of their spouses in their office. Are they flaunting their heterosexuality? When did they choose their heterosexuality? ***

*** I am uncomfortable walking down the street with my partner holding hands, because it’s asking for trouble. So, that is a constant reality. There are certain things you learn as a matter of survival. ***

Even when crusading for something so worthy, there comes a time where you need to step back for a minute, and have a life. Having a life has always been very important to me. I think it’s a primary duty for all of us.

If you are going to be an effective lawyer you’ve got to be creative. You need to find out what is it that you individually have, as a result of your experience, to bring to the client’s benefit? And, do you really care, why are you doing it? If you’re doing it just for the money, it’s probably a bad decision, because it is not an easy way to make a living. We all need to make a living. Our landlords don’t get paid on good will; you don’t walk into a restaurant or a grocery store and pay with your positive wishes. But sometimes you actually get a feeling that you’re helping somebody with the case that you are arguing, and then that makes it all worthwhile. You get caught up in learning to be a lawyer; studying for the bar exam. Why are you here? That is the fundamental question; that’s a good question; a question you need to keep on asking yourselves.

I think there is a big thirst for meaning generally, in our society, where people realize that just making money is not everything. What is prestige at the end of the day? Nothing, it’s dust. * * *

I have spent 10 years doing this. There is a while where you can take your passion and you burn like a flame, as you try to shed light on an area. Then your flame feels like it is dying. But it is better to get burnt out on something with meaning, than to waste your existence and a brilliant, powerful education.

Paul Hampton Crockett, A Law School Education: Learning the Vocabulary of Power, Address delivered at the University of Miami School of Law, 1999.

Is passion or outrage at injustice an important aspect of social justice lawyering?

ReallyWikipedia: Really is the second album by JJ Cale.

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